Prof. Kathy Roberts Forde previews upcoming talk at UNC-Chapel Hill and reflects on recent controversies that have roiled her alma mater
Journalists like to think of themselves as part of a long lineage of truth seekers, a “fourth estate” in American life keeping government honest and shining light in dark places since the founding of the republic.
But when UNC-Chapel Hill alum Kathy Roberts Forde returns to the university’s journalism school Wednesday, it will be to discuss how seductive an illusion that is – and how the truth is much more complicated.
A new book she co-edited, Journalism and Jim Crow: White Supremacy and the Struggle for a New America, details how the mainstream white press worked to help embed racism in journalism and society and the Black press risked everything to expose it.
“White newspaper editors and publishers and journalists were in the thick of building white supremacy in the South,” Forde told Policy Watch this week. “And they did it in a lot of different ways. Black journalists, both in the South and in the North, were very clear eyed about what was happening as it was happening. They were effectively fighting back against what the white press in the South at the time was doing.”
Some now decrying modern media point back to an earlier age of “objectivity” in journalism. But that was always a mirage, Forde said. From the earliest days of American journalism, the most popular mainstream media outlets worked directly with and on behalf of political parties and vested interests to maintain the status quo and prevent progress for women, indigenous people and racial and religious minorities. The new book examines the stark difference in the reporting of the Black and white press in the Jim Crow era.
“The white press then, the large dailies, were all associated with the Democratic Party, which at that time was the party of white supremacy,” Forde said. “Even if there weren’t official ties to the Democratic Party, people in power at the newspapers were in many instances very closely tied to the Democratic Party.”
Understanding that history is essential to understanding modern media discussions, Forde said.
“I’m talking about why this history matters, why it’s important that people working in the journalism industry understand how the white press in the South – and in other parts of the country, too – built white supremacy into the actual news media system,” she said. “And also were responsible for building it into the actual political and economic world of the South and beyond.”
Race and recent controversies at UNC
Forde’s talk, part of the new Hussman Media Justice Speaker Series, comes as the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media is itself reckoning with race, social conflict and journalism values.
Last summer the school’s namesake donor was at the center of a national controversy after working to prevent the hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the school’s most prominent alumni. At the heart of the conflict: race, history and the role of journalism in ongoing social struggles.
Hussman and conservative political appointees on the UNC Board of Trustees objected to Hannah-Jones’s work on “The 1619 Project” and pieces she wrote about racial issues, including reparations for Black Americans. They questioned her journalism values, credentials and ability to teach journalism while being open about her political and social beliefs.
The history Forde helps detail in her book, out next month, has direct ties to today’s conflicts. Hannah-Jones considers pioneering reporter Ida B. Wells one of her greatest inspirations. Wells risked her life in 1919 to investigate and expose the truth about the massacre of Black sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas – a racist tragedy covered up by Arkansas newspapers now owned by Hussman.
Hussman’s family didn’t own the papers then. Today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is the result of the consolidation of two of the state’s newspapers in the 1990s – an episode with its own fraught political history.
Hussman family’s company bought the Arkansas Democrat in the 1970s, installing him as publisher at age 27. Hussman instigated and ultimately won a newspaper war with the Arkansas Gazette, a crusading progressive newspaper that was a rare anti-segregation voice among mainstream southern newspapers in the American South during the Civil Rights Era. Hussman positioned his paper as a conservative alternative to the Gazette and ultimately triumphed, later buying the paper and adding it to his family’s media empire.
Now a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Forde said she thought about the strange habit history has of repeating itself as she watched the Hannah-Jones and Hussman controversy unfolding at the journalism school where she earned her doctorate.
“Here yet again we have a powerful, white news publisher using the language or the values of objectivity to object to a Black journalist telling the truth about American history, about white supremacy and anti-Black racism in the American Democratic experience. I thought, ‘Here we go again.’”
Staying “impartial” or reporting the truth?
The “core values” Hussman publishes in each edition of his newspapers are, as a condition of his $25 million gift to the journalism school, now plastered on the wall in the front lobby of the school’s home in Carroll Hall. His agreement with the school calls for them to be etched in stone.
That’s sparked controversy among the journalism faculty, who were not consulted on the agreement. They have voted to have the list removed from the school’s website and have made clear that while it reflects Hussman’s core values, they are not those of the school.
The values statement also bothers Forde.
“I was deeply offended and incredibly concerned this was happening at my alma mater,” Forde said of the Hannah-Jones and Hussman controversy. “But I am also concerned about Hussman’s ‘core values’ being emblazoned on the wall as though they speak for themselves. They don’t.”
Among the problems with the Hussman values statement, critics say, is the assertion that “Credibility is the greatest asset of any news medium, and impartiality is the greatest source of credibility.”
A line like that may ring true for white journalists from a certain tradition, Forde said. But impartiality was never an option for the journalists of the Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous and LGBTQ press. It still isn’t today, she said, and for good reason.
“It’s easy to say we’re in favor of impartiality in journalism,” Forde said. “But that word – “impartiality” – is often a cloak or a veil for values. You can’t be impartial about racism.”
The truth was more important than impartiality to journalists like Ida B. Wells, Forde said, and Hussman’s values statement echoes language used to prop up a “both sides” media approach that allowed racist and anti-Democratic values to take root and flourish in the period her book examines.
“The pursuit of truth is a noble goal of journalism,” Hussman’s values statement says. “But the truth is not always apparent or known immediately. Journalists’ role is therefore not to determine what they believe at that time to be the truth and reveal only that to their readers, but rather to report as completely and impartially as possible all verifiable facts so that readers can, based on their own knowledge and experience, determine what they believe to be the truth.”
But the truth was known to the Black press in the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras, Forde said. The mainstream white press put white supremacist and segregationist views on an equal footing with voices calling for justice – and often in a superior position – under the cloak of impartiality. It was one of American journalism’s greatest mistakes, she said, and shouldn’t be repeated now.
“Understanding this history is important,” Forde said. “It’s important for understanding the present.”