The Tuesday

Politics & Policy

Keeping Up with Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones on CBS This Morning in 2019. (Screengrab via YouTube)
She is obviously guilty of serious journalistic and intellectual offenses. And denying tenure to her will make some conservatives feel like they have won something. But they won’t have.

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Disposing of Nikole Hannah-Jones

What to make of the case of Nikole Hannah-Jones, organizer of the New York Times’ sloppy and troubled 1619 Project, who has been denied, at least for the moment, tenure for a professorship at the University of North Carolina after a pressure campaign from conservative critics?

Some of the criticism is not very persuasive, and I’ll begin with that.

A university trustee said that Hannah-Jones’s tenure review had been put on pause because of her lack of a “traditional academic background.” It is a truth universally acknowledged that professors of journalism are among the most genuinely worthless specimens walking God’s green earth and that any halfway self-respecting society would exile them to the moon, and I am not at all sure that an advanced degree in journalism is more of a qualification than a disqualification when it comes to instructing students. (Set aside for the moment that journalism is not something that can be learned in a classroom. It is a trade, not an art or a science, and journalism degrees are some of the purest lab-grade bunkum ever produced.) That being stipulated, Hannah-Jones is in possession of a master’s degree — from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, which presumably is good enough for UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media — which is not a doctorate but is more academic preparation than many journalism professors have.

(In truth, some universities shy away from hiring their own Ph.D.s as professors. It’s a weird world, but that’s another story.)

The position is not described as that of a “professor of practice,” but that is what most journalism professorships are — i.e., appointments for which the qualifications are more generally professional than academic. Universities hire novelists to teach writing (often with horrifying consequences) and businessmen to teach business and lawyers to teach law and painters to teach painting and architects to teach architecture. Professor Matthew McConaughey of the University of Texas is not, to my knowledge, in possession of a doctorate, nor is he famed for his scholarly sensibility. (He holds an undergraduate degree from UT; my time there overlapped with his, but our social circles did not much intersect.) He teaches a film-production class, “Script to Screen,” because he has some experience with that, and because it gives the university the chance to publish this hilarious staff photo.

(Alright, alright, Governor.)

And, of course, the more persuasive criticism of Hannah-Jones is about that — her practice of journalism, which is distinct from scholarship, though the two intersect at points. The National Association of Scholars sent an open letter to the Pulitzer committee (who are weasels in full, or at least mustelid-adjacent) demanding that they revoke the prize given to Hannah-Jones, and their account, along with the case made here at National Review and elsewhere, is damning. One of the Times’ own fact-checkers on the project, historian and African-American studies professor Leslie M. Harris of Northwestern University, warned the Times that key claims of the work were unsupportable. She listed other mistakes that she had communicated to the Times before the project was published but that went uncorrected.

When the Times did get around to amending the report, it did so in a guilty, sneaky, underhanded way — “stealth edits,” or unacknowledged corrections — for obviously political reasons. Donald Trump, running for reelection as president, had made a pet cause of the 1619 Project, some Democrats worried that the 1619 Project was giving him rhetorical ammunition, and the editors of the Times buckled under the consequent pressure. Hannah-Jones did the cable-news circuit claiming, preposterously, that the 1619 Project had never said what it said, and the Times reworked critical passages in an attempt to deny Trump a talking point. This is intellectual dishonesty — it is intellectual dishonesty in scholarship, it is intellectual dishonesty in journalism, and it is intellectual dishonesty in any other context. There’s a lot of that in journalism right now — Jonathan Chait exists — and a great deal more of it in academia. As the NAS letter put it:

The duplicity of attempting to alter the historical record in a manner intended to deceive the public is as serious an infraction against professional ethics as a journalist can commit. A “sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay,” as the Pulitzer Prize Board called it, does not have the license to sweep its own errors into obscurity or the remit to publish “deeply reported” falsehoods.

If I thought for a minute that the University of North Carolina were motivated by a concern for intellectual honesty or professional ethics, then I might ask: Why only withhold tenure? If Hannah-Jones is unfit for a tenured position because of unethical behavior and intellectually dishonest professional conduct, then she is unfit for a non-tenured position, too. But I have seen this sort of thing up close, and I think I know what is going on here: panic, terror, and cowardice.

I have seen this movie before.

When The Atlantic was trying to figure out whether to give in to the mob and fire me on my third day of work there for . . . bein’ evil on Twitter . . . the editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, tried to come up with some interim half-a-loaf measure. He suggested an apology to . . . no one in particular . . . and I declined to apologize to no one in particular for being lied about by particular halfwits. (More of that ancient history here.) The contract-but-no-tenure deal offered to Hannah-Jones is the same kind of one-testicle gesture, a very management-seminar move from a board of directors that doesn’t have the courage to fish or cut bait — “curs that like nor peace nor war.”

It is tempting to write that the University of North Carolina deserved better, but it doesn’t.

That being said, the only remedy for “cancel culture” rage mobs is for institutions to learn to stand up for themselves. If the university had meditated upon Hannah-Jones’s merits and demerits and decided not to offer her the position, or to offer her a different position on different terms, then that might have been rightly understood as a gesture in the direction of honesty and competence. As it is, it is only a gesture of cowardice, an affirmation that the University of North Carolina is — like Yale, the New York Times, the Associated Press, Facebook, Apple, etc. — an organization that can be bullied into submission. I understand the desire of some conservatives to gleefully shout “Your rules!” and watch the carnage, but that kind of eye-for-an-eye-ism is both morally illiterate and poor strategy, inasmuch as the Left can bear a great many more losses in academia, media, and culture than we can. Tit-for-tat is a profoundly stupid strategy when you are profoundly outnumbered.

The best practice for universities, media outlets, technology companies, and the like would be to vet their hires beforehand, close that book and open a new one, and then decline, as a matter of publicly stated policy, to respond to pressure campaigns of this kind. This would spare us spectacles such as that involving the Associated Press and Emily Wilder, the reporter who was canned after criticism of her involvement with a pro-Palestinian group when she was an undergraduate at Stanford. The AP knew what Emily Wilder was when they hired her, and Hannah-Jones is a known quantity.

As usual, our focus on the personality in question — on the hate object with a face and a name — leads us astray. As an ideological and cultural matter, how much does it really matter who, exactly, sits in the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism? Because the chances are 104 percent that the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism is going to be a semi-maniacal ideologue of approximately the Hannah-Jones kind in any case. The ideology is built into the position, and so is the bias. They aren’t going to hire Charles Murray. The Associated Press is going to go right on being a biased and at times incompetent organization with or without Emily Wilder.

If you want to cancel something, cancel the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media in toto. People who want to work as reporters should study economics, history, Victorian novels, French poetry, art, physics — almost anything but what is taught in journalism schools. You can’t go building a bullsh** farm and plant it thickly with bullsh** and then act surprised when there’s bullsh** under foot. In many years of interviewing college students and recent graduates for journalism jobs, I have never once met a journalism major who could tell me what “millage” is, though I have heard them hold forth on privilege and intersectionality and whatever the bullsh** chef’s special is down at the bullsh** market.

Denying tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones will make some conservatives feel like they have won something. But they won’t have.

And Furthermore . . .

“Hey conservatives, this is why liberals don’t believe you care about free speech,” reads the headline over Alyssa Rosenberg’s column in the Washington Post.

Hey, Alyssa Rosenberg, this is why conservatives believe you don’t care about free speech: You argue that we should literally disappear television shows in production and film projects if they don’t accord with your political prejudices.

Maybe sit this one out, Comrade O’Brien.

Words About Words

D.C. lifts mask mandate for fully vaccinated people,” reads the Washington Post headline. Underline: “Those who are fully vaccinated only need to wear a mask in places where it is required.”

Which is to say: “Wearing a mask is required only in places where it is required.”

Muppet News Flash, right there, Washington Post.

Sally Buzbee, the incoming Washington Post editor, must really be regretting that newspaper editors aren’t allowed to yell at people anymore.

This is a job for yelling in Danish, I think. Danish has some great words for such scenarios: One of them is Sprogblomster, which I am totally not making up and which literally means “language flower” and is used to describe an amusing error.

A less lovely Danish word for a blunder is Tanketorsk, or “thought cod.”

Sally Buzbee, the incoming Washington Post editor, must really be regretting that newspaper editors aren’t allowed to slap people with cod anymore.

Rampant Prescriptivism

Come on, Mansion Global: I expect my preposterous real-estate news to be flawlessly edited!

Buyers feel pressure to make snap decisions, and some forego routine home inspections for fear of losing to another bidder. “If you’re a buyer, this is the most frustrating time,” said Jonathan Campbell, vice president of DLP Realty in Bethlehem. The local market, he said, is outpacing the mid-2000s housing boom.

I am tempted to forgo pointing out the error in the foregoing.

The foregoing is that which came before: “Nothing in the foregoing clauses should be read as nullifying this condition.” Forgoing is doing without, abstaining: “He spent Lent forgoing meat.”

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

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‘Because I Can’  . . .

Simone Biles continues her long career of being everything that is right about America:

“They’re both too low and they even know it,” Biles said of the rewards for her beam dismount and the double-pike vault. “But they don’t want the field to be too far apart. And that’s just something that’s on them. That’s not on me.

“They had an open-ended code of points and now they’re mad that people are too far ahead and excelling.”

Despite not being properly rewarded, Biles, the defending Olympic champion in the all-around, said she would continue doing them.

When asked why, she quickly answered, “Because I can.”

Recommended

The straightforwardly named A History of Italy podcast is very nicely done and worth your time. I like the modesty of “a history of Italy,” as opposed to “the history of Italy” — the same reason this magazine is not called The National Review, incidentally. We’re just one national review. There are others.

None as good, of course, but there are others.

In Closing

There is a story making the rounds that British PM Boris Johnson missed a number of official meetings because he was busy writing a biography of Shakespeare and in a rush to finish the book because he needed the money to pay for his divorce.

I’ll just say this: British political scandals are not very much like ours.

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