This interview with Walter Hussman Jr. says that after his gift to UNC he began talking to leading executives and journalism educators about his ideas. At one point he was going to challenge me to a debate about objectivity. https://t.co/Z5XAWSGrKc First I am hearing of it.
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) July 7, 2021
Jay Rosen, an NYU journalism professor, offers a comment in this tweet to a statement Arkansas Democrat-Gazette owner/publisher Walter Hussman made to a Poynter Institute reporter in an interview about his role in the ultimate decision of Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, not to take a position as a tenured professor in the University of North Carolina journalism school named for Hussman after he pledged a $25 million gift (not yet fully delivered.)
Poynter’s article is headlined:
UNC donor says he has no regrets about his role in the journalism school losing Nikole Hannah-Jones
I suspect not, since he didn’t want her hired in the first place.
In the interview, Hussman mostly repeated what he has said before. His objections to Hannah-Jones’ hiring were rooted in his differences with her work in the 1619 Project. He insisted he didn’t “lobby” against her in talks with the dean of the J-school and other university officials.
“I don’t have any judgment about her (personally) — I’ve never met her,” he said. “… I feel certain I did what I should appropriately have done. I didn’t lobby against her appointment.”
Even if not, I asked, hadn’t Hussman suggested she might be a better fit at a different university? He advocates a traditional view of objectivity as a core value for journalists and said in an earlier interview, “If she’s in favor of them (his list of core values) maybe we could work together. But if she’s opposed to them, I’m going to wonder, why did she want to go to work at a journalism school where she’s opposed to the core values of the school?”
Hussman said that he meant that he and Hannah-Jones would have a base for discussion either way. He did not intend to say she would be happier elsewhere if she disagreed.
He added that he had hoped to meet with Hannah-Jones and journalism school Dean Susan King, at least by Zoom, after Hannah-Jones had been offered the UNC job this spring, but that the meeting never came together.
Hannah-Jones saw things differently. She said yesterday:
“Once the news broke and I started to see the extent of the political interference, particularly the reporting on Walter Hussman, it became really clear to me that I just could not work at a school named after Walter Hussman,” Hannah-Jones said. “To be a person who has stood for what I stand for and have any integrity whatsoever, I just couldn’t see how I could do that.”
Joe Killian, the NC Policy Watch reporter who broke the story about conservative resistance to Hannah-Jones’ hiring also assessed the key players differently, as he said in a Twitter thread yesterday, compiled for easier readability by Poynter. A portion of the Twitter account by Killian of his interviews with the D-G publisher:
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 common rhetorical device. Find an area of common ground, assert affinity, create a bond.
As we do it all the time, reporters notice when it’s done to us– particularly by politicians and PR people. A lot of people worked in a newsroom for a year or two in their 20s 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 to people — with a few important asterisks.
After journalism and business school, Hussman 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 years old I was a beat reporter on a daily newspaper 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, as it happens, experiences I do share with Nikole Hannah-Jones.
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 twenties, 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, assumed dominance and expanded our intergenerational empires.
I suspected this may be one of the things that most offended Hannah-Jones about Hussman questioning her media values and credentials, whether she was fit to teach young journalists. And my interview with her confirmed it.
Hussman did not work his way from the Chapel Hill News to the New York Times. His reporting and writing haven’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 reporting achievements.
Understanding, as he must, the difference between his CV and that of Nikole Hannah-Jones, he still felt the need to tell Susan King, dean of the J-School and UNC-Chapel Hill, he was against her hire.
King said thanks for the input, but the J-School would make the decision.
Did Hussman respect the decision of the dean, herself a pioneering woman in journalism? Leave the issue to the stellar J-School faculty?
No. He contacted the chancellor. He contacted the vice chancellor in charge of financial giving. He contacted at least one member of the BOT.
As students, faculty and even members of the BOT have noted, this was enormously inappropriate.
Strictly speaking, Hussman shouldn’t even have known the school was pursuing Hannah-Jones. 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 Hussman and Hannah-Jones.
Hannah-Jones told me she declined.
Having accomplished so much in journalism, Hannah-Jones 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.
The one missing element of the Hussman/Hannah-Jones saga is how often lip service is paid in straight news accounts to the “core values” about objectivity that Hussman trumpets daily in his newspaper and has had posted at his namesake journalism school.
From where I sit, it rings a touch hollow from a man who waged a newspaper war for more than a decade with a managing editor who shaped news coverage while writing a strongly opinionated daily column. Who hired a successor editor who rewrote the history of the Little Rock school desegregation crisis and made an annual hero of a traitor to the Union. And whose own ideology, particularly regarding unions and public schools, regularly infects the newspaper’s I no”objective” news coverage.