School of Journalism—or Ministry of Propaganda?

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media recently announced a heralded addition to their faculty. Nikole Hannah-Jones has agreed to accept a Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism in July.

According to a press release issued by the school, Hannah-Jones is a “Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” recipient who covers civil rights and racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and was just elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.”

And that just begins her list of “achievements.” The press release continues:

Among her national honors are the National Association of Black Journalists’ Journalist of the Year award in 2015; Peabody and Polk Awards for radio reporting in 2016; the Hillman Prize for magazine reporting and the National Magazine Award in 2017 and again in 2020…The Society of American Historians welcomed the esteemed journalist as a Fellow in 2020. She was inducted to the NC Media & Journalism Hall of Fame April 9, 2021.

Great Mencken’s Ghost! Has there ever been a pundit so supremely qualified to teach journalism as Hannah-Jones? Such an acclaimed hiring can mean a lot to a university department or school. Its national reputation may rise—possibly influencing its national ranking. And her position is fully funded by the Knight Foundation—with the possibility that her presence will attract other donations in the future.

Ford Worthy, the chairman of the school’s foundation board, said that “a MacArthur Genius with a Pulitzer Prize who will share her perspective and skills with our students is exactly the kind of journalistic leader we believe will build the school for tomorrow.”

But there is another perspective, one that almost seems to belong to another world than the one where academia resides. From this perspective, UNC’s hiring Hannah-Jones signals a degradation of journalistic standards, from one in which ethics and truth are prized to one in which a writer’s work is judged according to whether it serves a preferred political agenda.

For she has been exposed as somebody whose work is less journalism than an outpouring of emotions. The crown jewel of her career—leading a rewriting of the nation’s history called “The 1619 Project”—has been attacked and ridiculed by historians of all stripes and persuasions as unfactual and biased.

For instance, she claimed that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” as British anti-slavery sentiment grew. There is almost no hint of that in factual history. Certainly some Southern founding fathers wished to preserve slavery—that’s how we got the Three-fifths Compromise—but that came later, after we were already a free nation, during the discussion about the details of the new Constitution.

Many celebrated experts chimed in against Hannah-Jones’s take on our Founding. Historian Sean Wilentz was quoted in an article written by Adam Serwer of The Atlantic as saying:

To teach children that the American Revolution was fought in part to secure slavery would be giving a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the American Revolution was all about but what America stood for and has stood for since the Founding.

Serwer added that “the Revolution was kindled in New England, where prewar anti-slavery sentiment was strongest.”

Valuable knowledge has been replaced with ignorance and superficiality for UNC’s J-school graduates.

James McPherson, a former professor of history at Princeton University who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Battle Cry of Freedom and is a past president of the American Historical Association, said in a World Socialist Web Site interview that “Almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective.” And Gordon Wood, an emeritus history professor at Brown University, said in an interview with Real Clear Media that the Project’s only classroom utility is “as a way of showing how history can be distorted and perverted.”

The real goal of The 1619 Project was not historical or journalistic, but political agitation. And an angry, underhanded politics at that; Hannah-Jones admitted that her underlying intent is to get “white people to give up whiteness.” That is, to make them regard their identities as something abhorrent. As Arthur Milikh of the Heritage Foundation wrote:

The overriding lesson is clear: young people must learn to despise their nation—its Constitution, ideals, economic system, and its Founders.

Indeed, young people—the white ones, at least—are even taught to hate themselves for the unforgivable sins of their ancestors. The 1619 Project, if adopted as a teaching tool (as it has been in many schools), will serve no other purpose than to undermine our national cohesion and turn young people against themselves and each other.

Yet, despite its falsehoods and vicious anti-American stance, Hannah-Jones won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for The 1619 Project. And what of the rest of her accolades? They were based on the same shoddy research, the same bitterness toward America, and the same biased assumptions that characterize the Project.

There are indeed two differing worlds in American intellectual life today: one a world built upon impressions, reputation, and political expedience, and the other a world that rewards truth-seeking and integrity.

In the world of impressions, Hannah-Jones is one of America’s pre-eminent public intellectuals, and UNC-Chapel Hill has acquired one of journalism’s leading lights. Students (and their parents) looking for a top-notch journalism program may be impressed by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School, with its award-winning new professor.

But from the other perspective, the world of seeking truth and behaving with integrity, Hannah-Jones has been thoroughly discredited and all of her awards and achievements are mere illusion. Her hiring should be a signal to students seriously interested in journalism and their parents to cross Chapel Hill off their list.

It is not the only disturbing move made by the Hussman School in recent years.

In 2015, it drastically lowered its standards by ending requirements for:

  • ECON 101, which introduces students to the basic concepts of both micro- and macro-economics
  • HIST 128, which surveys U.S. history from 1865 to the present,
  • POLI 100 (now 200), which introduces students to the U.S. federal government, and
  • POLI 101 (now 205), which does the same for the state and local levels of government

The school said at the time the requirements were changed that university-wide general education requirements sufficed to give the sufficient background knowledge an aspiring journalism student would need. That claim did not hold up upon closer inspection, as general education requirements are so broad and vague as to be meaningless. Students in 2015 could replace ECON 101, for instance, with a vast array of social science courses, including such non-essential pablum as:

  • African, African American and Diaspora 50: Defining Blackness
  • Anthropology 51: Environmentalism and American Society
  • Communications 53: First-Year Seminar: Collective Leadership Models for Community Change
  • Religion 246: Supernatural Encounters: Zombies, Vampires, Demons, and the Occult in the Americas
  • Sociology 51: Emotion and Social Life

The history and political science courses could be replaced in the same fashion. As a result, valuable knowledge has been replaced with ignorance and superficiality for UNC’s J-school graduates. And now, Hannah-Jones brings to the Hussman School an ugly strain of bias and deceit—upheld as “genius.”

None of these facts matter in the world of reputation. Academia is part of a powerful coalition with Democratic socialists, the media, and “woke” crony capitalists; the coalition has been in the ascendance for several decades, and it may be that it can continue this intellectual charade indefinitely.

But let us hope that the world of facts and integrity somehow wins out, and schools of journalism that encourage superficiality, ignorance, hatred, and bias collapse through exposure of their lack of rigor and ethics. And that more grounded journalism schools restore truth-seeking as the purpose of journalism.

Editor’s note: This article was published before it came to light that the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees did not act to review tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones in January 2021. This article was written based on information that was publicly available at the time of publication. 

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misspelled Ford Worthy’s name. The Martin Center regrets the error.

Jay Schalin is director of policy analysis at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.