Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Black New York Times writer who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for an essay on America’s founding that several prominent historians say was fundamentally flawed, has been upgraded to martyrdom status for thumbing her nose at the University of North Carolina’s journalism school. Hannah-Jones said that UNC’s failure to offer her a tenured position from the get-go violated her First Amendment rights and discriminated against her as a Black woman. Given that view, it’s understandable that Hannah-Jones would possibly be more comfortable teaching at Howard University, a historically Black college.
Reading the fawning coverage Hannah-Jones garnered for her decision, journalists seem to have avoided asking a significant question: How much did Howard University offer her to come aboard? It’s a legitimate inquiry, particularly as Hannah-Jones has called on UNC to “provide transparency around the tenure debacle that led us here.”
If Hannah-Jones’ teaching position at Howard pays less than the $180,000 a year salary she was offered from UNC, accepting a pay cut would underscore her altruism fighting what she insists is a lifelong battle combating racism. Accepting comparable pay would indicate less sacrifice, at least on a financial level. But if Howard swooped in at the 11th hour and made Hannah-Jones a financial offer she couldn’t refuse and she then played the racist card as her reason for rejecting UNC’s offer, that’s an entirely different story.
Hannah-Jones was already slated to begin teaching at UNC when she announced in a CBS television interview last Tuesday that she accepted an offer from Howard University to establish the Center for Journalism and Democracy to increase diversity in journalism. The program is backed by $20 million in donations, from the MacArthur, Knight, and Ford foundation, and an anonymous donor. These donations also were announced on Tuesday.
Typically, donations in the millions are done after considerable study and oversight, so maybe the charitable largesse was in the works for quite some time. It was known for weeks that UNC had made Hannah-Jones a lucrative offer, and she never publicly mentioned that she had a competing offer from Howard University.
Twenty million dollars is a nice chunk of change, so Howard has a formidable budget to attract talent and outbid universities with bigger endowments. Perhaps Hannah-Jones will have greater responsibilities at Howard than the teaching gig UNC offered. Who can fault her for taking a more prestigious job paying a bigger salary? But citing racism as the reason for reneging on a job offer she accepted when she possibly just got a better deal isn’t so honorable, particularly given the reputation harm its caused UNC, where Hannah-Jones once attended.
“It’s pretty clear that my tenure was not taken up because of political opposition because of discriminatory views against my viewpoint and, I believe, my race and gender,” Hannah-Jones said. More than 50 UNC faculty members endorsed her claim. “We will be frank: It was racist,” they said in a signed statement.
What’s troubling about the Hannah-Jones’ media coverage are some inconvenient truths about the journalism she practices and the Pulitzer Prize she was awarded – details the corporate media glosses over or doesn’t mention altogether.
Hannah-Jones wrote a much-maligned essay for the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which originally argued that 1619 was America’s true founding because that’s when the first slaves were brought to America. After leading historians derided the commentary as being inaccurate and flawed, the Times quietly removed the 1619 “true founding” claim and made other revisions. Hannah-Jones subsequently denied ever claiming that 1619 was America’s true founding, despite a since deleted tweet making clear she did.
Hannah-Jones is part of a new breed of journalists who alter or correct electronically published stories and then deny the errors were ever made. And she labels anyone who dares to question her as racist, an accusation intended to stifle discussion or debate. Being labeled a racist by Hannah-Jones in today’s climate de facto means you are one.
Hannah-Jones is represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which bills itself as “America’s premier legal organization fighting for racial justice.” Looking at Hannah-Jones’ background it’s hard to see she’s been the victim of systemic racism. While her parents were of modest means, Hannah-Jones attended UNC, was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and her power at the New York Times is such the publication’s editor bends to her will. As The Federalist recently noted, the loudest voices shouting “racism” are invariably the most well-paid Black Americans.
Hannah-Jones strikes me as very mean spirited, which is why she is so feared. She played a significant role forcing out Donald McNeil, a highly respected New York Times science writer with more than four decades of experience, on racist allegations the publication’s Black editor initially said were unfounded but backed down after Hannah-Jones declared she would conduct an “investigation.” Hannah-Jones also tweeted the number of a journalist who asked her about her public use of the N-word multiple times. The Times said the so-called doxing was “inadvertent.” How does one accidentally post a person’s telephone number?
It’s unfortunate the role models budding journalists have these days. When my generation went into the business, we had reporters like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who distinguished themselves for holding a president accountable, Seymour Hersh, who exposed the My Lai massacre, and Walter Cronkite, who enjoyed a level of public trust and respect no journalist today even remotely commands.
Journalism is no longer about the pursuit of truth, but rather building, leveraging, and monetizing a personal brand. If a Pulitzer Prize was awarded for personal brand management, no journalist would be more deserving than Nikole Hannah-Jones. Howard University students are fortunate for the opportunity to learn from the very best modern journalism has to offer.