The 2022 New England Muzzle Awards: Spotlighting 10 who diminish free speech

Illustration by Meryl Brenner / GBH News

A Boston mayor who trampled on a religious group’s right to freedom of expression. A Worcester city manager who trampled on the public’s right to know about police misconduct. A New Hampshire state legislator who trampled on teachers’ rights by demanding that they take a “loyalty oath” promising not to teach their students about racism.

These are just a few of the winners of the 2022 New England Muzzle Awards.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the Muzzles, a Fourth of July roundup of outrages against freedom of speech and of the press in the six New England states.

Read the rest at GBH News.

The Emancipator makes its welcome, long-anticipated debut

The Emancipator, long in the making, has gotten past the soft-launch stage and made its formal debut this week. Aimed at covering the Black experience from an antiracist point of view, the site is vibrant and colorful. It looks great on mobile, and features videos (including one by Black activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome Bass, above) and comics alongside serious essays and reported pieces.

The Emancipator is a joint venture of The Boston Globe’s opinion operation and the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. Northeastern journalism students are involved as well. There’s no paywall.

The point of the project is to provide national coverage of the country’s reckoning with systemic racism. Starting with the police murder of George Floyd and the police killing of Breonna Taylor in 2020, race has moved to the center of the national conversation in a way that it had not since the 1960s. Tragically, the moment we’re in right now feels more like the backlash than it does forward progress. The introduction puts it this way:

Just as 19th-century antislavery publications reframed and amplified the quest for abolition, The Emancipator centers critical voices, debates, and evidence-based opinion to reframe the national conversation on racial equity and hasten a more racially just society.

We put journalists, scholars, and community members into conversation, showcasing missing and underamplified voices — past and present — and demonstrating how they reveal the way forward.

The founders are former Globe editorial page editor Bina Venkataramin and BU’s Ibram X. Kendi, the author of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” winner of the National Book Award. The co-editors are Deborah D. Douglas and Amber Payne. Among the more recognizable bylines is that of Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins Stohr, and the star-studded advisory board includes the ubiquitous Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project.

One interesting style note: News organizations have been reaching different conclusions during the past several years over whether they should uppercase “Black.” The Emancipator is going with uppercase “Black” and “White,” which, for what it’s worth, is what The Washington Post is doing as well. The Globe, The New York Times and The Associated Press have all opted for uppercase “Black” and lowercase “white.”

A year ago, when The Emancipator was announced, there were some hard feelings at The Bay State Banner, which has been covering the Black community in Greater Boston since 1965. (Northeastern students also contribute to the Banner through The Scope, our digital social-justice publication.) I don’t really see a conflict, though. The Banner continues to do a great job of covering local issues, while The Emancipator is national in scope and opinion-based. There’s room for both — and for more. Banner founder Melvin Miller, I should note, will receive a long-overdue Yankee Quill Award this Friday.

The Emancipator is an important project and a welcome new voice. I’ve signed up for “Unbound,” the site’s newsletter, and I’m interested to see how the project develops.

UNC spied on faculty members’ emails after the Nikole Hannah-Jones debacle

UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Photo (cc) 2020 by Mihaly I. Lukacs.

You might have thought that the long, dispiriting saga over the University of North Carolina’s failure to bring New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones onto the faculty ended last July, when Hannah-Jones accepted a position with Howard University. You would be wrong.

To summarize a very complicated story, the UNC board of trustees stalled on a promise to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones — the producer and lead writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which re-imagines American history as the story of slavery — after alumnus Walter Hussman Jr. objected to her hiring and intervened with several trustees.

Hussman, the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has pledged $25 million to the journalism school, which was named in his honor in recognition of the gift. The trustees eventually discovered their spine and approved the tenure recommendation, but by then it was too late. And as anyone familiar with academic governance can tell you, trustees are not supposed to get involved in tenure decisions. Yes, they have a vote, but it’s intended as a formality — sort of like the vice president certifying the winner of the presidential election.

Now Joe Killian of NC Policy Watch, who has broken some of the most important stories in the saga, has another blockbuster. It turns out that university administrators read j-school faculty members’ emails and searched backup systems in an attempt to learn who leaked the details of Hussman’s contract with the university to The News & Observer of Raleigh. As many as 22 faculty members may have been spied on, according to Killian, who quotes from an email by faculty member Daniel Kreiss to his colleagues:

As a reminder, all of this was ostensibly in pursuit of an inquiry into a leaked donor agreement that the University later admitted was a public record. As reporting and a letter by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has made clear, the University has never presented any evidence, nor has there ever been any evidence produced more generally, that these Hussman faculty had access to the donor agreement before the media.

The 1619 Project has been an obsession on the right since its publication in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the first slaves arriving in British America. Among other things, that obsession has driven a lot of the bad-faith attacks on critical race theory. Now it’s tearing apart a great university.

I’d say some resignations are in order.

What The New York Times gets wrong — and right — in its editorial about free speech

Photo (cc) 2007 by Hossam el-Hamalawy

Whenever The New York Times takes on as large and amorphous an idea as freedom of expression, it quickly escalates into a war of words about the Times itself. That was certainly the case with a nearly 3,000-word editorial it posted last Friday under the headline “America Has a Free Speech Problem.”

The piece launched a thousand hot takes, many of them dripping with mockery and sarcasm. I certainly don’t agree with everything in the editorial, and I find a lot of what the critics are complaining about — especially the paper’s patented “both-sides-ism” — to be right on target. But in the spirit of contrarianism, and in recognition that this is a Major Statement by our leading newspaper, I’m at least going to take it seriously.

Read the rest at GBH News.

Recriminations begin in school’s decision to uninvite Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones. Photo (cc) 2018 by Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo.

That didn’t take long. The head of the elite Middlesex School in Concord has taken what is being described as a “leave of absence” just a little more than a week after reports that the school had rescinded a speaking invitation to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times journalist and Howard University professor who created The 1619 Project.

The Boston Globe’s Amanda Kaufman writes that the high-priced prep school is launching an “independent review,” according to a letter to parents from the board of trustees. Noah Kirsch has a good overview of the past week’s contretemps at The Daily Beast.

The Middlesex meltdown came after Hannah-Jones made public that her invitation to speak during Black History Month had been withdrawn. David Beare, the head of school, told the Globe that he and other school officials “were concerned that individuals from outside our community might inadvertently distract from the insights and perspective that she intended to share.”

From the moment Beare made his ill-advised announcement, it was obvious that this would end badly for him. The faculty signed a letter of protest and the trustees objected, including Hannah-Jones’ Times colleague Bret Stephens, a critic of The 1619 Project.

We still don’t know how the decision to uninvite Hannah-Jones came about, and I hope the Globe and others will keep digging.

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month.

Bret Stephens speaks out against cancellation of Nikole Hannah-Jones

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens has spoken out against the cancellation of a speaking appearance by his Times colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones at the Middlesex School in Concord. Stephens is an alumnus and a member of the board of trustees. Stephens told Christopher Galvin of Boston.com:

I had no knowledge that an invitation had been extended to Nikole. I had nothing to do with the decision not to bring her to the school. The first I heard about it was when someone sent me her tweet… I don’t believe in canceling speakers.

Stephens is a conservative who has written critically about the 1619 Project, a reimagining of the role of slavery in American history that Hannah-Jones oversaw and for which she won a Pulitzer Prize.

Good for him for standing on principle.

Become a member of Media Nation for just $5 a month!

The latest Nikole Hannah-Jones snub is not going to end well for the Middlesex School

Eliot Hall at the Middlesex School. Public domain photo by Daderot.

I think it’s pretty obvious that we’re only in the beginning stages of learning the story behind the Middlesex School’s decision to invite, and then uninvite, New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to speak during Black History Month. Middlesex is an exclusive prep school in Concord. Hannah-Jones is best known for the 1619 Project, a reimagining of the role of slavery in American history that won her a Pulitzer Prize.

What always amazes me when something like this happens is the failure of the imagination we see on the part of those in charge. Does David Beare, the head of school who issued a limp statement about concerns over “individuals from outside our community” making a ruckus, really think this is going to end well either for the school or for him? This is not North Carolina.

A few other points worth noting. Among the school’s trustees is New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, a conservative and frequent critic of so-called cancel culture. Will he speak up on behalf of his Times colleague? Another prominent trustee is Cass Sunstein, a well-known Harvard Law School professor and a good bet to criticize this abomination.

Of possibly more significance is that Robert and Anne Bass are both vice presidents of the board. As Gabriel Snyder observes, the Basses are “part of a billionaire family that has bankrolled a lot of campus conservative outrage over the years.”

Stay tuned. There is going to be much more to come, I’m sure.

Please consider becoming a member of Media Nation. For $5 a month, you’ll receive a weekly newsletter with exclusive early content, a round-up of the week’s posts, photography and even a song of the week.

Right-wing media whip up racist attacks on Nikole Hannah-Jones

The hatred being directed at Nikole Hannah-Jones is shocking — but not surprising. Right-wing media mount phony attacks on her and her ideas and then let their trollish minions do the rest. She tweets:

The coordinated media attacks orchestrated by the right-wing echo chamber are designed to elicit exactly these type of threats and harassment that are flooding my email and social media accounts. They want to make me afraid to speak and do the type of work I do. I will not stop.

Click through for more. Warning: the attack she quotes from is highly offensive.

Previous coverage.

Nikole Hannah-Jones says no to UNC, accepts tenured position at Howard instead

Howard University. Photo (cc) 2008 by AgnosticPreachersKid.

Walter Hussman Jr.’s campaign against New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones ended up working after all. Days after the University of North Carolina trustees finally stood up to Hussman and voted to grant Hannah-Jones tenure, the Pulitzer Prize winner has announced that she’s accepting a tenured position at Howard University instead.

In an interview with NC Policy Watch, Hannah-Jones said that even though large swaths of the UNC community were in her corner, she ultimately decided not to accept the offer because of a lack of courage on the part of the top leadership.

“The faculty, the student body, alums — were trying to do right by me,” Hannah-Jones told Joe Killian. “I know the university is caught up in a political system that it doesn’t desire.” But, she added, “Had there been some political courage on behalf of the leadership of the university, that also could have made my decision different.”

Hannah-Jones is also the recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant. According to an announcement by the MacArthur Foundation, Hannah-Jones and another highly regarded Black journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, will join the Howard faculty — Hannah-Jones as a tenured professor at the Cathy Hughes School of Community, where she will fill the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism, Coates as a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. Hannah-Jones will also found the Center for Journalism and Democracy.

Hussman, a major UNC donor and the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, objected to the Times’ 1619 Project, which Hannah-Jones conceived of and wrote the lead essay for. The collection of essays, a reimagining of American history with slavery at its center, has been targeted by right-wing critics and led to Donald Trump’s formation of the widely mocked 1776 Commission, dismantled by Joe Biden as soon as he became president.

Hannah-Jones and Coates are among our finest journalists, and their work has been crucial to understanding issues such as the lasting legacy of slavery, reparations and the effect of redlining on the wealth disparities between Black and white households.

The pressures exerted by Hussman, as well as the cowardice shown by the UNC trustees and administration, show why we still need institutions like Howard, the best known and most respected HBCU in the country.

Update: Hannah-Jones has released a remarkable statement.

Previous coverage.

A few parting thoughts about Nikole Hannah-Jones, and the role of trustees and donors

Nikole Hannah-Jones. Photo (cc) 2018 by Alice Vergueiro / Abraji.

Now that the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina has finally voted to grant tenure to New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, I want to close this story out with a few parting thoughts, mainly about the role of trustees and donors.

When it comes to tenure decisions, trustees have what you might call a “ministerial” role. That’s a word that was used quite a bit around the time that Joe Biden’s win over Donald Trump was being certified by Congress. Members of the House and Senate had to vote before the election could become official, but by custom and practice they were bound to vote for the candidate who had won the Electoral College. Their role, in other words, was “ministerial,” not deliberative or substantive. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t deviate, and, as we know, some of them did. But that was seen as a norm-breaking abrogation of past practice, notwithstanding a few protest votes that had been cast in previous elections.

So, too, is it with trustees and tenure. By the time a tenure case comes before the trustees, it’s been approved by the faculty member’s department, college (in the case of a university), provost and the president. The trustees’ role is to ratify, not to debate. As with Congress and the presidential election, that doesn’t mean the trustees can’t vote to reject someone for tenure. But to do so would amount to a complete breakdown of custom and a severe misunderstanding on the part of the trustees as to what their role really is.

Hannah-Jones’ tenure case was approved on a 9-4 vote, meaning that four trustees just don’t get it. They are not there to express their personal views. They’re there to support the administration and then go out to dinner. I don’t mean to suggest that they should play no role in the governance of the university. If there were, say, misconduct on the part of the president, then it’s the trustees’ job to discipline or fire that person. What they’re not supposed to do is reach down past the president and overturn a tenure decision.

That said, the real travesty at UNC is that the trustees allowed a major donor to influence them. Walter Hussman Jr., who showered so much money upon the journalism school that they named it after him, contacted some of the trustees and made his feelings known about the 1619 Project, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporting about slavery and American history that Hannah-Jones conceived of and was the lead writer for. Although Hussman, who owns the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has said it wasn’t his intention to pressure the trustees and that he never threatened to withhold his donation, there seems to be little doubt — according to reporting by NC Policy Watch — that at least some of the trustees were worried Hussman would close his checkbook and walk away.

And not to go bothsides here, because there’s really no comparison. But the Times reports today that the trustees also heard from another major donor, this one on Hannah-Jones’ behalf:

As the debate went on, Ms. Hannah-Jones received the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major donor to the university. The foundation’s chief executive, Richard E. Besser, sent a letter to the board chairman, Richard Stevens, on June 3, encouraging the trustees to “support the appointment of Ms. Hannah-Jones with full tenure privileges.”

That, too, was improper, although I suppose Besser concluded that he needed to fight fire with fire.

The merits of Hannah-Jones’ tenure case were indisputable. Her appointment was to a Knight Chair, a position that always comes with tenure. She is the recipient not only of a Pulitzer but of a MacArthur Genius Grant. Opposition to her was grounded in right-wing criticism of the 1619 Project, which seeks to recenter the American story around slavery. The quibbles about it are minor when compared to its epic sweep.

We should all be glad that this has finally been resolved. But it’s enraging that it was so difficult.

Previous coverage.