The reporter who broke the news about Nikole Hannah-Jones tells the rest of the story

The reporter who broke the news about Nikole Hannah-Jones tells the rest of the story
Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

In May, I broke the story that the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees would not grant acclaimed journalist and New York Times Magazine staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure. They didn't vote it down. They just refused to consider it. Killed it in committee. If that sounds more like politics than academia to you, well …

Meeting with NHJ for an interview this week made me reflect on my June interview with Walter Hussman, the conservative Arkansas media magnate and UNC mega-donor who lobbied against her. It's worth talking a bit about these two.

When I interviewed Hussman last month, he projected an intense folksiness—sort of like Mr. Rogers meets Bill Clinton. Given Hussman's history with the Clintons in Arkansas, he might not love that comparison. But it's apt.

A part of this was Hussman saying to me, repeatedly, "Well, Joe, you and I are both reporters …" or, "Well, since we're both journalists I think you understand …" This is a rhetorical device. Find an area of common ground, assert affinity, create a bond.

Reporters—including yours truly—employ this in our work all the time. If I find out someone is from the part of eastern North Carolina where I was born, if they have a connection to the military or went to my college, I know we have a common reference.

Reporters notice when it's done to us—particularly by politicians and public-relations people. A lot of people worked in a newsroom for a year or two before figuring out they could buy things with money. So there's a lot of, "You know, I was a reporter."

Walter Hussman can legitimately say that—with a few important asterisks. After journalism and business school, he was briefly a reporter before, at age 27, he was made publisher of a paper in the family media dynasty he would go on to inherit.

When I was 27, I was a beat reporter going to fires, murder scenes, protests and government meetings. I practically slept in the newsroom, which was much nicer than my apartment, and took side gigs to afford to sleep indoors and eat while reporting.

That sort of experience—slowly clawing your way up from smaller to larger newsrooms, being mentored by veteran reporters, slowly earning bigger beats and more responsibility over many years—is what I'm supposed to assume I share with someone who says "I was a reporter." Those are experiences I share with NHJ.

As a Black woman, she had to work longer and harder than I did to get ahead in newsrooms. With more grit and talent, she's earned much more success. But we both worked our way up from working-class roots. Neither of us were, in our mid 20s, handed news outlets by our families. Neither of us were allowed to lose enormous amounts of money in years-long, heavily political newspaper wars until we crushed our rivals. Neither of us assumed dominance and expanded our intergenerational empires.

I suspected this was something that offended NHJ about Hussman and his questioning of her values and professional credentials, and whether she was fit to teach young journalists at an institution of higher learning. My interview with her confirmed it.

Hussman did not work his way from the Chapel Hill News to the Times. His writing hasn't earned him Peabody, Polk, Pulitzer and National Magazine awards. His name isn't on UNC-Chapel Hill's journalism school because of his staggering achievements.

Understanding, as he must, the difference between his CV and that of NHJ, he still felt the need to tell Susan King, dean of UNC-Chapel Hill's journalism school, he was against her hire. King said thanks for the input, but the J-School would decide.

Did Hussman respect the decision of the dean, herself a pioneering woman in journalism? Did he leave the issue to the stellar journalism school faculty? No. He contacted Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. He contacted the vice chancellor in charge of financial giving. He contacted at least one member of the school's board of trustees.

As students, faculty, media ethics scholars and even members of the board of trustees have noted, this intervention was enormously inappropriate. Strictly speaking, Hussman shouldn't even have known that the school was pursuing NHJ. But his $25 million donation to the school gave him information and access few alums enjoy.

Using that privileged position, Hussman weighed in on a potential hire at UNC repeatedly and at levels to which even other prominent alumni do not have access. It shocked not just students and faculty at the school but even other well-connected, well-heeled donors. When Hussman didn't get what he wanted—assent from the dean of the J-School and the administration to his objections—the school offered to set up a meeting between Walter Hussman and NHJ. She told me this week that she declined.

Having accomplished so much in journalism, she did not feel inclined to kiss the ring of a wealthy white scion who thought his money bought him special access and input into the faculty recruiting process. I don't know many real reporters who'd blame her.

With NHJ now on her way to Howard University to create the new Center for Journalism and Democracy, I find myself looking at all that happened here—and how it happened—and thinking not just about journalism, but about boxing.

Learning to box as a teenager, I was taught some lessons that have stood me in good stead outside of the ring for the rest of my life—particularly in journalism. Call them "core values." if you must. One of them: "The more you sweat, the less you bleed."

Putting in the work before a fight—hours on the heavy and speed bags, sparring, road work—prepares you for what's coming. Reporting and writing stories big and small—sometimes two or more a day, for years—prepares you to cover anything. Whatever you may think of her, it's impossible to credibly argue that NHJ hasn't put in the work. As a veteran of newsrooms, I can assure you Black women still have to work twice as hard for half as much success. To have the success she's had? Just imagine the work.

So this fight? Having to prove to conservative white men that she, a Black woman who has won the Pulitzer et al. is fit to teach journalism? She was ready for it. In the end, she got what most faculty, staff and alumni agreed she deserved: a public, up-or-down vote on whether she should, like all her white Knight Chair predecessors, be offered tenure. That she won't be accepting the offer says more about UNC than it does her.

In our interview, NHJ made it clear: The silence and lack of transparency from school leadership—particularly Chancellor Guskiewicz—made taking another offer inevitable. They could have prevented this, had they put in the work. The more you sweat, the less you bleed. This week, I've been repeatedly asked my opinion on "objectivity in journalism." Do I think there's a crisis? Is UNC now at its center?

I think this is primarily because it's been convenient for some—Hussman among them—to frame this controversy as a struggle between philosophies of journalism. Does NHJ's journalism meet the standard of solid, traditional objectivity that's the rock on which Hussman apparently wants to build a church? In order to have these breathless, pearl-clutching conversations about the failures of today's journalism and the downfall of objectivity you have to completely ignore a lot of American journalism history.

The journalists who trained me? They had this conversation in the 60s and 70s when people were panicked over what was then called "The New Journalism." Is Tom Wolfe journalism? How about Jimmy Breslin? Pete Hamill? Hunter Thompson? Truman Capote? Norman Mailer? Gay Talese? Joan Didion? And those are just the white people in that generation. Nearly every generation of journalists has had some version of this conversation since the dawn of the republic. Mark Twain made jokes about it.

The Black, Latinx, Asian, Native and queer press? They've never had the luxury of thinking that if they just aim themselves as strenuously at the middle of the road as they can manage and project absolute objectivity, their journalism would reach its best and highest purpose. Are there conversations to be had about the failures of today's journalism? Don't get me started. But let's have those conversations. Let's not remake conversations we've been having since forever, but cast with younger, hotter actors.

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