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Twitter Reflections from Reporter Who Broke Nikole Hannah-Jones Tenure Story

July 10, 2021

Joe Killian is the reporter with NC Policy Watch who broke the story (byline shared with Kyle Ingram) of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ UNC-Chapel Hill tenure slight. He was also the first to report on Hannah-Jones’ declining UNC-Chapel Hill’s belated tenure offer and her decision to join the faculty at Howard University.

At the center of Hannah-Jones’ tenure denial is UNC-Chapel Hill megadonor, Walter Hussman, who Killian also interviewed in this June 03, 2021, NC Policy Watch piece in which Hussman denies “pressuring anybody.” (UNC’s school of journalism is now the UNC Hussman School of Journalism.)

Nikole Hannah-Jones

In a thread on Twitter on July 06, 2021, Killian insightfully reflects on the two individuals central to this tenure story, Hannah-Jones and Hussman– and who among the three of them built journalism careers from the bottom up.

He also talks boxing (“Stay with me here….”)

It’s a great read. (Note: I learned of Killian’s Twitter thread from this July 06, 2021, Poynter article. I also added some of the links.)

From Joe Killian:

Meeting with #NikoleHannahJones for an interview this week made me reflect on my June interview with Walter Hussman, the conservative Arkansas media magnate and #UNC megadonor who lobbied against hiring her. It’s worth talking a bit about these two people and interviews.

When I interviewed Hussman last month, he projected an intense folksiness — sort of Mr. Rogers meets Bill Clinton. Given Hussman’s history with the Clintons in Arkansas, he might not love that comparison. But it’s apt.

A part of this was Hussman saying to me, repeatedly, “Well, Joe, you and I are both reporters…” or “Well, since we’re both journalists I think you understand…” This is a common rhetorical device. Find an area of common ground, assert affinity, create a bond.

Reporters — including yours truly — employ this in our work all the time. If I find out someone is from the part of Eastern NC where I was born, if they have a connection to the military or went to my college, I know we have a point of common reference.

As we do it all the time, reporters notice when it’s done to us– particularly by politicians and PR people. A lot of people worked in a newsroom for a year or two in their 20s before figuring out they could buy things with money. So there’s a lot of “You know, I was a reporter.”

Walter Hussman can legitimately say that to people — with a few important asterisks. After journalism and business school, Hussman was briefly a reporter before, at age 27, he was made publisher of a paper in the family media dynasty he would go on to inherit.

When I was 27 years old I was a beat reporter on a daily newspaper going to fires, murder scenes, protests and government meetings. I practically slept in the newsroom, which was much nicer than my apartment, and took side gigs to afford to sleep indoors and eat while reporting.

That sort of experience — slowly clawing your way up from smaller to larger newsrooms, being mentored by veteran reporters, slowly earning bigger beats and more responsibility over many years — is what I’m supposed to assume I share with someone who says “I was a reporter.”

Those are, as it happens, experiences I do share with Nikole Hannah-Jones. As a Black woman, she had to work longer and harder than I did to get ahead in newsrooms. With more grit and talent, she’s earned much more success. But we both worked our way up from working class roots.

Neither of us were, in our mid twenties, handed news outlets by our families. Neither of us were allowed to lose enormous amounts of money in years-long, heavily political newspaper wars until we crushed our rivals, assumed dominance and expanded our intergenerational empires.

I suspected this may be one of the things that most offended Hannah-Jones about Hussman questioning her media values and credentials, whether she was fit to teach young journalists. And my interview with her confirmed it.

Hussman did not work his way from the Chapel Hill News to the New York Times. His reporting and writing haven’t earned him Peabody, Polk, Pulitzer and National Magazine Awards. His name isn’t on UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school (J-school) because of his staggering reporting achievements.

Understanding, as he must, the difference between his CV and that of Nikole Hannah-Jones, he still felt the need to tell Susan King, dean of the J-School and UNC-Chapel Hill, he was against her hire. King said thanks for the input, but the J-School would make the decision.

Did Hussman respect the decision of the dean, herself a pioneering woman in journalism? Leave the issue to the stellar J-School faculty? No. He contacted the chancellor. He contacted the vice chancellor in charge of financial giving. He contacted at least one member of the BOT (Board of Trustees).

As students, faculty and even members of the BOT have noted, this was enormously inappropriate. Strictly speaking, Hussman shouldn’t even have known the school was pursuing Hannah-Jones. His $25 million donation to the school gave him information and access few alums enjoy.

Using that privileged position, Hussman weighed in on a potential hire at UNC repeatedly and at levels to which even other prominent alumni do not have access. It shocked not just students and faculty at the school but even other well-connected, well-heeled donors.

When Hussman didn’t get what he wanted — assent from the dean of the J-School and the administration to his objections– the school offered to set up a meeting between Hussman and Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones told me she declined.

Having accomplished so much in journalism, Hannah-Jones did not feel inclined to kiss the ring of a wealthy white scion who thought his money bought him special access and input into the faculty recruiting process. I don’t know many real reporters who’d blame her.

With Hannah-Jones now on her way to Howard University to create the new Center for Journalism and Democracy, I find myself looking at all that happened here — and how it happened — and thinking not just about journalism but about boxing. (Stay with me here…)

Learning to box as a teenager, I was taught some lessons that have stood me in good stead outside of the ring for the rest of my life — particularly in journalism. Call them “core values” if you must. One of them is this: “The more you sweat, the less you bleed.”

In boxing, putting in the work before a fight — hours on the heavy and speed bags, sparring, road work — prepares you for what’s coming. In journalism, reporting and writing stories big and small — sometimes two or more a day, for years — prepares you to cover anything.

Whatever you may think of her, it’s impossible to credibly argue Hannah-Jones hasn’t put in the work. As a veteran of newspaper newsrooms, I assure you Black women still have to work twice as hard for half as much success. To have the success she’s had? Just imagine the work.

So this fight? Having to prove to conservative white men that she, a Black woman who has won the Peabody, Polk and Pulitzer prizes, is fit to teach journalism to teenagers? She was ready for it.

In the end, she got what most faculty, staff and alumni agreed she deserved: a public, up or down vote on whether she should, like all her white Knight Chair predecessors, be offered tenure. That she won’t be accepting the offer says more about UNC than it does her.

In our interview, Hannah-Jones made it clear: The silence and lack of transparency from school leadership – particularly Guskiewicz – made taking another offer inevitable. They could have prevented this, had they put in the work.

The more you sweat, the less you bleed.

Joe Killian


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  1. Betty Peters permalink

    I hope you don’t mind that I am not replying regarding this post but I couldn’t find your direct email and thought this might work to get in touch. I’m Betty Peters, former state school board member in AL. I shared some information with you on AL’s Common Core MOU which you used in what I thought was a fantastic report. I’d like to discuss another subject with you to see if you’d like to write about it—Edgenuity, a virtual education program which has Alabama roots, and they are very bad roots indeed. Edgenuity is now based in AZ but it’s all over the US. Our former speaker of the House, Mike Hubbard, is still in prison and one of the counts involved Edgenuity.

    My email is; text or cell 334 701-9810; address: 106 Morning Glory Lane, Dothan AL 36305.

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

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