Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Mega-Donor, and the Future of Journalism
Emails obtained by The Assembly show that UNC-Chapel Hill’s largest journalism-school donor warned against Nikole Hannah-Jones’ hiring. Their divergent views represent a new front in the debate over objectivity and the future of the field.
Even in the midst of a record-setting $4.25 billion capital campaign, Walter Hussman Jr.’s $25 million commitment in 2019 to the UNC-Chapel Hill school of journalism stood out. His name went on the school, and his statement of journalistic principles went up on the entryway wall.
Hussman, the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is an evangelist of old-school objectivity. “Impartiality means reporting, editing, and delivering the news honestly, fairly, objectively, and without personal opinion or bias,” says the opening line of his statement of core values.
It’s an ethos he passionately believes should be taught to a rising generation of journalists. Some at UNC-CH say that passion has led him to cross a line.
Last summer, Hussman learned of the university’s interest in hiring Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist, former News & Observer reporter, and current New York Times reporter, best known for her work on the 1619 Project.
Earlier this month, NC Policy Watch broke the news that Hannah-Jones, who is Black, had not been offered tenure by UNC-CH as part of her hiring as the prestigious Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Previous Knight Chairs, who also did not have doctoral degrees, were offered tenure at Carolina. The report quickly became national news, in part as a proxy war around questions of systemic racism and cancel culture.
Hannah-Jones has been widely supported at UNC and across academia since the news went public. But long before the debate entered the public arena, opposition to her appointment had been quietly growing, led in part by Hussman himself.
Hussman had doubts about whether having her on the faculty would distract from teaching the school’s core values, according to emails and four university sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
He relayed his concerns to the university’s top leaders, including at least one member of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees. The Assembly obtained copies of emails in which Hussman expressed his concerns about Hannah-Jones to David Routh, vice chancellor for university development; Susan King, the dean of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media; and chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.
“I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” Hussman wrote in a late December email to King, copying in Guskiewicz and Routh. “I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer prize winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones.
“These historians appear to me to be pushing to find the true historical facts. Based on her own words, many will conclude she is trying to push an agenda, and they will assume she is manipulating historical facts to support it. If asked about it, I will have to be honest in saying I agree with the historians.”
While some historians have criticized Hannah-Jones’ essay that introduced the 1619 Project, other historians have supported it. The Society of American Historians inducted Hannah-Jones as a fellow following the project’s publication by the New York Times.
Hussman said he feared King and the school would get embroiled in an all-consuming controversy.
Carroll Hall, the home of UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media // Photo by Chris Ocana
“My hope and vision was that the journalism school would be the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion, and that would add so much to its reputation and would benefit both the school and the University,” he wrote. “Instead, I fear this possible and needless controversy will overshadow it.”
In a September email, Hussman, who is white, took issue with a section of Hannah-Jones’ 1619 essay on the country’s post-World War II struggle for civil rights, in which she wrote, “For the most part, black Americans fought back alone.”
Hussman wrote: “I think this claim denigrates the courageous efforts of many white Americans to address the sin of slavery and the racial injustices that resulted after the Civil War.” He listed white Freedom Riders and other whites who had fought for equality, including journalists across the South. The email was sent to Routh and copied to Guskiewicz and King.
“Long before Nikole Hannah Jones won her Pulitzer Prize,” Hussman wrote, “courageous white southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer prizes, too.”
Despite Hussman’s concerns, King continued to pursue Hannah-Jones. After a lengthy faculty and administrative process recommended tenure, Board of Trustees member Chuck Duckett raised questions and asked for more time to get answers. The university instead offered a five-year, fixed-term appointment—without tenure—to Hannah-Jones.
In an interview with The Assembly, Hussman declined to address his communication with UNC-CH officials about Hannah-Jones. He said he still considered himself a working journalist and was bound by his company’s code of ethics, which prevents newsroom employees from publicly taking sides in contentious matters.
“I don’t believe I ought to speak out as a journalist on a matter of public controversy,” he said. “We did not make our donation to influence university policy. We’re trying to promote what we think is good journalism.”
He confirmed the substance of his emails and even suggested The Assembly look more closely at one in particular. Hussman said he thought his comments to the university leaders were private and said he would not have made them publicly.
He restated his belief that journalists, to regain readers’ trust, need to return to the core values displayed on the wall at the journalism school. He said he had never met Hannah-Jones but would like to.
“A good question for her is, ‘How do you feel about these core values?’” he told The Assembly. “I really don’t know the answer to that.”
Hannah-Jones declined to comment. In a statement released Thursday, she said she had no desire to bring turmoil to the university but was obligated to fight back. Her legal team set a June 4 deadline for a renewed tenure offer to avoid litigation.
“As a Black woman who has built a nearly two-decades long career in journalism, I believe Americans who research, study, and publish works that expose uncomfortable truths about the past and present manifestations of racism in our society should be able to follow these pursuits without risk to their civil and constitutional rights,” Hannah-Jones wrote.
The previously unreported pushback by one of UNC-Chapel Hill’s biggest donors underscores issues about donor influence at the university, which is increasingly reliant on major gifts in light of mandated tuition freezes and minimal legislative-funding increases.
It also reveals a new front in a growing national debate about objectivity in newsrooms: journalism schools themselves.
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Hussman, 74, is considered an innovator and astute businessman. After graduating from UNC-CH, he received an MBA from Columbia University. He leads the family-owned WEHCO Media, which operates newspapers, magazines, and cable television companies in six states, and has been inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.
In 2001, Hussman differentiated himself from most newspaper publishers by rejecting the era’s mantra—“information wants to be free”—and instead placed his content behind a paywall. He didn’t understand why most publishers charged readers for the print paper but gave away that same journalism (and more) online. Today, most papers have followed his example by implementing strong paywalls. At the time, Hussman was a radical—an outlier.
In 2018, he started lending his readers iPads so they could read a replica of the print edition and he could reduce printing and distribution costs.
In other ways, though, Hussman is a traditionalist. Trust in the media has eroded, he says, in part because reporters and editors have moved away from the principles he learned in journalism school.
“Two years ago I heard a prominent journalist say she doesn’t believe in the ‘false equivalency’ of presenting both sides, and that she sees her job as determining the truth, then sharing it with her audience,” Hussman wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2019. “I decided then that I needed to let our readers know that we didn’t agree with those statements.”
Hussman began publishing a statement of core values every day on the second page of all 10 of his company’s daily papers. Those same core values now adorn the wall at the entrance to the UNC-Chapel Hill journalism and media school.
Hussman's statement of core values adorns the entryway wall at Carroll Hall, home of UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media // Photo by Chris Ocana
Hussman sees his role as an active one. He told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in 2019 that there’s too much opinion in news coverage. “We’re trying to take a step to move it back in the right direction again,” Hussman said.
Few question Hussman’s genuine passion for those values, and he’s not seen as a partisan ideologue. His belief is in the news. “We believe in this so strongly that our family, which has been in the newspaper business 110 years, has made its largest donation ever and is lending our name to the school,” he wrote in the Journal.
He represents one end of a growing debate over the role of objectivity in reporting, sometimes defined as neutrality. Some see the debate as more like a spectrum. Others think the fight is over semantics—that fair and balanced writing is important but objectivity is impossible. And a growing number, including many younger journalists, see objectivity as a trap.
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Hannah-Jones, 45, received her undergraduate degree from Notre Dame and a master’s in journalism from UNC-CH in 2003.
Before long, she was covering Durham Public Schools for The News & Observer, where she delved into issues of school equity and the racial-achievement gap. She worked at The Oregonian and then covered civil rights, housing, and school segregation for ProPublica before joining The New York Times in 2015.
Hannah-Jones is one of the most prominent journalists of her generation. She won a MacArthur Fellowship, often called a “genius grant,” earned multiple National Magazine Awards, and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Her approach to journalism is, in some ways, at odds with Hussman’s, which reflects a current national debate in newsrooms about what journalism is and how it should be conducted.
Hussman’s report-both-sides approach is built on reporter objectivity. Hannah-Jones considers this a less-than-rigorous approach that can lead to false equivalencies rather than the truth.
“[Mainstream media] has long tended to operate as stenographers of power, and we've taken that to be non-biased, objective reporting,” she told NPR’s 1A podcast last June. “So when white Americans say to me, ‘I just want factual reporting,’ what they're saying to me is they want reporting from a white perspective ... with a white normative view, and that simply has never been objective.”
Hannah-Jones doesn’t pretend to be outside the story and says objectivity has always been a fallacy. If you grow up white in a community with good schools, respectful police, and welcoming businesses, that influences how you view those institutions, she says.
“We really need to understand that all of our racialized experiences as journalists lead us to cover things a certain way,” she said to NPR.
Nikole Hannah-Jones and Walter Hussman Jr. represent different sides of the debate on objectivity, but they also cover some shared ground. “What’s always been important,” Hannah-Jones told reporter Brentin Mock last July, “is that our coverage is as accurate as it can be, and that it's fair.”
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Don Curtis—CEO of the Curtis Media Group radio empire, former UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees member, and another major donor to the UNC-CH journalism school—said he received a phone call from Hussman several months ago.
“Walter said he was concerned about something and wanted Susan King, [the journalism-school dean], to talk to me about it,” Curtis told The Assembly. “He said, ‘I don’t want to distort your view.’”
Curtis said he later learned of Hussman’s concerns about Hannah-Jones, but said Hussman was supportive of King and admired her leadership.
“He was very gentle,” Curtis said. “I got the feeling he was really concerned about something but didn’t want to throw his weight around.”
But Hussman’s involvement raised concerns at the university. Much of his $25 million pledge has not yet been delivered, a common arrangement for major gifts, and his comments could be interpreted as leaning on key players to get his way on a personnel decision.
“We can’t have donors influencing decisions like this,” said one trustee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “We also don’t want to poke them and have them withdraw their contribution.”
According to multiple university sources, Hussman told trustee Kelly Matthews Hopkins of his reservations about Hannah-Jones. When contacted by The Assembly, Hopkins referred questions to the university media staff, which declined to comment on what it said was a personnel matter.
Former UNC-CH Chancellor James Moeser supported King as she moved forward to hire Hannah-Jones.
“[Chancellor Guskiewicz] told me how you had stood up to Walter Hussman, and I can only imagine how difficult that was,” Moeser wrote to King on May 20. “I have nothing but admiration for your courage and leadership.”
In an interview with The Assembly, Moeser said, “She’s handled it very well. It’s always a difficult position when the principal donor to your school is putting great pressure on you for a position you don’t want to take.”
Joel Curran, UNC-CH’s vice chancellor for communications, declined to comment on Moeser’s email. “I’m unable to comment on anything related to personnel matters,” he said.
Deb Aikat, an associate professor of journalism who serves as an elected member of UNC-CH’s Faculty Executive Committee, was surprised to learn of Hussman’s involvement in deliberations about Hannah-Jones.
“Walter Hussman gave us a lot of money, and we appreciate it,” Aikat said. “If you come and tell us who to hire and who not to hire, this is an overreach that nobody would appreciate.”
Aikat said there should be “almost a church-and-state division” between donors and the operation of the university. “If we have a scholarship in your name, you don’t decide who the recipient would be,” he said.
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King declined to comment on Hussman’s involvement or to discuss the emails. She did issue a statement about how journalism should be taught—which effectively emphasizes elements of each philosophy.
She said the school teaches objectivity, fairness, impartiality, and truth-seeking. Students and faculty explore the differences between professional objectivity and inherent biases.
Objectivity doesn’t mean you lose your sense of self or your voice or your perspective, King said; it means that, as a reporter, you follow the story where it takes you.
King, 73, uses her career as a former television reporter and anchor as an example.
“I was the first woman in every newsroom,” she wrote to The Assembly. “I brought my perspective ... to the table. I argued that women’s voices needed to be in the stories that were told. White males ran the newsrooms when I joined the business. Their experiences and judgments ruled the day. Women made a difference in the newsroom 40 years ago. Journalists with different world experiences make a difference now and must continue to do so.”
“It’s almost as if what position is the ‘objective neutral’ is in fact a subjective determination made by those in power,” wrote Wesley Lowery, perhaps the most well-known critic of strict objectivity.
“But you still wind up standing somewhere!” replied Ben Smith, the New York Times’ media columnist. “And I think sometimes the strawmanning of objectivity is just cover for saying you'd like the fixed point to be a few paces in one direction or the other.”
Under King’s leadership, the journalism school has played host to these debates.
Marty Baron, the decorated former executive editor of The Washington Post and a proponent of objectivity, spoke at UNC-CH in 2020. In response to a student question about how newsrooms can avoid “falling prey to false balance or both-side-ism,” Baron responded: “I think our job is to get the facts. I don’t use the word balance; I use the word fairness. I think it’s our job to listen to all people, hear what they have to say, do a really thorough job of research ... and then tell people what we’ve really learned in the most direct, straightforward, forthright way possible.”
Lowery, a former Washington Post reporter, spoke at a UNC-CH-supported event in March. Lowery, 30, and Baron, 66, are in many ways a good lens to view the generational nature of the debate.
“I actually don't think there is a large generational divide among young journalists and older journalists as it relates to what objectivity is supposed to be: fairness, that we're out seeking facts and we're trying to report objective truth and not subjective opinion in our newsroom,” Lowery said.
“But this is a term that no longer means telling the truth as we find it, but often means things like balance. It means things like neutrality,” Lowery continued. “Well, the truth is very rarely neutral. The sky is blue; it is not purple. You should not walk away from my piece unclear about which thing is true.”
Aikat, the UNC-CH journalism professor, said, “A whole different group is redefining the spirit of journalism.”
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When Hussman’s gift was announced, the university said that his “core values will be chiseled in granite at the entryway of Carroll Hall for students to see daily.”
More than 18 months later, the values are displayed, but in a temporary state on wallpaper. A school spokesperson said the chiseling of the words has been delayed by the pandemic and a nearby renovation.
Hussman told The Assembly he wants the words chiseled. “If all it is is a sign hanging on a picture hanger, it’d be pretty easy if somebody didn’t like it to take it down and take it to the dumpster,” he said. “It shows a little more permanence.”
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John Drescher, former executive editor of The News & Observer and a former editor at The Washington Post, is contributing editor to The Assembly. Follow him on Twitter @john_drescher.
Disclosures: Drescher is a graduate of the UNC-Chapel Hill journalism school and a financial contributor to the school. He served on the school’s foundation board with Walter Hussman. He and Nikole Hannah-Jones were colleagues at The N&O earlier in her career.
Hero Image Credit: The Assembly, with images from Chris Ocana; the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Correction: The original version of this article said former Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery often was at odds with Marty Baron, The Post’s former executive editor. Baron and Lowery say they were not often at odds. Lowery left The Post several months after a disagreement with Baron about a series of tweets from Lowery.