The Bizarre Martyrdom of Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones interviewed on CBS This Morning, July 17, 2021. (CBS This Morning/via YouTube)

The creator of the 1619 Project is hardly the model journalist, despite her celebrity and prizes.

One of the summer’s less predictable media firestorms has been the angst-ridden watch party concerning whether celebrity journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones would receive tenure along with a prestigious chair in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s journalism school. The intensive, fawning coverage grew even more fervent after the University of North Carolina board of trustees ultimately offered lifetime employment to the ideological firebrand, only to have her pivot and announce she would instead join Howard University in a similar position.

Major media and academic influencers alike have hailed Hannah-Jones as a conquering hero for this decision, portraying her as a martyr who one-upped the ranks of racists intent on silencing the Pulitzer Prize–winning, MacArthur “genius” grant–winning New York Times reporter. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s postmortem gushed that Hannah-Jones hadn’t “idly wait[ed] to see if a group of mostly white men would, at long last, tell her she was good enough.” NPR explained that “her decision ignited a conversation on the opportunity for Black academics to flip the script on taking their talents to predominantly white universities.” And dozens of UNC staff members signed a statement claiming that “the appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most-decorated journalists by her own alma mater was humiliating, inappropriate, and unjust. We will be frank: It was racist.”

What the “Hannah-Jones is a martyr” narrative conveniently squeezed out, of course, was the raft of legitimate questions about suitability, character, and professional performance that appropriately apply to any individual — especially a non-scholar — being hired as a professor at a public university. The real question should not be why the UNC trustees had reservations about granting Hannah-Jones tenure, but why so many in media and academe chose to treat any criticism of Hannah-Jones as illegitimate and, well, racist.

After all, Hannah-Jones is hardly the model journalist, despite her celebrity and various prizes. For instance, take her work on the New York Times’ 1619 Project. While she won a Pulitzer Prize for penning the project’s lead essay, the prize was controversially awarded, given the many prominent historians who fiercely critiqued its deeply flawed history. Indeed, when called out on the historical inaccuracies, in a gross display of journalistic impropriety, Hannah-Jones and the New York Times stealthily edited away a series of claims in her introductory essay, initially without acknowledgment or explanation. And Hannah-Jones herself has conceded her work’s raw ideological bent, acknowledging that “the 1619 Project explicitly denies objectivity.”

The issues with Hannah-Jones’s professional track record don’t stop with the 1619 Project. For example, Hannah-Jones violated both Twitter’s and the New York Times’ codes of conduct when she posted the private phone number of a young Washington Free Beacon reporter on Twitter and mocked him for having the temerity to reach out to her, then scrubbed her entire Twitter history and denied she had any knowledge she had posted the number (despite clear evidence to the contrary).

In short, it is not hard to marshal a list of legitimate reasons why a public university might hesitate to hire Hannah-Jones as a professor of journalism, much less grant her a lifetime sinecure before she ever set foot on campus.

Rather than sort through these complex questions of celebrity and suitability, however, the media narrative has downplayed or elided the substantive concerns. In a typical example of flagrantly misleading coverage, one Inside Higher Ed “explanation” piece for why Hannah-Jones’s desire for tenure might face opposition was that “some critics say ‘1619’ is unpatriotic and too focused on racism” — flatly ignoring the concerns about its historical inaccuracy and politicized cast. When Walter E. Hussman Jr., the Arkansas newspaper publisher for whom the UNC journalism school is named, shared concerns with the school about Hannah-Jones’s professional qualifications, media accounts chose to portray his reservations as evidence of some malicious conspiracy rather than soberly consider their validity.

To understand how hard it is to justify omitting her record from the popular narrative, one only need imagine if Hannah-Jones were a conservative academic rather than a woke celebrity journalist. Credible accusations of shoddy work, professional misconduct, and personal attacks would be deemed as self-evidently relevant — and likely disqualifying — for a prestigious academic post. Indeed, one need not work hard to imagine such a scenario. Consider the case of Marc Short, who was subjected to ferocious assault, with two faculty members resigning in protest, when he was offered a short-term, one-year position as a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. This occurred despite the fact that Short had not engaged in any professional misconduct — his only sin was being a former Trump administration staffer. No major media or academic voices rose to suggest he was being treated unfairly.

Amid the media anguish about whether a woke non-academic was feted with sufficient scholarly blandishments, the continued evaporation of right-of-center scholars from an inhospitable workplace is mostly ignored. In 1989, liberal faculty outnumbered conservative faculty by two to one. By 2014, that figure was five to one. In the social sciences and the humanities, self-identified conservatives make up 10 percent or less of the faculty. Yet, while the Hannah-Jones affair has prompted more than 30 stories in the pages of Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education since May alone (almost all sympathetic), the ways — both large and small — in which trained right-leaning scholars are squeezed out of the academy go unremarked.

Look, academe has always had a soft spot for politically correct celebrity hires. In that sense, Hannah-Jones is just part of a long tradition. The greater mystery is how she managed to get so many to overlook her legacy of misconduct enough not only to care that the plum job she was offered wasn’t necessarily a job-for-life, but to view her as a martyr. The answer, we suspect, says a lot about the implicit biases that permeate the academy and major media and just may help explain why half the country is increasingly skeptical of the nation’s colleges and universities.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Tracey Schirra is a research associate at AEI.

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