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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Objectivity unattainable?

by Mike Masterson | July 24, 2021 at 3:10 a.m.

It is telling and concerning that some faculty members with the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill would have problems with the word "objectivity" in reporting the news because they contend journalists can't be objective.

I'd say that poor excuse for reality rooted in twisted academic rationale represents little more than thick-sliced baloney (minus cheese and mayonnaise).

After 50-plus years in this craft, including stints leading investigative efforts at some of the nation's largest daily newspapers and heading the Kiplinger Public Affairs Reporting Program for professionals at Ohio State, I can tell you it's not only possible, but critical, for the credibility of news reporting to relate stories honestly, objectively and fairly, giving all sides and allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

It's a flaming-red herring for journalism faculty members (of all people) to claim objective reporting isn't possible. Welcome to 2021 America.

The most relevant explanation of every professional journalist's obligation is found daily on page two of our Democrat-Gazette where publisher Walter Hussman, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill's journalism program and who in September 2019 contributed $25 million to the school in an effort to see that school succeed in its responsibility to mold capable professional journalists.

Yet some faculty members at the nationally accredited Hussman School apparently have a different view of what a professional journalist can and should be, as in fair and objective.

And I'm not alone in fully supporting Hussman's Statement of Core Values that had been posted on the school's website and slated to be carved in granite at the school. Well, it was there before the brouhaha arose after he expressed legitimate concerns over the school hiring New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. The Black journalist received a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for her controversial and academically challenged "1619 Project" published by The New York Times Magazine.

The flap arose after Hannah-Jones received a five-year contract to teach in an endowed chair in race and investigative reporting at the Hussman School. UNC powers-that-be initially did not initially grant Hannah-Jones (also a UNC alum) tenure, then chose to do so following several weeks of internal pressure.

However, after the flap subsided, Jones clearly was piqued over the delayed tenure issue and chose to turn down the Hussman School appointment, instead accepting a similar endowed faculty position at Howard University. I like to say she packed up her laptop and left to play teacher for another team.

It's most relevant in all this mess that Hussman purposefully wasn't involved in any of the university's decisions affecting Jones' appointment or tenure. He issued no pressure, demands or threats. He was just a donor who loved his school and this craft enough to give it $25 million who pointed out his honest concerns to the university and its journalism school.

He had every right (and responsibility) to express his opinion. Wouldn't we feel entitled to at least offer our thoughts on such a move affecting our alma mater, especially after granting the institution such an incredible sum?

Hussman simply pointed out all the contention and disagreement among several prominent historians and others over the thrust, accuracy and validity of Jones' controversial conclusions.

Hussman's primary concern was that the controversy surrounding this journalist's inflammatory and unapologetic advocacy project could possibly overshadow the credibility of the school he hoped would become widely respected for promoting the non-controversial traditional core values in the professional journalism he espouses.

Hannah-Jones' 1619 Project basically claimed our nation's alleged "systemic racism" is rooted in slavery tracking back to that year and lies at the heart of America's true founding, which means traditional American history is built on a "lie," and that a legacy of racism supposedly remains deeply rooted in every American institution and is a sustained factor in the lives of Black Americans.

While Hussman's Statement of Core Values has been on display on the school's website since 2019 when he pledged his donation, some faculty members, in the wake of the Hannah-Jones tenure debacle, have expressed concern that the publisher's values do not and shouldn't align with those of the school.

I've also read that Hannah-Jones said among her reasons for leaving was Hussman's public and private comments about the matter, saying she couldn't work for a school bearing his name.

So apparently there are those at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's journalism and media department who prefer teaching journalistic subjectivity and activism, as opposed to the fairness and objectivity Hussman's values express--oh, and let's add a commitment to accuracy in the mix. Why else deny those traditionally accepted qualities?

However, others, including Dr. Charlie Tuggle, a top administrator for the school, defended Hussman and his core values.

"I feel like Walter Hussman has been unfairly maligned," Tuggle, the senior associate dean for undergraduate studies told ABC 11. "I don't know him well, but in the times that I've dealt with him, he seemed like a very good man, a very sincere man. He's truly worried about the state of journalism in today's world, as am I. I share those concerns with him."

For not knowing Hussman well, Tuggle has an accurate read on the publisher and man I have known and worked for more than half my career since 1973. I was the first editor Hussman hired to lead the newsroom in Hot Springs. We were both 26 at the time. And I can say without qualification that he is the finest, most committed and courageous publisher to support the vital integrity of quality journalism I have known in my time writing and reporting across five states. Not polish. Just truth.

Tuggle's concerns include the need cited for impartiality which includes reporting, editing, and delivering the news honestly, fairly, objectively and without personal opinion or bias. Do valued readers have any problems with that philosophy?

"Someone please tell me what about the words that are on the wall do you find problematic?" Tuggle asked of Hussman faculty colleagues and staff during a virtual town hall the other day, the news station reported.

He said the response to that question boiled down to questioning one word--objectivity, and the contention of some that no journalist can be truly objective. After that meeting, the Statement of Core Values was removed from the school's website.

Unbelievable stuff dropping from the rarefied atmosphere of an Ivory Tower, especially at a school of journalism, eh?

"Are we saying that because we can't be perfect at it, we don't even try?" Tuggle asked rhetorically. "We just give it up? That's what I teach my students is, you cannot be unbiased. Your lived experience is your lived experience. And that's going to color everything you do and say. And what you believe. But, try. Please try."

Yes, journalism students in North Carolina and across the nation, Tuggle is right in that regard. If you ever expect your reporting to be believed and credible (as opposed to activism and propaganda that trigger eye rolls and disgust from about half your discerning readers) this journalist and former professor can't overly stress Tuggle's advice to strive for objectivity and fairness in every story.

I find it also germane to compare what the same University of North Carolina administration wrote about Hussman's generosity and his hopes for his school not two years ago: "With a $25 million gift to the school, the Hussman family is investing heavily in the future of journalism and the media professions and reinforcing those values for the next generation of media leaders being trained at Carolina," the university's community affairs department wrote.

"At a time when public polls show trust in journalism slipping, the Hussmans are doubling down on their commitment to restoring that bond and trust between media and the public."

"'I believe that by adopting these core values, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's journalism school can be the leader and serve as an example for other journalism schools in America to follow,' said Hussman, the chairman of WEHCO Media Inc., which owns newspapers, magazines and cable television systems in six states. 'This is a key reason why we enthusiastically support the school and the university. This is a first, but important step, in renewing the public's trust in our profession and the news media.'"

Well, my friends, you can't rightfully say Walter Hussman hasn't gone far above and beyond to attain such an honorable and worthy goal.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Print Headline: Objectivity unattainable?

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