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Michael Goodwin: UNC clash over NY Times writer shows us what’s at stake for journalism’s future

A dispute over whether a New York Times writer should get tenure at the University of North Carolina would seem to be of little national importance. But in fact, the outcome will signal whether traditional standards of journalism can survive the onslaught of racialized advocacy the Times embraces.

The clash is especially noteworthy because of the two main antagonists. Both are UNC graduates, but their views of journalism could not be more different.

On one side is Nikole Hannah-Jones, the flame-throwing creator of the Times’ 1619 Project. She won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for an extended essay, but some of her claims were debunked by historians and her push for rewriting American history is cited as a reason why she should not get tenure.

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Her chief critic is Walter E. Hussman Jr., the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and CEO of a family firm that owns newspapers, magazines and TV stations in the South and Midwest. As an evangelist for impartial, fair journalism, he is the polar opposite of Hannah-Jones and says he wishes the Times “would get back to what it once was.”

Most important to the case at hand, Hussman has pledged $25 million to UNC, and its journalism school now bears his name. In an interview, he told me he selected the school for his gift two years ago after it agreed to adopt a code of core values based on impartiality he publishes in his 11 newspapers every day. The school also promised to chisel the code into the granite wall of the main entry, which has not yet happened.

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Hussman doesn’t believe Hannah-Jones’ work reflects those standards and says her hiring would make the journalism school “more identified with the 1619 Project than the core values.”

“I did not expect to have veto power over who they hired or fired,” Hussman said. “But I believe I have an obligation to say so when I think they’re making a mistake.”

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In a remarkable bit of irony, the core values statement begins with a quotation from Adolph Ochs, who took control of the Chattanooga Times in 1879 and The New York Times in 1896. 

Hussman owns the Chattanooga paper, now called the Times Free Press, which he bought from the New York Times’ Ochs-Sulzberger family in 1999. 

“To give the news impartially, without fear or favor” is the opening line of the code because Hussman admired how Ochs imposed that idea on The New York Times, which made it the flagship of American journalism. 

Hussman’s code goes on to say that “Impartiality means reporting, editing, and delivering the news honestly, fairly, objectively, and without personal opinion or bias.”

Those ideas sound quaint nowadays, but Hussman is correct they were key to media credibility for much of the 20th century. The abandonment of those values in recent years, especially at the Times, has turned every supposedly straight news story into an opinion and alienated much of the public. 

Hussman is sickened by large surveys showing the vast majority of Americans no longer believe most news outlets play it straight with the facts. More recently, bias has given way to corruption where inconvenient facts are distorted or ignored to serve a predetermined narrative.

That is the essence of woke journalism, and Hannah-Jones is its queen. She is a good writer and an even better polemicist, with her Pulitzer essay making her sound like a black nationalist whose view of history is shaped by prejudice. 

My conversations with Hussman convince me he sincerely believes the only way for media to regain public trust is to return to the standards of impartiality the Times once represented. 

Her most outlandish claims, that America was not a democracy but a slavocracy and that the Founders declared independence to protect slavery from British abolitionists, are so preposterous that the Times later slightly softened them.

Hannah-Jones also declares that “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country,” and says her father’s patriotism, which included voluntary military service, “deeply embarrassed me.” 

She writes of the Greatest Generation that while many fought for democracy abroad, they were “brutally suppressing democracy for millions of American citizens.”

She criticizes Asian Americans, saying “they were among the groups able to immigrate to the United States because of the black civil-rights struggle,” yet “are now suing universities to end programs designed to help the descendants of the enslaved.”

At times, her arguments slip into what might be called black supremacy, including the assertion that black Americans “are this nation’s true founding fathers.”

“We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American,” she writes. “But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.”

Hussman detailed his complaints in four e-mails he sent to the dean of the J school, two top UNC officials and a member of the board of trustees, which has final say on tenure. 

He was particularly alarmed by Hannah-Jones’ claim about the centrality of slavery to the Founders, saying it’s simply not true and aligning himself with eminent historians, including James McPherson and Gordon Wood. 

Hussman also disputes what Hannah-Jones said about the quest for freedom and equality: “For the most part, black Americans fought back alone.”

Normally soft-spoken, Hussman gets excited as he objects: “What about Abraham Lincoln? What about the abolitionists? What about the Freedom Riders?” 

He is also dumbfounded that Hannah-Jones neglected to credit the reporters, editors and publishers of Southern newspapers who crusaded for civil rights, risking violence and their jobs. Some won Pulitzers for their work, yet Hannah-Jones is ignorant or dismissive of them. 

I also find it telling that Hannah-Jones never mentions that it was a white president, Lyndon Johnson, and a nearly all-white Congress that passed civil-rights legislation in the 1960s that opened voting, housing, transportation and other aspects of daily life to black Americans. 

Nor does she say anything about the major role white Jews played in founding and supporting the NAACP and other civil-rights organizations. 

In short, she sees little racial progress, yet her essay and the 1619 Project are celebrated and being taught in many schools.

Following Hussman’s e-mails, the trustees declined to approve the offer of tenure for Hannah-Jones, but agreed to a contract for five years, at $180,000 a year. Initially, she accepted, but when she learned of the trustees’ role, demanded tenure by last Friday or threatened to sue. 

The deadline passed without resolution, but pressure is building on the trustees. Naturally, media coverage reflects bias in favor of Hannah-Jones, as if a fat five-year contract to hold the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism is an insult. 

The Times used its news pages to campaign for her, with Executive Editor Dean Baquet saying, “Nikole is a remarkable investigative journalist whose work has helped change the national conversation about race.”

Baquet might have more honestly said Hannah-Jones helped him racialize the Times and turn it into a propaganda sheet for identity politics. 

UNC reports that Dr. Lisa Jones, a black chemistry professor from Maryland it had been recruiting, withdrew from consideration because of the case. 

Hannah-Jones — who tweets under the name Ida Bae Wells, a play on the name of a woman born a slave during the Civil War who became a journalist focused on lynchings — responded by saying: “the solidarity shown me by Black women in particular during this crucible is something I will never forget.”

This crucible?

Finally, my conversations with Hussman convince me he sincerely believes the only way for media to regain public trust is to return to the standards of impartiality the Times once represented. 

We became acquainted last summer when he responded to my column laying out the links the Ochs-Sulzberger family had to the Confederacy before and during the Civil War. My hope was that, because of the Confederates in its closet, the Times would drop its holier-than-thou act toward others. 

For example, the paper had casually criticized the great American presidents carved into Mount Rushmore, suggesting each was unfit. According to the Times, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt were racists and little else matters. 

Meanwhile, the same paper has said nothing about Adolph Ochs’ support for the much larger Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial in Georgia, where depictions of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis are carved into the mountain.

Although Hussman counts members of the Sulzberger family as friends, he wrote to say he liked my column and, in long e-mail exchanges, we talked about his core values and my experience growing up at the Times. 

Surprisingly, he asked if he could reprint the column in his Chattanooga newspaper because of its central role in the Ochs-Sulzberger empire, including during the Jim Crow era, when it opposed black suffrage. 

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His publication of the piece convinced me he is serious about traditional standards. 

His principled challenge to Hannah-Jones is a far greater example of his commitment. But if he loses because the leftist media and cowardly educrats succeed in turning the case into a racial cause, it will be a sure sign that even worse days are coming for American journalism.

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