Person

Walter Hussman

Walter E. Hussman, Jr. is the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was chairman of WEHCO Media, a privately owned communications company that owns 10 daily newspapers, including the Democrat-Gazette and the Chattanooga (Tennessee) Times-Free Press, seven weekly newspapers, and seven cable TV systems, from 1981 until 2016.[1]

Hussman is also the president of the Hussman Family Foundation, which supports charter schools in Arkansas but whose primary philanthropic contribution was a multi-year, $25 million donation in 2019 to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill journalism school, from which Hussman was graduated in 1968. The donation proved controversial in 2021, when the school tried to hire Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine staff writer and onetime MacArthur Fellow, to fill a chair in journalism endowed by the Knight Foundation. Hussman objected to Hannah-Jones because of her role in the 1619 Project, a controversial radical-left reinterpretation of race and American history that even left-of-center historians have criticized for factual errors. Hussman denied trying to block Hannah-Jones’s hiring and said that he would not stop his donations if she were hired. Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract, turned it down, and turned down a position with tenure in favor of a position, also endowed by the Knight Foundation, at Howard University.

Early Life

Walter Hussman, Jr. was born in Camden, Arkansas in 1947. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina and a Master of Business Administration from Columbia University, Hussman joined his family’s newspaper business in 1970. [2]

Arkansas Democrat

In 1974 Hussman’s family bought the Arkansas Democrat, the afternoon newspaper in Little Rock, and installed Hussman as publisher. At the time, the Democrat’s circulation was 62,000, less than half that of the dominant morning paper, the Arkansas Gazette.  Hussman offered free want ads to subscribers, hired more reporters, and began introducing color to the newspaper’s front pages. He also made the Democrat a morning newspaper in 1979. [3]

Rivalry with the Gazette

In 1986 Gannett bought the Arkansas Gazette but was unable to sustain it, and in 1991 the newspaper folded and was bought by WEHCO Media.[4] In a 2002 speech at the University of Illinois, Hussman said the Democrat was outspent by Gannett by $2 million a year but won his newspaper war by “spending our money more wisely” on “hard news and investigative reporting.”[5]

Wall Street Journal columnist Tim W. Ferguson noted in 1991 that Hussman’s local triumph over a national chain was not celebrated because the Democrat “was the conservative choice” in Little Rock and the newspaper’s ideology “could help to explain why the Democrat’s triumph over the giant outsider has so few in the media-academic world jazzed up.”[6]

Coverage of the Clintons

Several Democrat-Gazette columnists were critical of Bill and Hillary Clinton both during Bill Clinton’s term as governor and in his 1992 presidential campaign. Some have suggested that the Democrat-Gazette’s criticism may have led to Bill Clinton choosing now-Associate Justice Stephen Breyer for the Supreme Court.[7]

In 2014 the Washington Free Beacon published excerpts from the papers of Diane Blair, a close friend of Hillary Clinton’s who died in 2000. According to Blair, in 1994 then-President Clinton was prepared to nominate Judge Richard Arnold to the Supreme Court.  Blair wrote that Arnold was a friend of Walter Hussman’s, and she wrote that Hillary Clinton declared that Hussman “can’t destroy everybody from Ark. and everything about the state for his precious Richard (Arnold)” and the only way Arnold would be nominated was if “Hussman and his minions will lay off all this outrageous lies and innuendo.” Clinton would nominate Judge Stephen Breyer instead.[8]

University of North Carolina

Donation

In 2009, the University of North Carolina gave Walter Hussman a distinguished alumnus award, declaring that “Walter Hussman is an endangered species: a newspaperman who knows how to publish a newspaper and make money at it.”[9]

In 2014, Susan King, dean of the University of North Carolina journalism school, visited Hussman in Little Rock and began encouraging him to give a large donation to the school. King also encouraged Hussman to write down the “core principles” of journalism as practiced in WEHCO Media publications.[10]

In September 2019, the University of North Carolina announced that the Hussman Family Foundation would donate $25 million to the school and that the school would be named the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Susan King told Editor and Publisher that Hussman “really wants to make a statement about what matters in a democracy and the role of journalism in it. This gift gives him a chance to really make a statement.  It’s not money, it’s a value statement.” [11]

The Raleigh News and Observer obtained a copy of the gift intention agreement, executed on July 11, 2019.  The agreement says that half of the $25 million gift will be paid at a rate of $1.3 million a year between 2019-2028, with the remaining $12.5 million paid at $2.5 million a year for five years after the deaths of Walter Hussman and his wife Robena. Hussman said the documents were accurate, but said he worried that other donors would not give to the University of North Carolina if their donor agreements would not be kept confidential.[12]

Nikole Hannah-Jones Controversy

In September 2020, the university began negotiations with Nikole Hannah-Jones, an alumna of the journalism school and a New York Times Magazine staff writer responsible for the 1619 Project, a controversial radical-left reframing of race and American history. The Knight Foundation would endow Hannah-Jones’s proposed chair and Hannah-Jones received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2017.[13]

Hussman wrote to Susan King, chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, and vice chancellor David Routh, stating that “I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 Project. I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer prize [sic] winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones. These historians appear to me to be pushing to find the true historical facts. Based on her own words, many will conclude she is trying to push an agenda, and they will assume she is manipulating historical facts to support it. If asked about it, I will have to be honest in saying I agree with the historians.” He added that “this possible and needless controversy” would overshadow the Hussman School being “the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion.”[14]

In April 2021, the University of North Carolina offered Hannah-Jones a five-year contract to teach at the school.[15] Hannah-Jones said she would turn down the position if she did not receive tenure.[16] The University of North Carolina trustees then voted to grant Hannah-Jones tenure, after Robert Wood Johnson Foundation CEO Richard E. Besser wrote a letter to the trustees telling them “to support the appointment of Ms. Hannah-Jones with full tenure privileges.”[17] Hannah-Jones then rejected the University of North Carolina for a position at Howard University endowed by the Knight Foundation.  The Washington Post reported that she and author Ta-Nehisi Coates would be joining the Howard faculty due to $20 million in donations from the Knight, Ford and MacArthur Foundations and an anonymous donor.[18]

Hussman denied trying to block Hannah-Jones’s hiring or tenure and added his donations to the school would not be interrupted. He wrote to Chancellor Guskiewicz after Hannah-Jones accepted Howard’s offer, stating “the concerns I expressed” about Hannah-Jones’s hiring “were rooted entirely in the core values of honesty, accuracy, and impartiality, which are closely associated with me and the school. I felt it appropriate for me, as for any alumnus, to convey them to the dean.”[19]

View of Journalism

In 2019, Walter Hussman wrote a statement of what he thought the core values of journalism should be that is printed on the second page of every WEHCO Media newspaper and is posted in the lobby of the Hussman School. Hussman’s credo calls for strict impartiality, defined as “reporting, editing, and delivering the news honestly, fairly, objectively, and without personal opinion or bias.” It further affirms that “Journalists’ role is therefore not to determine what they believe at the time to be the truth and reveal only that to the 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.” [20]

References

  1. “WEHCO Media—History,” http://www.wehco.com/History.html (accessed July 19, 2021). ^
  2. Walter E. Hussman, Jr., “The Palmer-Hussman Families,” https://www.arkansasonline.com/tools/palmerhussmanhistory/ (accessed July 19, 2021) ^
  3. Walter E. Hussman, Jr., “The Palmer-Hussman Families,” https://www.arkansasonline.com/tools/palmerhussmanhistory/ (accessed July 19, 2021) ^
  4. Walter E. Hussman, Jr., “The Palmer-Hussman Families,” https://www.arkansasonline.com/tools/palmerhussmanhistory/ (accessed July 19, 2021) ^
  5. Jodi Heckel, “Publisher Tells How He Won Battle Against Large Chain,” Champaign News-Gazette, September 1, 2002. ^
  6. Tim W. Ferguson, “And The Winner in Little Rock Was…Not Gannett,” Wall Street Journal, November 26, 1991. ^
  7. Alana Goodman, “The Hillary Papers,” Washington Free Beacon, February 9, 2014, https://freebeacon.com/politics/the-hillary-papers/ (accessed July 20, 2021). ^
  8. Alana Goodman, “The Hillary Papers,” Washington Free Beacon, February 9, 2014, https://freebeacon.com/politics/the-hillary-papers/ (accessed July 20, 2021). ^
  9. Eric Ferreri, “He Pokes At Pomp:  Faculty Secretary Joe Ferrell Can’t Resist A Quip,” Chapel Hill News, October 21, 2009. ^
  10. “Passing It Forward,” Editor and Publisher, December 2019. ^
  11. “Passing It Forward,” Editor and Publisher, December 2019. ^
  12. Kate Murphy, “Hussman’s Contract With UNC Sheds Light On The Strings Attached to the $25 Million Gift,” Raleigh News and Observer, July 14, 2021. ^
  13. John Drescher, “Nikole Hannah-Jones, A Mega-Donor, and the Future of Journalism,” The Assembly, May 30, 2021. ^
  14. John Drescher, “Nikole Hannah-Jones, A Mega-Donor, and the Future of Journalism,” The Assembly, May 30, 2021. ^
  15. Katie Robertson, “U.N.C. Denies Tenure To Writer on 1619 Project,” New York Times, May 21, 2021. ^
  16. Katie Robertson, “Nikole Hannah-Jones Says She Won’t Join U.N.C. Faculty Without Tenure,” New York Times, June 23, 2021. ^
  17. Katie Robertson, “Nikole Hannah-Jones Granted Tenure After Weekslong Dispute,” New York Times, June 30, 2021. ^
  18. Lauren Lumpkin and Nick Anderson, “Nikole Hannah-Jones To Join Howard Faculty After UNC Tenure Challenge,” Washington Post, July 6, 2021. ^
  19. Brooke Cain, “Hussman’s Letter To UNC Chancellor On Nikole Hannah-Jones Tenure Debate,” Raleigh News and Observer, July 14, 2021, https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article252789883.html (accessed July 20, 2021). ^
  20. Walter K. Hussman, Jr., “Impartiality Is The Source of a Newspaper’s Credibility,” Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2019. ^
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