Nikole Hannah-Jones and the challenges facing Black women in academia

More fallout from the fiasco at the University of North Carolina over New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure case as The Washington Post reports on the challenges facing Black women in academia. Nick Anderson and Joe Heim write:

In Chapel Hill and beyond, many academics are backing Hannah-Jones in what has become a remarkable tenure showdown pending before the university’s board of trustees. The case has raised questions about the influence of politicians and donors on the faculty hiring process.

For Black female professors, long underrepresented among America’s tenured faculty, the stakes are deeply personal.

Nikole Hannah-Jones update: It depends on what the definition of ‘pressure’ is

Walter Hussman Jr.

The latest installment in the Nikole Hannah-Jones saga is absolutely wild. Walter Hussman Jr., the University of North Carolina alumnus who endowed the journalism school to the tune of $25 million, is fighting back against reports that he exerted pressure on school officials and the board of trustees not to hire Hannah-Jones, who’s also an alum.

A quick recap: Hannah-Jones was offered the Knight Chair at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman (yes, it was named after him) School of Journalism and Media, a position that customarily comes with tenure. But after her appointment ran into trouble with the board of trustees, she was instead offered a five-year non-tenured appointment, an action that school officials can take without any involvement by the trustees. Hannah-Jones is the Pulitzer Prize-winning force behind The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which re-centers American history around slavery.

I’m not going to try to summarize this detailed piece by Joe Killian in NC Policy Watch. But this here is an eye-opening sentence regarding Hussman’s $25 million pledge: “Most of that money hasn’t yet been delivered, leading some to speculate Hussman felt he had leverage with which to pressure the school to abandon its plan to hire Hannah-Jones.”

Hussman, the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, insists he did not try to pressure anyone and that he never suggested he wouldn’t come through with the money if he didn’t get his way. And there this classic back-and-forth involving an anonymous board member and Hussman:

“He’s completely outside this process and he’s contacting the people who are involved with financial giving over his concerns about university hires,” the board member said. “That’s throwing your weight around because you know you can exercise your influence, based on your gifts to the school. It is a threat. I don’t see how you can see that any other way.”

Hussman denies that. “That could have been inferred, but it was never implied,” he said.

Hannah-Jones is considering legal action. She has set today as the deadline for the trustees to vote on her tenure case. Otherwise, her lawyers say, she’ll move ahead with a lawsuit. Let’s hope the trustees take the opportunity to put this embarrassment behind them.

Finally: Three cheers for independent media. NC Policy Watch and The Assembly have been driving this story and deserve a lot of credit.

Previous coverage.

UNC donor reportedly opposes Hannah-Jones’ hiring because she’s not ‘objective’

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

There’s been an important new development in the Nikole Hannah-Jones story. According to the veteran journalist John Drescher, writing for a North Carolina website called The Assembly, a “mega-donor” to the University of North Carolina opposed hiring Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist who conceived of the 1619 Project and who’s been denied tenure by the UNC board of trustees.

The donor is Walter Hussman Jr., the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, whose $25 million gift to the UNC journalism program in 2019 resulted its being named the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Drescher reported that Hussman is so enamored of old-fashioned both-sides objectivity that he “relayed his concerns to the university’s top leaders, including at least one member of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees.” Among other things, Hussman wrote:

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. Instead, I fear this possible and needless controversy will overshadow it.

Hussman is no fan of the 1619 Project either, although he appears to be aligned more with historians who’ve criticized it than he is with those on the right who’ve attacked it.

Now, there are several curious aspects to Hussman’s opposition. First of all, Hannah-Jones is an opinion journalist who works for the Times’ opinion section. Her journalism is rigorously fact-based, informed by a strong point of view. Does Hussman really oppose such journalism? After all, the Democrat-Gazette has an opinion section. (All four of the ADG’s  opinion journalists who warrant a headshot are white men, by the way.)

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The other curious aspect is that Hussman doesn’t actually understand what objectivity is. The Assembly quotes from an op-ed that Hussman wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2019:

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. I decided then that I needed to let our readers know that we didn’t agree with those statements.

The problem is that objective reporting, as conceived by Walter Lippmann more than 100 years ago, is an open-minded and dispassionate pursuit of the truth, not balance or both-sidesism. “Seek truth and report it” is the way the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics puts it.

Hussman, unfortunately, has embraced the caricature of objectivity. And Hannah-Jones has gotten caught up in his misunderstanding.

Addendum: In 2019 I wrote about a genuinely innovative idea at the ADG: the paper was giving iPads to its subscribers so it could stop printing the paper and save money. If you let your subscription lapse, it would stop working.

Previous coverage.

Would a lawsuit help or hinder Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure case?

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

New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones is said to be considering a lawsuit over a decision by the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina not to grant her tenure. Hannah-Jones is the creator of the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort to recenter American history around slavery that has come under attack on the right.

I’m curious as to what a lawsuit would look like. If she could get a hearing, then perhaps it would be possible to force the trustees to explain their reasoning under oath. But my understanding of the tenure process is that you can be turned down at any stage for any reason.

The trustees of a college or university rarely get involved except to ratify whatever the president brings before them. But, in fact, they have the power to say no even to cases that have been approved by the department, the dean, the provost and the president. When I came up for tenure at Northeastern in 2014, I didn’t relax until the trustees had voted since I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t enraged one or more of them with something I’d written or said over the years as part of my work as a journalist.

Hannah-Jones is eminently worthy of tenure, and a nationwide pressure campaign is under way to push the trustees into reversing their earlier decision. She is being denied something she has earned because the right hates her work and her message. Hannah-Jones has been offered a five-year contract instead of tenure, something that the UNC can do without the approval of the trustees. But with tenure comes academic freedom, and it seems pretty clear that one of the trustees’ motives is to force an outspoken Black woman to be careful about what she says and writes.

Still, I have to wonder if a lawsuit would serve more as a distraction than as a way of overturning the trustees’ unjust vote.

Previous coverage.

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UNC’s board of trustees needs to grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones today

Nikole Hannah-Jones. Photo (cc) 2019 by Penn State.

Right-wing critics of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which repositions slavery as central to American history, have claimed their biggest prize yet.

On Wednesday, NC Policy Watch broke the news that Nikole Hannah-Jones, who directed the project and wrote the lead essay, had been denied tenure by the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees. Instead, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract after which her tenure case would be considered. The trustees’ action came after Hannah-Jones had easily cleared every hurdle on the academic side, leading any reasonable person to conclude that the trustees’ motives were political.

The faculty at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media issued a statement that reads in part:

Failure to tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones in her role as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism is a concerning departure from UNC’s traditional process and breaks precedent with previous tenured full professor appointments of Knight chairs in our school. This failure is especially disheartening because it occurred despite the support for Hannah-Jones’s appointment as a full professor with tenure by the Hussman Dean, Hussman faculty, and university. Hannah-Jones’s distinguished record of more than 20 years in journalism surpasses expectations for a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

Jeff Jarvis of CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School started a petition calling the decision “an act of blatant partisanship and racism in the academy” and demanding “immediate reconsideration.” As of this writing, about 170 journalism professors had signed, including me and seven of my colleagues at Northeastern University.

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Hannah-Jones has been under relentless attack from the right since the moment that the 1619 Project was published in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of slavery in what later became the United States. She won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur genius grant, but critics have claimed that her work is deeply flawed.

As Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute observes, Hannah-Jones’ appointment provoked outrage on the right when it was announced recently. Here’s a characteristic lead from National Review, written by George Leaf:

To land a professorship in American colleges and universities, you have to either have a superb record of academic achievement or espouse radical leftist ideas. The former still prevails in hard sciences (although standards there are beginning to erode), but in many other academic fields, “wokeness” is now the main consideration.

Leaf, in turn, quotes Jay Shalin, who writes for an organization called the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal:

For instance, she claimed that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” as British anti-slavery sentiment grew. There is almost no hint of that in factual history.

And that’s where I want to pause for moment. Because that was perhaps the most substantive observation offered by Hannah-Jones’ critics, provoking a response from a number of historians, not all of them conservatives, who claimed that it just wasn’t so. Let me note the response of Hannah-Jones’ editor at The New York Times Magazine, Jake Silverstein, who observed that there was, in fact, considerable anti-slavery agitation taking place on the British side:

The culmination of this [anti-slavery rhetoric] was the Dunmore Proclamation, issued in late 1775 by the colonial governor of Virginia, which offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army. A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies “than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.” The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.” And yet how many contemporary Americans have ever even heard of it? Enslaved people at the time certainly knew about it. During the Revolution, thousands sought freedom by taking refuge with British forces.

It is notable that Lepore was not among the historians who wrote to the Times. Strangely, the idea that Hannah-Jones was simply wrong in claiming that slavery was an important cause of the revolution has become an article of faith, even though Lepore’s research makes it clear that Hannah-Jones got it right.

Hannah-Jones so far has remained silent:

But some of the coverage makes it sound like she’s already agreed to the five-year contract. I hope she hasn’t. The whole point of tenure is that it provides you with the freedom of speak out. In effect, the trustees are saying that they want to make sure Hannah-Jones will behave herself before granting her a lifetime contract.

The trustees are meeting later today. They have a chance to undo this outrageous act against a great journalist. Let’s see what happens.

More on The Emancipator

Here’s The Boston Globe’s announcement of The Emancipator, including a video and a list of the advisory board members.

There are a lot of heavy hitters here, but the three who stand out to me are New Yorker journalist Jelani Cobb, who teaches at the Columbia School of Journalism; Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won Pulitzer Prize for The 1619 Project; and Heather McGhee, author of the widely acclaimed “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.”

Also of note: Globe columnist Kimberly Atkins will write for The Emancipator and oversee its newsletter, to be called Unbound.

Bret Stephens takes on the 1619 Project — and comes out on the losing end

Let me wade ever so gently into New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’ latest, in which he joins legions on the right in trashing his own newspaper’s Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project. Since I’m a firm believer in the adage that if there’s something rotten floating around the top of the barrel you need not go fishing underneath to see if there’s something better, I’ll just point to this one passage. Stephens writes:

Here is an excerpt from the introductory essay to the project by The New York Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, as it appeared in print in August 2019 (italics added):

“1619. It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?”

Now compare it to the version of the same text as it now appears online:

“1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619?”

In an email, Silverstein told me that the changes to the text were immaterial, in part because it still cited 1776 as our nation’s official birth date, and because the project’s stated aim remained to put 1619 and its consequences as the true starting point of the American story.

Readers can judge for themselves whether these unacknowledged changes violate the standard obligations of transparency for New York Times journalism. The question of journalistic practices, however, raises deeper doubts about the 1619 Project’s core premises.

Pardon the long excerpt, but I wanted you to get the full context. Now, was anyone who read the original text somehow fooled into thinking that the United States was actually founded in 1619? Did anyone go running to Wikipedia to double-check on that 1776 thing? Of course not. It is ludicrous to think that the idea of 1619 as our country’s founding year is anything other than “a metaphoric argument,” as Nikole Hannah-Jones, who conceived of and produced the project, argues.

Echoing President Trump, Stephens complains that this supposedly adulterated history is being taught to school children. Well, the obvious response to that is that maybe the editors decided to tweak the language a bit because they knew kids who haven’t been exposed to this history might, in fact, take the 1619 date literally. So what?

All of this is pretty rich coming from Stephens, who less than a year ago offered a cryptic quasi-endorsement of the idea that Ashkanazi Jews are genetically more intelligent than others, and then got off with an Editor’s Note that didn’t quite acknowledge what he had done, as Jack Shafer of Politico pointed out at the time.

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Pulitzer notes: Racism and climate change come calling from a pre-pandemic world

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

When the latest Pulitzer Prizes were announced on Monday afternoon, it felt like they’d been beamed in from another dimension.

The awards honor the best in journalism from the previous year — a time when COVID-19 was barely a blip on the radar and didn’t yet have a name. You can be sure that coverage of the pandemic will dominate next year’s Pulitzers. This year, though, they were all about journalism that exposed neglected communities in rural Alaska, corruption in Baltimore, corporate and governmental malfeasance at Boeing, and the never-ending horror that is the Guantánamo Bay detention center.

Two winners, in particular, caught my eye. Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times won the commentary award for her lead essay accompanying The 1619 Project, a massive effort that re-examined American history through the lens of slavery. The Washington Post took home the explanatory-reporting prize for a series showing the effects of climate change. Both are the sort of journalism that will have staying power even after the pandemic has receded into the background.

Locally, The Boston Globe was left empty-handed for the sixth consecutive year. But it took finalist honors in three separate categories with excellent work that is worth examining more closely.

***

The 1619 Project, grounded in the idea that American history began with the introduction of slavery in Virginia that year, was a massive multimedia effort. It took up an entire issue of The New York Times Magazine last August, featuring contributions from a wide range of writers. It sparked a series of podcasts. It’s been reworked as a school resource. But the animating focus is the 7,600-word lead essay by Hannah-Jones, who conceived of the project and who has been its public face.

By honoring Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer judges chose a piece of writing that is not only worthy but also controversial. And perhaps the most controversial assertion she makes is that the American Revolution was sparked by, among other things, the belief among slave-holding interests that the colonies needed to become independent so that the British wouldn’t abolish slavery. As Hannah-Jones puts it: “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

Did she get it right? Late last year, a group of five historians wrote to the Times arguing that Hannah-Jones was wrong about that central argument. “This is not true,” they wrote. “If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.” That sounds devastating. And Leslie M. Harris, one of the historians with whom The 1619 Project consulted, has written that the Times ignored her warnings. But in an answer to the five historians, Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein cites compelling evidence — including a reference to the Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s book “These Truths” — that fear of abolition was in fact a significant reason why the slave-holding white power structure supported independence.

In the Columbia Journalism Review last August, Alexandria Neason wrote, “For the media to tell the truth about the U.S., it must commit to both a reeducation of its readers and of its workers. Efforts like The 1619 Project look backwards to inform a path forward.”

Almost as an exclamation point, a Pulitzer was also awarded posthumously to Ida B. Wells “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.” Hannah-Jones’ Twitter handle is Ida Bae Wells.

By honoring Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer judges have ensured that the conversation she sparked will continue.

***

The Washington Post last August published the first of a series of 10 stories aimed at showing not merely that climate change was inevitable, but that it was already here, resulting in extreme temperatures and other effects in the United States and around the world. The data-driven series, titled “2˚C: Beyond the Limit,” examined places where the average temperature has risen by at least 2 degrees Celsius.

“A Washington Post analysis of multiple temperature data sets found numerous locations around the globe that have warmed by at least 2 degrees Celsius over the past century,” the Post reported. “That’s a number that scientists and policymakers have identified as a red line if the planet is to avoid catastrophic and irreversible consequences. But in regions large and small, that point has already been reached.”

In awarding the explanatory-reporting prize to the Post, the Pulitzer judges called “2˚C: Beyond the Limit” a “groundbreaking series that showed with scientific clarity the dire effects of extreme temperatures on the planet.” The series offers close-up looks at the effects of climate change such as floods, droughts and extreme heat in places ranging from New Jersey to California, from Qatar to Siberia, as well as a conclusion headlined “How We Know Global Warming Is Real.”

Yet in looking over the Post’s award-winning work, I couldn’t help but think of the epistemic closure that characterizes the political right these days. The Post’s audience no doubt appreciated the deep, fact-based reporting. But at a time when extremist allies of President Donald Trump are refusing to accept the reality of a pandemic that has already claimed about 70,000 American lives, it’s hard to imagine that climate change-deniers will be swayed by new evidence.

***

Whether a news organization wins a Pulitzer or not often comes down to the competition. The Baltimore Sun won in the local-reporting category for exposing corruption involving Mayor Catherine Pugh. Actually, make that the former mayor.

The Boston Globe didn’t expose any official wrongdoing in “The Valedictorians Project.” But by comprehensively reporting on the struggles experienced by Boston’s valedictorians in the years following their high-school graduation, the Globe revealed that the city was failing even its brightest, most successful students. The reporting was supplemented by data visualizations, videos and other interactive features. It may not have brought down a mayor, but it was certainly worthy of the finalist citation it received. (Disclosure: Several of our Northeastern journalism students worked on the project.)

Two other finalists from the Globe were also recognized.

In feature writing, Nestor Ramos was cited for his story on Cape Cod and climate change, “At the Edge of a Warming World” — which, like “The Valedictorians Project,” was enhanced with a vibrant multimedia presentation.

In feature photography, Erin Clark was honored for — as the Pulitzer judges put it — her “respectful and compassionate photography of a working Maine family as it falls into homelessness and finds new housing, albeit precarious.”

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