Nikole Hannah-Jones at the Summit

Peter Wood

Editor's Note: This article was originally published by American Greatness on May 22, 2021, and is crossposted here with permission.


Nikole Hannah-Jones was having a very good year. She reached the summit on April 28, when it was widely reported that she had been appointed with tenure, effective July, to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. The news came a week after the American Academy of Arts and Sciences announced Hannah-Jones was among some 259 “outstanding individuals” elected to the Academy in 2021. She led the list of eight chosen in “Journalism, Media, and Communications.” 

A year ago May 4, Hannah-Jones won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Between those bookends, she has been invited to present numerous prestigious lectures at universities and other august venues. She received the George Polk “special award” in 2019 after receiving it in 2015 for “radio reporting” for “The Problem We All Live With.” She also received a 2015 Peabody Award for “The Case for School Desegregation Today.”

Of course, she was also a 2017 recipient of one of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” fellowships for “reshaping national conversations around education reform.”

But her appointment to a named chair at the school from which she received her master’s degree in 2003 had to be among the sweetest distinctions. She was being recognized as a top figure in her chosen profession. 

But on May 18, the bottom fell out.

The Fall

That day the UNC-Chapel Hill’s board of trustees took the unusual step of refusing to grant Hannah-Jones tenure. The board offered her an alternative: a five-year appointment as a “professor of practice,” with the option of a tenure review down the road. In higher education parlance, this would be a “probationary appointment.” In Hannah-Jones’ world, it might be called a humiliation. She sees herself as one of the most authoritative voices in journalism today. The news that she would still have to prove herself worthy of a tenured academic appointment must have hit her hard.

Be that as it may, it certainly hit the American higher education establishment hard. “The Tenure Denial of Nikole Hannah-Jones Is Craven and Dangerous” roared Silke-Maria Weineck, a University of Michigan German professor in the Chronicle of Higher EducationThe Chronicle also features an essay by staff writers Jack Stripling and Andy Thomason, who explain, Hannah-Jones’ “‘1619 Project’ Is a Political Lightning Rod. It May Have Cost Her Tenure.” Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed headlines her account “A Blatant Intrusion.” She leads with a quote from an anonymous source who says UNC’s trustees acted under “pressure.” 

I would hope so. If there were ever a time when university trustees should be called upon to live up to their responsibilities to maintain the integrity of academic appointments, this was it.

Jennifer Ruth, a film studies professor at Portland State University, frames the UNC trustees’ action as part of the larger effort by Trumpian forces to crush progressive advocates of enlightenment:

When the Department of Education under Trump trolled Princeton by filing an investigation when its President spoke of systemic racism at the university, when Republicans fall in step behind the Big Lie that the election was rigged, and when the conservative talking point de jour is that people who care about racial and social justice are the “new racists,” sincere dialogue has been shut down in advance.

Ruth endorses Weineck’s view that trustees should know their place—a place far removed from paying attention to faculty appointments. Those trustees “should not have any role in academic hiring decisions whatsoever, and neither should the systemwide Board of Governors, which was lobbied to prevent Hannah-Jones’s appointment.”

Duke University’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, collected comments disparaging the UNC board’s action. The Washington Post made a compendium of remarks by “upset” UNC faculty. The faculty of the Hussman School released their own statement titled “Stunned,” signed by 46 members, and joined by an additional 300 other UNC faculty members, expressing their outrage. Apparently, no one at UNC imagined that the board of trustees had a backbone and the discovery was disconcerting. 

I will let these comments stand for the academics who are vexed by the decision, but other voices were raised as well. Bobby Soave, writing on the libertarian website Reason sees an unjust interference with the right of the journalism faculty to do whatever they please with the public university’s authority and finance: “Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified to teach race in journalism, and while all the details are not known, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that she was punished for expressing a politically disfavored viewpoint.”

I’d say it is hard to escape the conclusion that Hannah-Jones was unqualified and was being advanced for the tenured position by political partisans on political grounds. A person who is denied tenure is not thereby “punished.” Tenure is not a right, but something that has to be earned, and the case that Hannah-Jones had earned it is as empty as a bank vault after a Hollywood heist. Hannah-Jones may be highly celebrated but that’s not the same as being highly accomplished or even competent. 

Adam Steinbaugh, writing for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), follows Reason’s reasoning. But Steinbaugh puts it cautiously in the conditional, “If it is accurate that this refusal was the result of viewpoint discrimination against Hannah-Jones, particularly based on political opposition to her appointment, this decision has disturbing implications for academic freedom . . . .”

We need some clarity about the difference between exercising proper oversight and imposing “viewpoint discrimination.” All that takes is some good—and reasonable—judgment. Is Hannah-Jones’ body of work manifestly of such high quality that the UNC board of trustees should have approved the award of tenure? Let’s see.

Unfounded

I’ll stipulate at the start that many of her fellow journalists and many academics uphold the view that Hannah-Jones’ qualifications are impeccable. Mostly this is based on enthusiasm for “The 1619 Project.” Evidence of the enthusiasm abounds; evidence of actual familiarity with her work is much less common. But even so, the view prevails in these quarters that Hannah-Jones represents the very best of contemporary journalism. 

But there is a contrary view, and I am among those others who view Hannah-Jones’ principal contribution, “The 1619 Project,” as an abject failure of both accurate reporting and well-founded historical interpretation. My book, 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project, lays out in detail the errors she committed. She compounded these errors by refusing to correct them when they were brought to her attention by a who’s who of eminent historians, and she further compounded those errors by lying about what she originally said. She did that, for example, when she declared that she had never said that the year 1619 was the “true founding” of our country. It was right there on the cover of the original “1619 Project,” and Hannah-Jones repeated it many times in subsequent statements. 

But at some point around September 2020, the phrase mysteriously disappeared from the digital version of the project maintained by the New York Times, and Hannah-Jones herself declared that she had never said such a thing. Phillip W. Magness was the first to notice the switch up. He wrote: 

this week [the week of September 13, 2020] Nikole Hannah-Jones went on CNN to deny that she had ever sought to displace 1776 with a new founding date of 1619. She repeated the point in a now-deleted tweet: “The #1619Project does not argue that 1619 was our true founding. We know this nation marks its founding at 1776.”

The Times attempted to cover her tracks by “stealth editing” the digital version of her original pronouncements, but plainly that subterfuge was known to and abetted by Hannah-Jones, who coordinated her public statements with it. 

When the UNC board reviewed Hannah-Jones’ record, it wisely decided that tenure was a bridge too far for the serial fabulist. It did, however, offer her a way to move ahead via a non-tenured appointment and the chance for a tenure review down the road. 

I would say Hannah-Jones’ record of ethical lapses and poor journalism ought to prevent any appointment at all, but celebrity is a force to be reckoned with and I can understand why the board tempered its verdict. 

Hannah-Jones joined the staff of the New York Times in 2015, after spending her journeyman years as a reporter at the Raleigh News and Observer, the Oregonian, and the ProPublicanetwork. She is also the founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, “a news trade organization dedicated to increasing and retaining reporters and editors of color in the field of investigative reporting. (Ida B. Wells-Barnet, who died in 1931, was a black journalist and political activist who organized a boycott of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.) She is someone who is an accomplished publicist in her own cause, and the UNC board surely weighed that too. But in that light, we should take another look at what the famous “1619 Project” actually says and how the academic world received it.

The 1619 Times’ Bomb

Despite her previous acclaim, Nikole Hannah-Jones didn’t really come to the attention of many Americans before August 2019, when the New York Times published “The 1619 Project.” This special issue of the New York Times Magazine was devoted to the thesis that America was founded on black oppression and white supremacy. It put Hannah-Jones’ particular genius on display. She edited the collection of articles and wrote the lead essay, under the expansive title, “Our democracy’s founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. Black Americans fought to make them true. Without this struggle, America would have no democracy at all.” I think it fair to say that as editor she gave the project its particular tone: stylish, in-control, aggressive, laced with a thread of self-pity and a larger weave of self-aggrandizement, thin-skinned, and in a peculiar way, heedless. She was determined to say what she wanted to say, regardless of the facts, but she was also determined to assert that her story was accurate to the bone.

That was a contradiction, and it was a time bomb. Sooner or later people were going to notice that among those many confident assertions, some were iffy, others very doubtful, and some completely false.

Beyond the three-sentence title of her lead essay, Hannah-Jones took other liberties. Perhaps most famously, she wrote, “One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” This is not true. Indeed it isn’t even a little bit true, and the leading historians of colonial America from around the world quickly pointed this out. They did so politely by writing to the newspaper’s editors; they did so individually, and as joint signers of letters; they published their dissents. But receiving either no answer or only firm rebuffs, they collectively stood back. Not only was the Times determined to keep its fabrication intact, but the great majority of American historians either turned stone silent or capitulated.

Alex Lichtenstein, editor of the American Historical Review, wrote a widely read post in January 2020, “1619 and All That,” in which he dismissed all the historical criticism of “The 1619 Project” as “a public scuffle between journalists and members of our profession.” The “1619 Project,” he said, is an interpretive framework “that many historians probably already accept—namely, that slavery and racism lie at the root of nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.” Lichtenstein gave a permission slip to historians who didn’t want to be bothered with the inconvenience of maintaining historical accuracy on the matters at hand. 

Why would people who devoted their professional lives to the truth-telling of history go mum when presented with one of the most publicized historical falsehoods in decades? Why especially as that falsehood was being adapted rapidly to school curricula across the country? Plainly this is a matter of racial politics having invaded the history profession. For some, that is a positive development: promoting greater attention to slavery and the oppression of blacks is such a worthy goal that historians should gracefully overlook whatever journalistic lapses may have marred the great work of popularizing the cause. For others, the racialist agenda is something to be feared. To criticize “The 1619 Project” or Nikole Hannah-Jones was and still is to court professional friction or perhaps even ostracism. 

But that may be changing. The glare of attention is making it harder for people to avoid the shoddiness of the work.

Dissenters

Originally, it fell mostly to outsiders to draw attention to what the Times had perpetrated. The World Socialist Website was among the publications to take the lead. This Marxist organization had the foresight to invite a collection of prominent historians to be interviewed about “The 1619 Project,” and to publish these in easily accessible form. Thus, we heard early on from James McPherson, James Oakes, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, Richard Carwardine, and Clayborne Carson, among others. The editors of World Socialist Website, David North and Thomas Mackaman, and some of their associates added their own analyses, which, despite being freighted with their Marxist views, were impressively steadfast in separating fact from fiction. North and Mackaman eventually gathered their interviews and analyses into a book, The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History

At bottom, North and Mackaman oppose the idea that the basic conflict in American history is to be found in racial antagonism. They stick to the Marxist thesis that it is really about class. At least this gives them a place to stand outside the racial hysteria of our moment in history, and from that position they soberly take in the parade of historical absurdities that Hannah-Jones and her peers at the Times have served up and that the journalistic and educational establishments continue to celebrate. 

The old Left, fortunately, is not the only source of outsider criticism. One of the first and most insightful critics of “The 1619 Project” is the economic historian I cited earlier, Phillip W. Magness, who operates outside the academy at the American Institute for Economic Research, an independent think tank. His essays demolishing the project’s claim that American capitalism is rooted in the antebellum plantation system were the first to tackle this aspect of the project. Eventually, Magness synthesized his findings in a short book, The 1619 Project: A Critique

My book, 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project, followed soon after. Like Magness, I stand at a safe remove from the academy, in my case as president of the nonprofit National Association of Scholars. The advantages of being with the World Socialists (North and Mackaman), the free-marketers (Magness), or the academic traditionalists (Wood) are that we are fairly impervious to the vilification that comes from the progressives who command the cultural heights these days. 

The disadvantage is that those who command the heights often ignore us. The leaders of UNC’s Hussman School thought they could appoint Hannah-Jones regardless of any craters in her scholarship or violations of journalistic ethics. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences blithely went ahead with its honoring of Hannah-Jones regardless of any disgrace she has brought on professional journalism. The Pulitzer Prize committee chose not to revoke its 2020 award after it became clear that Hannah-Jones participated in a stealth-editing (otherwise known as a cover-up) of her false statements and a series of false public declarations about her previous statements.

We live in a time and place where such things are now routine. Perhaps, if you are sufficiently cynical, you think they have always been routine. Certainly, the New York Times has a history dating back at least to the time of Walter Duranty, of clasping honors based on mendacious reporting. Duranty, who helped Stalin cover up his engineered mass famine in Ukraine from 1931 to 1933, also received a Pulitzer Prize for his work.

Fog

In any case, the official organizations that represent American historians decided that Hannah-Jones’ particular falsification of the nation’s past was no big deal. Some of what Hannah-Jones wrote actually hints that she knew she was on thin ice. Note the careful phrasing of this sentence: “We may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue.” The main idea, despite the protective padding of negative subjunctive clauses, is still false. Protecting the institution of slavery was simply not part of what prompted the American Revolution. The War of Independence is about as well studied as any event in world history and no one has yet found a source that supports Hannah-Jones’s audacious claim. But here she puts it behind the buffer of “may” and “had not.” Those are signatures of uncertainty.

Some of Hannah-Jones’ other counterfactual claims about the American past are now more or less the “received knowledge” of many people willing to take her declarations at face value. Did slavery begin in America at Jamestown in 1619? No. It was here before that and anyway, those “slaves” at Jamestown were converted into indentured servants and eventually set free. Was Lincoln a racist whose primary intent was to keep blacks and whites separate? No. His intent was to end slavery. Is it true that, “For the most part, black Americans fought back alone?” No. The abolitionist movement began among whites, and the press for civil rights was always fought by both blacks and whites. Is the nation’s history best understood as the struggle of American blacks against white supremacy? No. It has been a struggle to realize the ideals of freedom, self-government, the rule of law, and equality.

Six months after the publication of “The 1619 Project,” one of the newspaper’s original fact-checkers, Professor Leslie M. Harris, came forward to say that she had warned the newspaper in advance that the claim about the American Revolution was false. (“I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project: The Times Ignored Me.”) Not only did the Times fail to make the correction at the time, but Hannah-Jones went on a public speaking tour in which she repeated the claim. Harris also pointed out that Hannah-Jones had scrambled chronology and erased important differences: “The paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.” 

But after Harris, who is black, made her public statement the Times drew back a tiny bit. It added the words “some of” to the sentence, “One of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” The sentence is still false in that no evidence has emerged that any colonist decided to declare independence to protect the institution of slavery. That’s easy to understand, because Britain was the major promoter of slavery and even the colonists in slave-holding colonies were complaining in the years before the Revolution that Britain was bringing in too many slaves. Hannah-Jones was just making something up and relying on a very fragmentary knowledge of the era’s history. Yes, a British court in 1772 in what is known as the Somerset decision had ruled that there was no slavery allowed in Britain itself under English common law. But that decision didn’t apply to the colonies and no one alive at the time imagined it did. 

You can go in search of other historical detail to find some basis for Hannah-Jones’ assertion, whether in its original form or in her “some of” climb down, but in the end, the claim is simply false. Is this a little error, not worth much attention? Or is it a telling error that reveals something deeper about the person who made it and those who have not only turned a blind eye to it but continue to trumpet it? It would be wrong to expect perfection in any ambitious work of historical synthesis. But I find something deeply disturbing about an error that has persisted despite the warning of a fact-checker and the corrections of a dozen or so major historians apparently because a newspaper will be publicly embarrassed. 

Thus the real issues raised by the case of Nikole Hannah-Jones are historical accuracy, academic integrity, and basic moral character. 

From 1619 to Critical Race Theory

This particular lapse on the origins of the colonists’ revolt against Britain is only one of many I documented in The 1620 Project, and the others have also gone either uncorrected or stealth-edited. So I suppose we need to rest with the idea that “The 1619 Project” as a whole, and Nikole Hannah-Jones’ particular contribution to it, are now to be taken by some in the spirit of sacred scripture which, if not literally true, reveals a transcendent truth beyond the truth. The transcendent truth on offer in “The 1619 Project” is the irreducible reality of American racism. If “The 1619 Project” is its scripture, critical race theory is its theology, and antiracism is its catechism. The evangelical zeal with which “The 1619 Project” was at first promoted has turned now into an establishment church.

Knowing that its central creed is false, a great many Americans refuse to worship at this church, but we also have to deal with those for whom the revelations of “1619,” critical race theory, and antiracism appear to be luminous truths. It’s difficult because they want not our toleration of their strange creed but our active support for it, and any unwillingness on our part to join the celebrants is viewed with grim suspicion verging on the accusation of complicity with “white supremacy.” 

In reading “The 1619 Project” in August 2019, who would have foreseen the rise of a cult? But that seems exactly what has happened. And it is perhaps the best way to understand Nikole Hannah-Jones’ ascent. She is not a journalist or an interpreter of history, but something more akin to a prophet, and the mere inaccuracy of her pronouncements does not stand in the way of her growing renown. 

Hannah-Jones’ great ambition was announced most fully 10 months after “The 1619 Project,” in a New York Times Magazine article titled “What Is Owed” which called for the payment of billions of dollars in reparations for slavery. I once would have said that the idea is, for many reasons, ludicrous and politically impossible. At the moment, however, I would have to say that Hannah-Jones stands close to the front of a movement that has successfully combined the use of urban violence, intimidation, white insecurity, and appeals to social justice to create a situation where such a program might well advance. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a vibrant personality able to carry her message effectively on stage. Her ability to project her opinions across the seemingly formidable barriers of inaccuracy and dishonesty is something to reckon with. She is a monument to post-truth in an age without heroes. And I suppose she will continue to garner all the honors the progressive establishment can think to offer. 

That said, the decision of the UNC Board of Trustees to reject the journalism school’s recommendation that she be awarded tenure feels like the bursting of that bubble “reputation.” From this point on, people will be able to voice their doubts. Parents will more openly complain when their schools attempt to foist the “1619 Curriculum” on their children. Critics will not be badgered into silence. Proponents of Critical Race Theory may focus their advocacy on materials other than Jones’s compromised work. 

Hannah-Jones has now begun the descent that favored radicals of the past such as Rigoberta Menchú suffered after people began to look more closely at their claims. These figures retain a die-hard following, to be sure, but they cease to matter in any larger sense. With the help of the UNC trustees, Hannah-Jones has begun the second half of her public career.

Author’s addendum (May 26, 2021):  John Hood, writing in the Carolina Journal (“Nikole Hannah-Jones wasn’t canceled”) has brought new information to light bearing on the UNC board’s decision. We now know that the board acted in January. At that time, it declined the recommendation from the Hussman School to award Hannah-Jones tenure, and instead offered her a five-year appointment with the possibility of a tenure review down the road.  Hannah-Jones accepted the offer. None of this was made public. News reports in April that Hannah-Jones had been offered a tenured position, and news reports in May that the UNC board had overridden the offer under “political pressure” were misleading, especially on the chronology.  The UNC board acted long before the public had any knowledge of the case. The actual sequence of events explains why Hannah-Jones has been uncharacteristically silent during the furor, which continues unabated despite what actually happened.


Peter Wood is President of the National Association of Scholars and author of 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.

Image: Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo, Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, cropped.

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