North Carolina's top journalism school is finally being honest

UNC abandons the principle of objectivity. Maybe journalists can drop the charade, too

For years, the UNC-Chapel Hill journalism school wooed two people at once — two people who could not possibly be more different.

One was Walter E. Hussman Jr., the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He comes from the old school of journalism, the “just the facts” school, the one where it’s a token of virtue to be impartial, to seek both sides, and to be fair.

Journalism school dean Susan King ultimately landed a $25 million gift from him in September 2019. In exchange, Hussman’s name now adorns the journalism school, and UNC pledged to etch his values in stone in Carroll Hall: objectivity, impartiality, integrity and truth-seeking.

The other was Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times Magazine writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of the 1619 Project. Her work blends reporting with personal essays, combining facts, feelings and narrative and bending history in pursuit of what she considers a higher truth. She believes objectivity in journalism is a myth and never really existed. More than that, objectivity is a mask for deeper evils in her worldview.

King began pursuing her for a faculty position several years ago, ultimately offering her a $180,000 per year job as a Knight chair professor. Hannah-Jones ultimately turned it down after manufacturing a national controversy.

The two people and movements King attempted to combine instead exploded. Part of the reason Hannah-Jones says she decided to reject her alma mater: “It became clear to me at that point I couldn’t maintain my dignity and work for a school bearing his name,” Hannah-Jones told The News & Observer.

She’s right. These two schools of thought cannot co-exist, not at UNC’s journalism school and not in the media industry as a whole.

While Hannah-Jones won’t be coming to Chapel Hill, her worldview is now firmly locked in place there. After a meeting with faculty, UNC’s journalism school has removed Hussman’s core values from its website and will discuss with attorneys whether they can be torn down from the building entirely.

Instead of Hussman’s values, the school of journalism will lean in to its mission statement: “prepare students to ignite the public conversation in our state, the nation and the world.”

This clean break with the past has prompted a fair bit of hand-wringing, especially among conservatives.

“What is the future of journalism if the school teaching future reporters objects to these concepts?” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger asked on Twitter. “It seems to me that with trust in media where it is, schools should be reaffirming values of impartiality and objectivity, not removing them.”

Rather than bemoan the changes, we should embrace them.

This is the wrong way to think about things.

Nikole Hannah-Jones isn’t right about much, but she’s right about this: Objectivity has never truly existed in journalism. While the industry’s biases have shifted over time, they’ve always been there.

Now, North Carolina’s top journalism school appears to be acknowledging that. They’re through with the sanctimonius charade that journalism can be impartial, and they’re finally being honest. Perhaps that will give the state’s reporters and news publications more cover to do so as well.

Two years ago, I wrote that “‘unbiased’ state and local news will die — and that’s OK.” You can read the full article here, but the crux of the issue is this:

The “unbiased news” ethos they developed should be understood as a business decision made for that era that no longer makes sense, not as a prerequisite of journalistic ethics.

We’re headed to a new era of journalism that looks a lot more similar to how news has been consumed in America for the majority of its history. The political news outlets of the near future will command smaller audiences and be honest about their point of view. Unless you’re a grumpy, insecure newspaper journalist, this is not a bad thing.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a place for objectivity at all. The strongest partisan media deals honestly with their opponents point of view and rebuts it with evidence.

But it does mean we have work to do. Political candidates should get to know publications and reporters as individuals and decide whether to engage with them on that basis. Journalists should be upfront about their biases and recognize that they aren’t inherently a bad thing. Journalism schools should intentionally hire faculty with varying ideologies. Conservatives should train a new generation of journalists steeped in our philosophy and able to tell true stories. And we should all critically evaluate the value of a journalistic work on its accuracy and persuasiveness, not its adherence to objectivity.

I’m optimistic because this is already starting to happen. Christopher Rufo has become nationally famous for his work at City Journal exposing what schools are teaching students in the name of equity through Critical Race Theory. He approaches his work with intellectual rigor and backs it up with documents, but freely acknowledges his conservative worldview.

Maybe UNC’s journalism school should try to hire him.

3 things of note

1) Gov. Cooper asks school districts to pretty please require masks. The governor is out with new COVID guidance for public schools, which includes the declaration that districts “should” require all students in grades K-8 wear to masks all day because they are not old enough to be vaccinated. The new guidance has a much different tone from earlier versions. Last summer, Cooper’s “toolkit” was full of requirements and mandates. Now, it’s all about what schools “should” or “should not” do. There are no repercussions for school districts that don’t follow the guidelines. That means the real power will be in the hands of school districts as they come up with policies for the new school year. You can count on urban school districts requiring mask policies in deference to the governor. Reminder: There is no scientific reason for young children to wear masks since young people are not at significant risk from COVID and don’t tend to spread it — and all adults have had the opportunity to be vaccinated against it.

2) Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson is the state’s most effective political communicator. I continue to be impressed by how Robinson refuses to get bogged down in the minutiae of legislation, instead finding the deeper truth of an issue and using his powerful life story to drive it home. He did that again in an interview earlier this month with Dan Bongino on Fox News, where Robinson took on the Biden administration’s welfare expansion plan. His opposition was philosophical, and his answer powerfully defended the dignity of work and made a connection with the soul of America. “The government cannot give you the American dream. What the government will give you is false hope,” he said. “The American dream only comes through hard work, steadfastness, and standing up and controlling your own destiny.”

3) N.C. high school sports authority faces “death penalty.” The Senate appears to have momentum behind a bill that would strip the responsibility for high school sports from a nonprofit and move it into a new public body. For more than 100 years, high school sports in North Carolina have been overseen by the N.C. High School Athletics Association, an organization once affiliated with UNC but one that has been an independent nonprofit since 2010. The NCHSAA charges schools dues and takes a percentage of playoff ticket revenue. This has been enough to make the nonprofit very rich — some $41 million in assets in the most recent year for which a tax form is available (and growing). Similar associations in other states have less than $10 million in the bank.

The bill under consideration would set up a new board appointed by the governor and legislature to oversee high school athletics and create a transparent process for appealing its decisions. Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) calls it the “death penalty” for the NCHSAA. Nobody appears to be that sad to see it potentially go, except for the commissioner, Que Tucker, who makes about $160,000 per year. She, predictably, called the bill racist. Since the NCHSAA began as an association for only white high schools, perhaps she should have attacked her own organization as irredeemably institutionally racist instead.