Quarantine Lecture Series: Nikole Hannah-Jones on segregation

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UNC may have lost out,

but that doesn't mean she can't teach us. About 50 minutes in, she takes some questions, and then explores our problem facing institutionalized (and normalized) racism; how we boldly face overt bigotry but seem blind when it comes to all-white neighborhoods or workplaces. Fascinating.

What UNC really lost when Hussman nixed Hannah-Jones

After watching this, I can understand why UNC mega-donor Walter Hussman Jr. - and the UNC administration - adamantly opposed granting Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure at the UNC Journalism School.

In middle school and high school, I was taught that journalism was about the basic questions of who, what, when, where, why and how.

What’s missing from today’s clickbait-driven, rage of the moment, profit-motivated journalism are the why and how.

Hussman, through his relentless drive for newspaper competition, has been one of the key figures that drove the why and how out of journalism. He focused on gimmicks, like the use of color, at the Arkansas Democrat in his “war” against the rival Arkansas Gazette. He’s also been adamant about newspapers not providing free content online.

This isn’t surprising. Although working in newspapers from an early age and getting an undergraduate degree in journalism, Hussman got an MBA and worked as a reporter for Forbes. After that, he was a manager of owner for newspapers, not a reporter with a beat. Hussman approaches newspapers as just another business, selling raw information to the public - not businesses that play a key role in the life of the communities they serve.

The UNC administration is much the same, looking at the “dollars and cents” of running a university, and not asking some fundamental questions about the role the institution plays in not only the life of the Triangle, but of the state, and the nation as well, through its training of new generations of leaders and the research of respected faculty.

A lot of the day to day journalism that goes on the news business can be satisfied with just the who, what, where, and when of a story. But, Hannah-Jones points out that some stories are complex and require that why and how.

The basic way you determine this is, after the who, what, when, and where data is gathered is to ask one important question: Is this harming someone?

That’s the one question that Hussman - and the UNC administration - never seems to be willing to ask in their work.

At a time when newspapers, radio, and television stations were owned by families or smaller companies, they could pursue these questions. They could still make a profit on the basic, factual news of the day and still, when needed, go in-depth on the larger stories - maybe to “fight for the little guy”, to pursue a reputation of excellence and awards, or simply to tell a story because it was the right thing to do for a community, a state, or our nation.

What Hannah-Jones is doing here is in the long tradition of investigative journalism - The NY Times reporting on the Pentagon Papers, the Washington Post’s reporting on Watergate, or the reporting and prime time news specials of CBS and ABC on Civil Rights or the Vietnam War.

This reporting isn’t easy. Newspapers and tv networks would loose advertisers or upset affiliates with these stories. But, in the end, they were able to absorb these losses and move on to do more good work, while still turning a profit.

UNC lost more than the experience and passion of Hannah-Jones when she was denied tenure. They lost the opportunity to have new generations of reporters, editors, and managers trained at the Journalism School to ask these basic questions about the role of journalism in society and to look at their profession in terms that go beyond basic facts or bottom lines.

It’s no accident that conspiracy theories, violent extremism, and casual interest in government coups have proliferated in this country. When we ignore the why and the how - and, in particular, if this is harming someone - we create a society where any racist, bigoted, or nutcase theory is “news” and worthy of an equal soapbox as anything else.

And all because people like Hussman look at news purely as a commodity - facts to sell the public, with no context, no history, and no reflection on who is being harmed.