Stories That Matter: How a Political Reporter at a Local Non-Profit Broke the Nikole Hannah-Jones Tenure Story

In a state where higher education is increasingly political, Joe Killian's decades of political reporting helped him earn the trust of both Jones and the trustees blocking her tenure.

Over the past few years, reporters on the politics beat in North Carolina have increasingly found themselves splitting time between the General Assembly building in Raleigh and the halls of higher education across the state, where administrative proceedings have become increasingly partisan.

Reporting for non-profit newsroom NC Policy Watch, Joe Killian has spent much of this year covering the controversy over the hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill’s journalism school. As soon as the school’s Board of Trustees announced its plans to offer Hannah-Jones a tenured professorship, news backlash flooded local and national outlets. Conservative activist groups connected to the UNC system’s Board of Governors took issue with the hire, citing questions of objectivity related to Hannah-Jones’ work on the 1619 Project. Walter Hussman, the journalism school’s donor namesake and a longtime newspaper publisher, was among those who expressed reservations about appointing Hannah-Jones to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

Read the Original NC Policy Watch Story

In May, two months before Hannah-Jones was set to join UNC, Killian broke the news that the Board of Trustees had changed its mind. The new plan was to withhold a vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones until she’d served in the role for at least five years. This was unprecedented, and led Killian to investigate the byzantine system that connects North Carolina politicians and political activists with the administration of the state’s 16 public universities.

As Killian first reported, though the Board of Trustees ultimately held a public vote to grant Hannah-Jones tenure, she declined in favor of Howard University. Below, Killian explains how he got the story, and why it’s not over for UNC, which has become a focal point for national issues of equity and free speech during the racial reckoning of the past several years.

You don’t typically report on higher ed — you’re a politics and policy guy. How did you end up breaking this particular story?

Killian: Unfortunately, higher education is a political beat now. Public higher education has never been more politicized in North Carolina, so it’s partisan, it’s political, and it’s contentious. And in those spaces are where investigative reporters go. [There’s been] massive turnover in leadership, political scandals, just real stuff that you’d see in politics but you don’t often see in higher education.

If you’re reporting anything long enough, and you do good sourcing and you don’t burn your sources, people will come to you with stuff, so I began hearing about Nikole Hannah-Jones being hired even before it was public. Particularly in conservative political circles, people were talking about it before any news got out. A number of people who are directly connected to the UNC system and its Board of Governors and the Board of Trustees are also connected to conservative activism and activist publications and organizations, so there was some back and forth between those folks, and I was listening and trying to discern how big of a problem that might be.

Then the deal was struck to essentially keep the tenure question from coming to a vote by the Board of Trustees, which is unusual. It happens all the time in politics; at the North Carolina General Assembly it’s not unusual for something to go into a committee and die, but to never see a public vote with something like tenure appointment? That’s very unusual. Nobody can point to another instance in the school’s history.

I understand some major parts of this process were private. How did you do your reporting?

Killian: The committee discussions about this, to the degree that there were any, those things can be and were held in closed sessions, and the board held a closed session at its last meeting for three hours before it held a public vote. But, I mean, the truth is people talk. And especially if the board’s large enough, and there are enough people who are dissatisfied with the transparency, somebody’s going to talk.

This has gotten very cloak and dagger over at UNC. I’ve got people who are very deep in the UNC system and at these schools who call me on my mobile phone, contact me over the Signal app, who, you know, send me documents in an encrypted way, because there’s a lot of political retribution for people who speak out. They’ve been warned not to talk about closed sessions or personnel matters, not just things that are closely held but just expressing opinions. People get pushed out of jobs, people get called on the carpet, things get defunded, people lose their positions on boards just for making the sort of observations that should be protected by the First Amendment. So, my recent work on things involving the Board of Governors and the Boards of Trustees of universities has relied to some extent on comments from people to whom I have granted anonymity. And that is always a very strange and dangerous area to get into for a reporter, and I don’t like doing it. I’ve had to deal with it more than ever when reporting on these things, because it’s not just a matter of being afraid of losing your job, which they certainly are, or political or financial retribution, which certainly happens, but also there is a clamp down on information that should be public information — the lack of press conferences where you could actually ask a question.

You got some flak on Twitter about whether your reporting on this was “objective,” which has also been a big piece of the controversy over Nikole Hannah-Jones herself. You’ve argued that it’s more important to be “fair” than to be objective. Can you expand on that?

Killian: When I was 16 years old, first getting involved in journalism, an early mentor of mine said to me: “People don’t want us to be objective, they want us to be fair.” Every reporter is bringing something to stories; there’s no harm in letting people know you are a whole person and that you are bringing something to the story. I would never misquote someone, take their quote out of context. I wouldn’t write something about somebody without calling them and getting some sort of response. Over time, if you are reasonable, then even if you’re not happy with the things I’m reporting you have to acknowledge that I’m fair to you.

Walter Hussman, I had an hour-plus interview with him and the piece that I produced, I’m sure, to some extent, he wasn’t terribly happy about. But he can’t say that I’m misquoting him on anything. I read him sections of the piece I thought that he might object to and got his reaction to things people said about him. He wasn’t surprised by any of it, and he hasn’t come forward and said anything that we’ve written is wrong or unfair.

Journalism is a fairly small world and I’m friendly with conservative journalists. I think that ideology is one thing, but if you’re a bad reporter, you’re a bad reporter.

You’ve said you treat sources for and subjects in your stories with the same respect you do readers. What does that mean to you and how did you come to that approach?

Killian: I talk about personal stuff with sources and with readers. If somebody calls me up and talks about something that I’ve written about the military, I let them know, my dad was a career Marine, that’s where I come from when I write about things dealing with the military. If somebody calls me up to talk about, you know, policing, I let them know I was a cops and courts reporter for years. I’m married, I have friends who are gay and lesbian, transgender, I come from an interracial family, these are personal things that aren’t necessarily anybody’s business, but I’m also not ashamed of any of them and they do absolutely inform my work. I think it assumes a certain lack of intelligence in your readers to assume that if you do a certain number of things, they’re not going to be able to tell whether or not you have personal opinions or you have life experiences.

Nikole Hannah-Jones gave you an exclusive interview when the main drama was over. Why did she choose you?

Killian: She was open about why she chose me, which is that we broke the story here in North Carolina, and it turned into a national and an international story. But we stayed on it too, and we pulled that thread and we got things that otherwise hadn’t been reported. Nikole Hannah-Jones comes from newsrooms, you know, she started off at the Chapel Hill News, a very small publication. Anybody who has that background knows what it’s like to be working on a big story and to really be breaking stuff, and then in comes the New York Times and the Washington Post and NBC News, and suddenly the people who are the principles in this forget you. I don’t blame them for that, but Nikole Hannah-Jones had that experience and she’s been in situations where she’s reporting something and suddenly a bigger dog comes in and eats your lunch, so knowing that, and appreciating the reporting that we did throughout this, she said, “I’d be happy to talk to you when I’m ready to talk publicly.” It shows that she remembers where she came from.

You’ve talked a bit about differences in your interview experiences with the two main characters in this saga — Nikole Hannah-Jones and Walter Hussman. Why were those differences important and how did they shape your reporting?

Killian: There are some people who are a little bit skittish about talking to reporters because they just haven’t done it a lot, and then there are people who are very smooth, because they do it all the time. Walter Hussman, it was very apparent to me right away, this guy gives a lot of interviews. It was very folksy and warm. I’d been pursuing an interview with him and not getting one, then the excellent article that John Drescher wrote in The Assembly came out and [then] Hussman did call me back. Right away he began with, “Joe, you and I are both reporters.” It’s a nice tool because it does the thing that you’re supposed to be doing, finding some common ground. But Nikole Hannah-Jones didn’t do that with me; she didn’t really have to, because it was apparent.

She’s a Black woman, so she’s faced things in journalism I’ve never faced and will never face. And she’s had a lot more success because she’s a lot more talented. But if you look at her story and you look at my story, we both come from working class roots … we both got into journalism and worked our way from very small publications up, covering a lot of the same beats. With Hussman I think there’s a disconnect, because I do think he really thinks of himself as not only a journalist and somebody who’s been a reporter, but also an expert. He’s coming down the mountain to hand you the tablets on what journalism is and what it should be. Hussman’s views about objectivity and his core values of journalism come primarily from his many decades as the publisher and owner of a media empire that he inherited. I also think that, when you talk about objectivity the way that he does, you’re talking about a very specific, narrow experience of journalism. The Black press, the Asian press, the Latinx press, the queer press, the native press, they don’t have and never have had the luxury of deciding that being objective is the highest and best purpose of journalism.

Were you surprised by the virality of this particular story, given its focus on something as banal as academic tenure?

Killian: I think I was a little initially, but when you sit back and think about it, it makes a lot of sense, because it just kind of has everything. Right now, we’re in one of a series of tense, terrible racial moments in this country, and this is part of an ongoing argument about race and politics and the history of America. Nikole Hannah-Jones' 1619 Project has been part of the political argument, but it’s turned into sort of a second “Satanic Panic” over things like critical race theory and, you know, what the purpose of teaching history is supposed to be. And because that political conversation is ongoing and it’s white-hot right now, then somebody like Nikole Hannah-Jones being in a tenure flap with the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, it was bound to blow up into something like this once the facts were out there.

Stories That Matter is a series of interviews with the people behind some of the best and most influential journalism being done today, focused on reporting, writing, and lessons we can learn from the process of creating great work.

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Predict: What Happens Next?

Joe Killian said this experience has shaken trust among faculty and students at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, who have expressed to him that they don’t feel supported. The Board of Trustees has some new members, who come from even more hardline conservative activist backgrounds. Meanwhile, some of those coming off their terms on the board this year have said they’re unsure about the status of their political careers going forward.

“It’s not over,” Killian said, also pointing to the “racial reckoning” that has been ignited and will continue to burn on UNC–Chapel Hill’s campus and around the country. “Nikole Hannah Jones is gonna be at Howard,” he added, “but the problems that she faced here don’t go anywhere.”

Read: More on Nikole Hannah-Jones & UNC–Chapel Hill