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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: Controversy vs. core values

by Mike Masterson | June 12, 2021 at 8:18 a.m.

Should society continue to embrace traditional journalistic values of objectivity, accuracy and fairness, as described in the Statement of Core Values published daily in this newspaper (and 10 others owned by publisher Walter Hussman) or prefer questionably accurate and subjective methods of "award-winning" advocacy reporting, as published by The New York Times Magazine's 1619 Project?

This controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning series, spearheaded by reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones in 2019, presented what she and The Times published as their version of how slavery--since 1619--supposedly has shaped and influenced American political, social, and economic institutions with racial conflicts as a motivating force.

Yet the thrust and accuracy of Hannah-Jones' work has been criticized by scholars and journalists for being flawed in its original underlying premise and related facts.

In recently awarding Hannah-Jones the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's coveted Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the university also opened a chasm between Hussman's journalistic values and what for many the advocacy journalism of the 1619 Project has come to represent.

What I find ironic in choosing this particular journalist is the fact she brings the results of her opinions and disputed work and the intense controversy it has spawned into, of all places, the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

You see, not long ago, Hussman and his family pledged $25 million toward enhancing the university's journalism and media school's capacity to reinforce the traditional journalism values he cherishes (objectivity, impartiality, integrity, truth-seeking, etc.).

He generously gave the money to his alma mater in hopes that university administrators would ensure the principles behind the statement of core values (published on page 2 daily) would be taught. Not one of those includes the type of agenda-inspired journalism presented in the 1619 Project, which multiple historians and journalists have publicly panned as containing slanted inaccuracies.

When Hussman was initially told Hannah-Jones had been appointed to a five-year contract in the endowed Knight chair in the school now bearing his name, he wondered if those making that decision had performed their due diligence beforehand. And if not, why not?

It didn't take long to do his own research into the many publicized complaints and concerns about the 1619 Project made by several prominent historians (some themselves Pulitzer Prize winners). He forwarded his findings and concerns to the UNC administration, a trustee and Susan King, dean of the Hussman School.

He wasn't trying to influence their decision in hiring Hannah-Jones; rather, he wanted to make them fully aware of the controversy surrounding her project and the inevitable contention her selection was inviting into the school.

He also said he would neither expect nor want any donor such as himself to be involved in the hiring or day-to-day decisions in running a university. However, he did want them to know the information he'd found and his concern that the 1619 Project could overshadow the Hussman school's mission to promote objective journalism.

His contribution certainly didn't preclude him from expressing his thoughts and concerns as an alum, nor should it have. Hussman had a responsibility to share his findings with UNC's powers-that-be. I'd certainly have made my thoughts and findings known.

The underlying question behind hiring Hannah-Jones is apparent to me: Why would this school choose to invite and elevate the philosophy of opinionated reporting that Hussman doesn't support into the very school he cherishes and supports?

The answer he got from King, the Hussman School's dean: Because Hannah-Jones had received a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for commentary on the 1619 Project. Considering the prevalence of favoritism, ideology and politics that permeate every aspect of life today (most certainly to include journalism and academe), that wasn't a sufficient response.

And yes, I realize the essays published in this project were recognized for commentary. Yet I also subscribe to the old saw that every person is entitled to their opinions, but not their preconceived and tilted version of facts.

As far as the question of due diligence by UNC before endorsing Hannah-Jones' subjective style for aspiring journalists to master, a few keystrokes revealed an Internet rife with sincere concerns over the 1619 project.

The majority were less than flattering, despite the Times' predictable defense of their 1619 effort.

Here are glimpses of several whose nerves were touched: Tom Jones of the highly regarded Poynter Institute in October cited an essay by Sarah Ellison of The Washington Post that addresses the backlash from scholars, politicians and even within The New York Times' own opinion section.

Ellison quotes an array of sources, including Princeton's accomplished historian Sean Wilentz, who sparked pushback against some of the project's assertions. Wilentz said he was so astounded by a factually inaccurate paragraph about the American Revolution that he threw the publication across the room.

Hannah-Jones was quoted in Ellison's piece saying how "tortured" she was over the way the project mistakenly framed the American Revolution, which only prompted a greater firestorm of criticism.

A Wall Street Journal headline in its opinion section read, "The '1619 Project' Gets Schooled/The New York Times tries to rewrite U.S. history, but its falsehoods are exposed by surprising sources."

Also in sharp dispute among several experts were the dates the 1619 Project cited when slaves initially arrived in the country.

The National Association of Scholars publicly called for Hannah-Jones Pulitzer Prize to be rescinded because of its inaccuracies. The Pulitzer folks refused.

In National Review, Phillip W. Magness wrote that the 1619 Project provides a distorted economic history borrowed from bad scholarship of "The Half Has Never Been Told." And Rich Lowry wrote that Hannah-Jones' lead essay leaves out unwelcome facts about slavery, smears the Revolution and distorts the Constitution.

Leslie Harris, an honored historian at Northwestern University, said the fact-checking she contributed to the project was inexplicably ignored, leading to inaccuracies.

Patricia Barnes wrote in Forbes in September that the project was deeply flawed by serious factual errors, some of which The New York Times surreptitiously corrected without public acknowledgement.

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote in October that the 1619 project had "failed" due to mistakes in its core premise.

Keith J. Kelly of the New York Post said the 1619 Project had been subjected to criticism by some of the foremost historians and The Times' own fact-checker, and that the scrutiny has left the essay discredited, so much so that The Times felt the need to go back and change a crucial passage yet not eliminate its unsupported assertion about slavery and the Revolution.

Tom Mackaman and David North in September took The Times to task on the World Socialist website after the newspaper changed its principle argument in the project's introduction without publicly acknowledging it had done so. The writers went so far as to call the paper's silent alteration "a stunning act of intellectual dishonesty and outright fraud."

The men also collaborated on a book released earlier this year titled "The New York Times' 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History," described as an expose of the project's distortions and misrepresentations of the factual record. The book contains interviews with a variety of renowned historians.

The flood of criticism leaves me wondering: Where were the fact-checkers and or editors whose sole job it is at The Times (and most daily papers) to ensure accuracy? And why were fact-checked corrections from at least one qualified scholar apparently ignored?

While The Times' magazine editor and other higher-ups at the paper defended themselves, Hannah-Jones and this project, widespread concerns continue two years later, after copies of the series have been sent to schools across America, some of which may elect to incorporate the 1619 Project into their curriculum.

Meanwhile, as Hannah-Jones argues through a lawyer to be awarded tenure she was initially denied in the $180,000-a-year chair, Hussman has continued to be questioned by some in the media as to why he would call UNC's attention to what its decision created by willingly inviting the overriding national glare of contention and controversy into the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

The original story over this avoidable mess appeared in a North Carolina digital magazine called The Assembly. It was followed by an Associated Press story by reporter Tom Foreman Jr. published in this paper.

In closing, after 50 years practicing this craft across six states, I can assure you Walter Hussman remains the most pro-journalism and reporter-supportive publisher in the nation.

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.

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