- Publisher Walter Hussman felt that hiring Hannah-Jones would tie UNC too closely with the 1619 Project.
- Hussman said Hannah-Jones didn’t recognize the “efforts” of white Americans during the Civil Rights Movement.
- Hannah-Jones is weighing legal action against the university after a tenure dispute.
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Walter Hussman, the newspaper publisher whose name adorns the University of North Carolina’s journalism school, warned the university against hiring New York Times magazine journalist and 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, according to emails obtained by the digital magazine The Assembly.
Hussman, an alumnus whose $25 million donation to the school in 2019 led to his name being affixed to the institution, felt that Hannah-Jones didn’t give enough credit to white Americans who fought for civil rights and questioned whether her hiring would attract unwanted attention to the journalism school.
The 1619 Project, which was published by The New York Times Magazine in 2019, examines the legacy of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans throughout the nation’s history, drawing the ire of conservatives who have disputed its historical accuracy and are seeking to ban the project from schools across the country.
Hannah-Jones received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for the project in 2020.
“I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” Hussman wrote in a December email to Susan King, the dean of the journalism school. “I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer prize winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones.”
He added: “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.”
Hussman, the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, told The Assembly he wouldn’t discuss in detail his communication about Hannah-Jones as he is a working journalist, but he confirmed the content of the emails.
He has long described an adherence to journalistic “core values” that shape the mission of the publications that he owns. The hallmark values include objectivity, impartiality, integrity, and truth-seeking.
However, additional emails obtained by The Assembly displayed Hussman’s sharp opinions about Hannah-Jones’s work.
In a September email, Hussman rejected part of her opening essay, where she described the fight for civil rights after World War II, writing that Black Americans largely “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,” he reportedly wrote in the email.
Hussman then mentioned that Freedom Riders and many white Southern journalists stood alongside Black Americans during the turbulent civil rights battles of the 1960s.
“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 wrote, per the emails obtained by The Assembly.
On Sunday, Hannah-Jones tweeted out the article published by The Assembly, calling it “great, if disappointing reporting,” while responding to one of the comments that Hussman reportedly made to UNC.
“Completely irrelevant to my credentials as a journalist, for the record, I’ve long credited Black and white race beat reporters with inspiring my own journalism,” she wrote. “This has been on the bio page of my web site for years.”
-Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) May 30, 2021
In April, Hannah-Jones was offered a position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC.
However, after Hannah-Jones went through an extensive tenure process with the backing of faculty and the tenure committee, her application hit a roadblock with the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.
The board of trustees is tasked with reviewing and approving tenure applications, and it declined to move forward with authorizing tenure for Hannah-Jones, who earned a master’s degree in journalism and mass communications from the university, as first reported by NC Policy Watch earlier this month.
On Friday, Hannah-Jones said that she was considering legal action against UNC, expressing that she had “no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university” but felt “obligated to fight back against a wave of anti-democratic suppression.”
“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 said in a statement.