If there’s one thing journalism schools should know by now, it is not to hire professors based on their DEI credibility, as such moves will likely lead to conflict. But in a world where news outlets seek to promote advocacy over objectivity, such hirings are not surprising.
UNC-Chapel Hill’s debacle with Nikole Hannah-Jones in 2021, while illustrating the point, is not nearly as absurd as the new peak of ridiculousness reached at Texas A&M University (TAMU) in August. As has been widely reported, the institution was forced to settle with former New York Times editor Kathleen McElroy for $1 million, after her hiring process became … complicated. What began as a braggable hire for the university turned into a resignation and a $1 million court settlement, leading many to wonder why American universities are more interested in head-hunting for progressive, DEI-friendly activists than in finding “normal” journalism professors who can teach students to report and write accurately and fairly.
UNC’s Nikole Hannah-Jones debacle was not nearly as absurd as the new peak of ridiculousness reached at Texas A&M.UNC’s instance of a publicly celebrated hire gone awry could be dismissed as a fluke; two instances should concern anyone interested in the state of journalism education, especially when millions of dollars are involved.
In June, TAMU announced it had hired former NYT senior editor Kathleen McElroy to run its revamped journalism program. McElroy—an outspoken proponent of diversity, equity, and inclusion practices—had previously led the journalism department at the University of Texas-Austin.
According to Texas Scorecard, McElroy was part of the Council for Racial and Ethnic Equity and Diversity at UT, a program that advocates for equity-based hiring practices, among other things.
In a 2020 column for UT’s student newspaper, The Daily Texan, McElroy argued for tracking the racial demographics of faculty members.
These examples alone would traditionally have been enough to disqualify someone from teaching journalism, because someone teaching others to be fair, balanced, and unbiased cannot effectively do so if they are publicly unbalanced and biased.
Readers may remember that PBS’s Jim Lehrer decided not to vote while he was working as the anchor of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and PBS NewsHour. Can we even imagine such self-restraint now?
We instantly associate today’s major (or recently major) broadcasters with a political bias—Anderson Cooper, Tucker Carlson, Rachel Maddow, and Sean Hannity, for example.
American TV news viewers have come to expect something different from evening news broadcasts, and that’s okay. They know there will be bias, and they accept it. But those anchors have, in a sense, earned it—we know who they work for and expect an opinion. Journalism students seeking to learn how to report and write should not expect to be inundated with DEI goals in a Reporting 101 class.
Journalism students learning to report and write should not be inundated with DEI.Regardless, McElroy’s hiring, over the course of the summer, went from an exciting announcement for TAMU to an embarrassing moment for the school’s leaders.
In July, according to news sources, the school’s faculty senate announced it planned to investigate McElroy’s hiring, during which the university had changed the terms of her employment agreement. What began as an offer that included tenure had changed to a multi-year, non-tenured position, and then to a one-year contract, according to CNN.
Shortly thereafter, university president Katherine Banks resigned. In her resignation letter, Banks wrote, “The recent challenges regarding Dr. McElroy have made it clear to me that I must retire immediately. The negative press is a distraction from the wonderful work being done here.”
McElroy decided not to accept the adjusted offer by TAMU and said she would remain at UT-Austin. Then, less than a month later, TAMU announced it had reached a settlement with McElroy about the hiring fiasco—with the hefty price tag of $1 million.
UNC’s settlement with Nikole Hannah-Jones, by contrast, was less than $75,000, according to news sources. UNC seems to have gotten out of its own debacle relatively easily. Let’s hope the exponential increase between these two price tags doesn’t continue, though it is concerning to note that Hannah-Jones’s placement after the UNC situation was as the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University. Clearly, the desire to emphasize race over journalism is still rampant among American universities. There are now chairmanships to support such an emphasis.
But, as we know, this issue goes beyond the classroom.
Early this year, the Washington Post published an opinion piece by Leonard Downie Jr., a professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, which summarized a study he conducted at the university called “Beyond Objectivity.”
In the op-ed, Downie writes, “What we found has convinced us that truth-seeking news media must move beyond whatever ‘objectivity’ once meant to produce more trustworthy news.”
The desire to emphasize race over journalism is still rampant in universities.He and co-researcher Andrew Heyward interviewed more than 75 news executives and journalists in print, broadcast, and digital media, and while many of the statements made by the interviewees are shocking, many did express nuanced views on the inability of human beings to be completely objective—a perspective that journalists and journalism professors have mostly agreed on for some time. Nevertheless, some of the interviewees take it a step further and argue for ceasing a pursuit of objectivity, full stop.
One Washington Post veteran said that young reporters think the paper “should not be reflecting both sides, but what they see as reality,” Downie said.
Similarly, New York Times executive editor Joseph Kahn told the report’s authors that the paper has begun using words like “lies” and “racism” as factual terms:
I don’t want to throw labels like racist or lying around willy-nilly, the evidence should be high. But I think it’s true that, when the evidence is there, we should not default to some mealy-mouthed, so-called neutral language that some people see this as a falsehood, while others do not. When the evidence is there, we should be clear and direct with our audience that we don’t think there are multiple sides to this question, this is a falsehood.
The fact that Kahn believes—and states publicly—that there are cases when it is not “worth it” or “right” to present both sides of an issue, and that the newspaper determines when those cases arise, is shocking. We’ve all seen this in action—the NYT and other such media outlets often lay out a series of claims as verified fact even if they aren’t, but Kahn’s arrogance about the paper deciding when there are and aren’t multiple sides to a question is something else.
In my (brief) days as a crime reporter at a mid-sized newspaper, I learned that there truly are two sides to every story—even if both sides are stated under oath in a courtroom. If the defendant is proven guilty, should we ignore their statements on the stand? Do they lose their right to speak? If Kahn has his way, anyone’s opinion who doesn’t fit the narrative the media deems “the factual one” won’t see the light of day.
If those already in the industry expect and advocate for eliminating objectivity, should we be surprised that universities teaching “journalism” will soon follow suit?
If the industry demands reporters who are motivated by prejudices and work from a place of activism, it is not surprising that major universities, which are already beholden to the woke agenda, will do just that—even if it costs them millions of dollars to try.
Maria Servold is the assistant director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, of which she is also an alumna. She writes on freedom of speech and education and also works as a freelance copy editor. She is married to Ryan, has three young daughters, and is expecting a son in December.