Several hours later, Hannah-Jones would face an ivory-tower-shaped obstacle of her own: a closed-door vote on her status at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalismand Media. Ultimately, the board voted 9 to 4 to grant her tenure.
This should feel like a victory, right?
One reason it doesn’t — not quite — is that it was a victory in a battle that shouldn’t have needed fighting, but the school stumbled for months over what ought to have been a no-brainer. But more deeply, there’s a battle behind the battle that is yet to be resolved.
Hannah-Jones's tenure got rolled into larger debates over so-called cancel culture and so-called anti-critical-race-theory legislation. Really, though, it was a proxy for an important shift in how journalism and its institutions reckon with the long-held idea of objectivity. As more successful journalists from marginalized groups enter and change what continues to be a White, male-dominated field, our ideas about truth and objectivity need to change, too.
For too long, the tyranny of false objectivity has been employed to erase and discredit the work of journalists from marginalized communities and reinforce narratives that make White power structures more comfortable. Wells faced it more than a century ago, and we continue to face it today. Wells was reviled in the press for her work to stop the lynching of Black people. The New York Times itself waged war on her, once calling her a “slanderous, nasty-minded mulattress.” Fast forward to last year’s #BlackLivesMatter protests; Black journalists can still be punished by White institutions for expressing their views about the racism that affects their communities.
In questioning Hannah-Jones's hiring, Walter Hussman Jr., the White, conservative donor for whom UNC’s journalism school is named, said he felt that the 1619 Project, which sought to re-center American history around the institution of slavery, did not give enough credit to White people who fought for liberation. Notice how Hussman brandishes the shield of objectivity in making the case for his own perspective:
“My hope and vision,” Hussman wrote in an email to the school’s dean in December, “was that the journalism school would be the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion, and that would add so much to its reputation and would benefit both the school and the University.”
Hussman further asked whether Hannah-Jones was committed to the core values of journalism. That’s a familiar loyalty test. Non-White journalists who decide to center their own communities in their work are often accused of activism. Black journalists have long been punished for attempting to reshape the way the public looks at itself.
Hussman, by the way, is publisher of a conservative Arkansas paper that once waged war on a competing outlet with a progressive stance on civil rights. From the standpoint of ethical values, it’s hard to understand why the publisher of a paper that wrote glowingly of President Donald Trump should be considered an authority on protecting journalism. Then again, I can think of 25 million reasons — the number of dollars that Hussman pledged to the university.
Objectivity is not a neutral view from nowhere. It’s too often a view from the heights of White, male privilege.
In a statement after Wednesday’s decision, Hannah-Jones thanked students, faculty and members of the public for supporting her. She thanked the protesters who showed up to the trustees meeting only to be shoved away by police. But she also said she needed time to “process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward.”
I can’t say I blame her. How could she, or any Black thinker or academic, trust that she will be supported in such circumstances? If a famous, Pulitzer-winning Black journalist faces such an uphill battle, how much harder will it be for Black educators, journalists and writers who don’t have the same prestige and national following?
If Ida B. Wells were here today, I imagine she’d be proud of the strength and determination of Hannah-Jones and other Black academics and journalists fighting to be seen and heard. Still, she might look at the wave of racist election and education laws being passed and despair that we are still fighting the same battles she did.
One day, I hope America will reach a place where the pursuit of truth and moral clarity by journalists takes precedence over upholding an unjust, “objective” status quo. But I have to agree with Hannah-Jones: We just aren’t there yet.