A White Donor's Campaign Against a Black Journalist

The irony hits you like a punchline, but it’s not funny.

Walter Hussman Jr., generally thoughtful and shrewd, is taking a public blistering over emails he thought were private. The man behind the headlines is suddenly and uncomfortably in them.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher should have known emails to University of North Carolina officials would be subject to disclosure laws; his own reporters do similar reporting. Still, he wrote a series of messages discouraging his alma mater from hiring a Black journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones. The emails from last summer were obtained and first reported by John Drescher of The Assembly, an online magazine in North Carolina.

Hannah-Jones and The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for the 1619 Project, but the series marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slaves to these shores also drew objections from conservatives and some historians for its depiction of an American history ingrained with the myth of white supremacy.

The school Hussman asked to shun Hannah-Jones is the Hussman School of Journalism & Media, so named after the Hussmans donated $25 million in 2019.

The school eventually offered Hannah-Jones a five-year professorship, but the UNC board — including one member Hussman was lobbying — denied her tenure. That decision was still contested last week.

Hussman wrote that he mistrusted Hannah-Jones’ commitment to his core values of journalism, now inscribed on the school’s walls: impartiality, integrity, objectivity and truth-seeking.

He feared the hiring would spur a “possible and needless controversy.” But it was Hussman himself who stoked controversy by contrasting his ideas of impartiality with the optics of a wealthy white man trying to block a Black job seeker. He told The Assembly he would not have sent the emails if he’d thought they might surface. (Three-way disclosure: I worked for Hussman for eight years in Little Rock starting in the 1980s; Hannah-Jones and I worked together for most of 2015 in New York. Drescher, of The Assembly, was a colleague on the Charlotte Observer in the late 1990s.)

More than a dozen conservative-led states, including Arkansas, have moved to bar schools from teaching the 1619 Project or critical race theory, the idea that racism is a social construct embedded in our justice and economic systems.

Hussman sincerely believes in a “just the facts, ma’am” version of reporting, I think. And his papers fight the good fight with relatively robust commitments to local, national and world news. Columnists like Rex Nelson write as they see fit, often speaking truth to power. Reporters break important news, holding people and institutions to account.

But the publisher’s blind spot is huge. What he sees as telling both sides often gives undue prominence to bigots and politicians who pander to them. If Trump’s big lie that he won the election taught us anything, it’s that you can’t give equal time to truth and falsehood.

Hussman was annoyed by Hannah-Jones’ assertion that “for the most part” Black Americans fought back alone in the postwar civil rights movement. And indeed, exemplary white journalists like Harry Ashmore and Jerry Dhonau of the Arkansas Gazette were there in the struggle. But Hussman should have known better than to suggest that the movement’s white allies get too little credit. The ridicule was inevitable.

Campus reaction was swift as well, with more than 40 journalism faculty members signing a letter accusing UNC of unfairly moving the goalposts.

On social media, ex-employees showed no quarter, including Douglas Blackmon, who wrote for the Arkansas Democrat out of Hendrix College before moving on to the Wall Street Journal and a Pulitzer of his own as author of “Slavery by Another Name” in 2009. Hussman “is absolutely NOT an ardent believer in strict reporter objectivity,” Blackmon wrote on Twitter. “He’s a founding father of the fake news era and destroyed one of the South’s most heroic newspapers.”

That was a reference to the Gazette, which was closed after Hussman bought all its assets from Gannett in 1991.

Meghan Mangrum of The Tennessean, a veteran of Hussman’s Chattanooga paper, put it this way on Twitter: “I am glad I no longer work at a paper owned by Walter Hussman Jr.” She referred to “blatant hypocrisy between what he says and how he runs his papers.”

Hussman didn’t reply to requests for comment last week.

I’ll always admire his ingenuity in keeping his news flagship afloat. But Hussman, an advocate of charter schools, should apply some objectivity and keep his thumb off the scales on education.