Walter Hussman told The Daily Tar Heel on Friday that he was concerned about Nikole Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project overshadowing his core values, which are written on the wall of the journalism school named after him.
In September, the UNC megadonor and newspaper publisher expressed concerns about Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hannah-Jones’ hiring and tenure offer through emails to UNC Hussman Dean Susan King, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Vice Chancellor for University Development David Routh and one member of the UNC Board of Trustees.
Hussman said he was concerned about Hannah-Jones’ “celebrity” status and that the school would become more closely identified with the 1619 Project than with his own core values of journalism.
The 1619 Project is an initiative from The New York Times Magazine that aims to reframe U.S. history to be centered around the contributions of Black Americans and the consequences of slavery. The project was developed by Hannah-Jones.
“I really was hoping that the core values was going to be the one thing that really distinguished the school in the minds of the public,” Hussman said. “And I think that could be a bit overshadowed.”
Hussman’s core values, which are printed on the second page of his 10 newspapers, are written on a wall in the lobby of Carroll Hall, the home of UNC's journalism school. The core values are objectivity, impartiality, integrity and truth-seeking.
Hussman donated $25 million to the journalism school in 2019. He said King had initially approached him asking for a large donation in exchange for naming the school after him and his family.
“I said, ‘Look, you know, if we do this big of a donation, we’d like the school to adopt these core values,’” he said.
Hussman said he felt the core values would help restore the public’s trust in the media, and that the school supported the values.
Ryan Thornburg, a professor in the school, wrote a Twitter thread about Hussman’s core values.
"We — the ~50 faculty, the 1K+ current students, the 17K+ alumni — did not 'adopt' his core values when we accepted his beyond-generous donation to support PR, advertising, design ... & many flavors of journalism at the School," he wrote.
Objectivity as a journalist
Hussman said he believes the role of objectivity in journalism is to protect the credibility of a news organization and to gain respect from readers, rather than telling them what to believe.
“I don't think the public wants journalists to tell them what they should think about," he said. "I think they want to get the facts and make that determination themselves.”
Hussman said he didn’t want to speak on Hannah-Jones’ objectivity as a journalist. However, he said he sees her as an advocate.
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with advocacy in journalism," he said. "I just believe that belongs in the opinion pages, not the news pages."
The DTH reached out to Hannah-Jones, whose assistant said she had no comment at this time.
Hussman said he believes journalists have a right to share their opinions privately with people like friends and spouses, but they shouldn’t take public positions on controversial issues.
“I think impartiality means you're pursuing truth," he said. "So I don't think those two are in conflict at all.”
Hussman said the problem comes when a journalist thinks they are smarter than their readers and that they know what the absolute truth is. When a journalist is sure they know the whole story, he said, they often miss what is really going on.
Daniel Kreiss, a professor in the journalism school who teaches political communication, said he thinks credibility is enhanced when journalists own their politics and values while still producing work that is informed by defensible evidence.
“Just because you perform that you have no politics doesn’t mean that you actually have no politics,” he said.
Journalism professor Erin Siegal McIntyre said that with the serious issues of racism, employment discrimination and academic freedom in play, there is a need for full and transparent reporting on what happened, both for the UNC community and the nation.
“Ms. Hannah-Jones is not a local journalist,” she said. “This is now an issue with international prominence, apparently in part thanks to Mr. Hussman sharing his opinion.”
“Not the proper role for a donor”
Hussman sent his emails about Hannah-Jones’ hiring in September, but parts of them were first published on May 30 by The Assembly, a North Carolina digital magazine.
Hussman said it was suggested to him that he should share his emails with the rest of the Board, but he said he didn’t know anyone else on the Board.
“And I thought, well, that wouldn't be the right thing to do either, it looks like I'm lobbying the Board to not hire Nikole Hannah-Jones,” Hussman said. “And that's really not the proper role for a donor.”
Hussman said that in his emails, he wasn’t voicing his concerns as a donor.
“I was really expressing my opinion as someone that was concerned about the journalism school and what’s really best for the journalism school,” he said.
When he first read the 1619 Project, Hussman said, some parts troubled him. He said he specifically took issue with the claim that the American Revolution was fought to protect slavery.
“I abhor slavery, I think it was horrible,” Hussman said. “But slavery got to be a big problem after the founding. And we did have some slavery then. But it became pretty clear to me that the Founding Fathers thought slavery was bad and they wanted to get rid of it.”
Hussman then referenced a speech Abraham Lincoln gave in 1856. According to the Abbeville Institute, Lincoln said in the speech that the Continental Congress met in 1774 and passed a resolution to abolish the slave trade.
But the importation of slaves was not outlawed until 1808.
According to the 1619 Project, there were calls to abolish the slave trade in London by 1776, which would have upended the economy of the colonies. Much of Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers’ confidence for the colonies to break away from England came from the profits of slavery.
“In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue,” the project stated. “It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.”
Hussman said he thinks it is fine to question accepted history and that the United States needs to reckon with its past in order to move forward.
“But I think it has to be done in an honest and fair way,” he said. “And not just embellish things to try to make your story sound better.”
But when Hussman voiced his concerns, he said, he never asked for anyone to agree with him.
By contrast, he said, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a health philanthropy, asked specifically for the Board of Trustees to respond to CEO Richard Besser’s call to tenure Hannah-Jones. He said he believes the foundation leveraged the millions it has given to UNC. The foundation has given more than $131 million in grants to the University since 1972, according to foundation records.
According to reporting by The Assembly, King said she feared Hussman was trying to influence Hannah-Jones’ hiring.
“I was clear with Walter throughout the process about my worries and that his involvement might be seen as trying to influence the board, the last stop on the tenure process,” King wrote in a statement, according to The Assembly.
King declined to be interviewed by the DTH until the Board takes action.
Deb Aikat, a professor in the journalism and media school, said the role of a donor is twofold: they support the institution and its plans, and their name becomes associated with the school.
“In many ways, the donor’s role could be that they are investing in what we do in our school,” Aikat said. “And so I think we would leave it at that, because I can tell you what is not a role of a donor, which is to exert any influence in the day-to-day decisions of our school.”
But Aikat said the issue at hand is bigger than just Hussman’s role in UNC’s journalism school — instead, it is about the very heart of journalism.
“Mr. Hussman is not only just a donor who has given us money, he is not only just somebody whose name is associated with our school, he is an alumni of our school, he is a prominent journalism figure in our field, and so the root of this issue is very complex,” Aikat said.
Aikat said he thinks Hussman is concerned about the future of journalism and that his traditional philosophy — to be objective and balanced when reporting and to reflect both sides — is in stark contrast with Hannah-Jones’ philosophy. Hannah-Jones, he said, posits that reporters can’t afford to show both sides equally in every situation.
Aikat also said he doesn’t think Hussman had reservations because of his money, but rather that he was concerned about the future of his alma mater if the school were to hire a faculty member with a different view of journalism than his own.
“Anybody who is a passionate supporter of our school as alumni would have an opinion,” Aikat said.
“A very fraught moment for the University”
Kreiss said he was stunned to learn that Hussman sought influence over the hiring process in a way he thought signaled that Hussman’s donations could be at stake. He said Hussman made the situation worse by doubling down on his criticisms of Hannah-Jones and not apologizing for his backroom dealings.
“I think (Hussman) has not thoroughly engaged with Nikole Hannah-Jones’ work, and has provided mischaracterizations of it publicly,” Kreiss said. “And frankly, I don't think that’s in accord with Hussman’s own values — they’re on our wall.”
Kreiss said Hussman, in an interview, mischaracterized an essay by Hannah-Jones. Hussman asked, in response to the essay, if Hannah-Jones was a Black separatist, when the essay was referring to state-enforced segregation.
Kreiss said he feels Hannah-Jones’ work is a great example of the pursuit of truth that Hussman calls for in his core values. He said Hannah-Jones is presenting a dynamic, evidence-based counterargument to the static version of American history traditionally taught in schools.
A Slate article that Kreiss co-wrote with Alice Marwick, a professor of communication at UNC, said Hannah-Jones’ non-tenure was part of a larger disinformation campaign aimed to undermine any work designed to cast light on present-day racial inequality and the ways that it was influenced by American history.
“There’s a set of patterns that exists behind campaigns to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, to criticize and critique her work, to the banning of things like critical race theory in K-12 education across the country right now,” Kreiss said. “And those things are misrepresenting both what’s in Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project and also what critical race theory actually says.”
As the situation surrounding Hannah-Jones' tenure offer has gained national media attention, Kreiss said he hopes people will treat this as the crisis that it is.
“This is a very fraught moment for the University,” Kreiss said. “This denial of tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones is almost unprecedented and poses a serious risk to the University.”
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