The top donor to the University of North Carolina’s journalism school reportedly lobbied against its hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, arguing that her prolific “1619 Project” didn’t give enough credit to white people and was not what he considered objective journalism.
Walter Hussman ― an alumnus whose $25 million donation to the school resulted in his name on the institution ― reached out to at least one Board of Trustees member, senior administrative officials and at least one other donor about his concerns with UNC hiring Hannah-Jones, according to obtained emails and reporting by North Carolina digital magazine The Assembly.
“I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” Hussman, who is white, allegedly wrote in a December email to the school dean, Susan King. “I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer prize winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones.”
“These historians appear to me to be pushing to find the true historical facts. Based on her own words, many will conclude she is trying to push an agenda, and they will assume she is manipulating historical facts to support it. If asked about it, I will have to be honest in saying I agree with the historians.”
Hannah-Jones, who is Black, created the award-winning “1619 Project” with The New York Times Magazine to shine a light on revisionist history, and examine how anti-Black racism and the legacy of slavery have played a significant role throughout U.S. history. The project uses essays, video and photography to look at how racism has been part of American culture since the first enslaved Africans were brought ashore in 1619.
Hannah-Jones’ work has indeed resulted in conservatives and some historians criticizing the content and teaching of the project, specifically her introduction essay. But many historians, journalists, teachers and civil rights advocates support it, with Hannah-Jones getting inducted as a fellow at the Society of American Historians.
Hussman, a businessman and the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, told The Assembly he would not address his communication with university officials about Hannah-Jones because he considers himself a working journalist (however he did confirm the substance of his emails to the publication).
The donor has gone to great lengths to create a public image of someone concerned with journalistic objectivity and neutrality; however, the emails obtained by The Assembly paint a picture of behind-the-scenes interference and advocacy. Hussman also did not help his image of objectivity when he appeared on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show in 2019 to talk about objectivity, nodding along as Carlson said, “A clear line between news and opinion … I think we have that here.”
In a September email obtained by The Assembly, Hussman objected to a section of Hannah-Jones’ 1619 essay about the country’s post-World War II civil rights fight, in which she wrote, “For the most part, Black Americans fought back alone.”
“I think this claim denigrates the courageous efforts of many white Americans to address the sin of slavery and the racial injustices that resulted after the Civil War,” Hussman reportedly said in the email, listing white people who fought for racial equality like some Freedom Riders and journalists across the South.
“Long before Nikole Hannah-Jones won her Pulitzer Prize, courageous white southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer prizes, too,” he continued, according to The Assembly.
Hannah-Jones has not released a formal response to The Assembly’s reporting, but she tweeted the “great, if disappointing” article on Sunday while expressing shock at Hussman’s Pulitzer comment. The journalist also said that while irrelevant to her credentials, “I’ve long credited Black and white race beat reporters with inspiring my own journalism,” pointing to her website that has included specific names “for years.”
Neither the university’s journalism school nor the dean immediately responded to HuffPost’s request for comment. King advocated for UNC to give Hannah-Jones tenure, releasing a statement on Wednesday saying that she is a “once-in-a-lifetime journalist whose investigative methods and reporting define a career and a time.”
In April, UNC announced that Hannah-Jones would join the journalism school in July as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a position the Knight Foundation’s journalism director said is held by “highly-respected news leaders who bring insights about journalism” and whose work “contributes to keeping communities informed and democracy robust.” Hannah-Jones received her master’s in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2003 before covering school equity for The News & Observer, civil rights for ProPublica and racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine in 2015.
Hannah-Jones applied for tenure, which would give her permanent employment at the university. Faculty and the tenure board thoroughly reviewed her application and recommended tenure, however the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees denied it, as first reported by NC Policy Watch. It was the first time the board at UNC’s flagship campus did not immediately offer tenure to a Knight chair.
Last week, more than 250 public figures and prominent advocates signed a letter in support of Hannah-Jones, accusing UNC of falling to pressure from conservatives opposed to her project. In addition to that letter, 40 members of the Hussman School’s faculty and more than 50 from UNC’s other schools released a statement calling the board’s decision “concerning” and “disheartening.”
On Friday, Hannah-Jones said she was considering legal action against the university, and set a June 4 deadline for a renewed tenure offer to avoid litigation. The journalist said she had no desire “to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university,” but was obligated to fight back.
“As a Black woman who has built a nearly two-decades long career in journalism, I believe Americans who research, study, and publish works that expose uncomfortable truths about the past and present manifestations of racism in our society should be able to follow these pursuits without risk to their civil and constitutional rights,” she wrote in her statement.