Black journalists’ group gives UNC-Chapel Hill and a major donor the ‘Thumbs Down Award’

·3 min read

The National Association of Black Journalists has given UNC-Chapel Hill and one of the school’s megadonors its annual “Thumbs Down Award,” recognizing efforts that went against the mission of the organization.

It comes after an extended controversy over tenure in the hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones drew national attention and ultimately led the award-winning journalist to take a faculty position elsewhere.

“This year we call on Walter E. Hussman Jr. and the Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina to improve their practices because of their role in a tenure fiasco with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones,” the association said during its 2021 award ceremony.

NABJ is a national organization of journalists, students and media professionals that advocates on behalf of Black journalists.

Hannah-Jones intended to join the UNC-CH faculty as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, but the school’s failure to offer her tenure resulted in a controversy that spanned months, The News & Observer reported.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times journalist was initially offered a five-year contract, despite previous Knight Chairs at the school receiving tenure.

Though she was ultimately awarded tenure at UNC-CH, Hannah-Jones instead took a position as the inaugural Knight Chair at Howard University.

Reached by The N&O on Sunday, UNC-CH and Hussman both said they had no comment.

Hannah-Jones, Hussman and the 1619 Project

Hannah-Jones, a Black woman, earned widespread recognition for her work on The 1619 Project, which explored the legacy of slavery in America.

In emails to UNC officials last year, Hussman expressed concerns over hiring Hannah-Jones, The N&O reported.

He wrote to UNC officials at the time that offering Hannah-Jones a tenured position would be “controversial, contentious, and divisive.”

Hussman told The N&O earlier this year that he didn’t say not to hire her, and added that he “just made [his] concerns known.”

But Hannah-Jones pointed to Hussman’s criticisms of her and her work as one of several reasons she declined to join UNC-CH’s faculty.

“It became clear to me at that point I couldn’t maintain my dignity and work for a school bearing his name,” she said in July.

Trustees eventually voted 9-4 to award Hannah-Jones tenure, but NABJ said the drawn-out controversy had earned the Thumbs Down Award.

“The controversy lasted for months and needlessly held up the appointment of a Black female journalist to a tenured position at a time when all schools need tenured faculty of color,” the association said.

Previous recipients of the Thumbs Down Award include Advance Local, Cleveland Plain Dealer and, whose job cuts and changes last year NABJ said “sparked a huge exodus of non-White journalists from their newsrooms.”

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Block Communications also received the award in 2020, after NABJ said the newspaper “unfairly prohibit[ed] two Black journalists from covering protests in the city following the death of George Floyd.”

Students at UNC-Chapel Hill walk past Carroll Hall, which houses the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.
Students at UNC-Chapel Hill walk past Carroll Hall, which houses the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Friday, Aug. 27, 2021.