"Cancel Culture," Hypocrisy, and Double Standards

Two controversies—over Nikole Hannah-Jones's teaching post at UNC and Emily Wilder's firing by the AP—raise questions about attacks on free speech from the right

Last Wednesday, a surge of Twitter outrage followed reports that Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, recently appointed Knight Chair in race and investigative journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, did not get the automatic tenure that should have come with that post because of political objections. (The 22-year-old Knight Chair program supports teaching by professional journalists with an emphasis on innovative digital-age journalism.)

The news was quickly deplored as an attack on freedom of the press and an example of “cancel culture” on the right, with the inevitable accusations of hypocrisy on the part of conservatives and “free speech warriors.”

In fact, several people who write about academic freedom from a right-of-center viewpoint, including Reason’s Robby Soave and The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, did criticize the situation at UNC. Additionally, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the premier group battling ideological speech suppression on college campuses, has said that it’s “investigating” the story.

Meanwhile, the narrative of a powerful “cancel culture” on the right was further boosted by news that the Associated Press had fired Emily Wilder, a recently hired reporter, after conservative activists and media targeted the 2020 Stanford graduate over her college involvement in Students for Justice for Palestine and her past social media posts. Wilder, who says she has been “canceled,” was apparently told that she was being fired for violating AP’s social media policy during her brief time at the organization, but her request to know which specific posts were in violation was denied.

To many, this is evidence that critics of Israel are specifically singled out for “cancellation.”

For the record, I think what happened to Wilder was egregious. I also believe that there may well have been inappropriate political pressure with regard to Hannah-Jones’s UNC post. If so, it should absolutely be condemned.

But do these cases prove that, as Heer, Serwer and others are suggesting, the “real” assault on freedom of speech and discourse today is from the right? Hardly.

Let’s take the Wilder case first, because it’s fairly simple. Basically, Wilder was collateral damage in the right’s war on the Associated Press. After an Israeli airstrike demolished the building that housed AP’s news bureau in Gaza while (according to the Israeli military) targeting Hamas, a controversy broke out on the question of whether the Hamas target existed—and if it did, whether AP knew of Hamas’ nearby presence and tailored its coverage accordingly. AP says it has no knowledge that Hamas operatives were in the building. Its critics have pointed to a 2014 Atlantic article by former AP correspondent Matti Friedman, who wrote that armed Hamas militants sometimes entered the bureau’s Gaza office, complained about coverage and intimidated the staff (and that AP reported none of this).

Earlier this week, Stanford College Republicans, a group that clashed with pro-Palestinian activists during Wilder’s time on campus, discovered that Wilder had been hired by AP and decided to use her to go after the news organization.

Several conservative outlets including The Washington Free Beacon and The Federalist picked up the story, with headlines like “AP Hires Anti-Israel Activist as News Associate” and suggestions that Wilder’s employment further called AP’s objectivity about Israel into question. The AP got cold feet and unceremoniously ditched her.

It was pretty craven behavior on AP’s part. But it was also, frankly, a pretty low blow from Wilder’s detractors. For instance, the unsigned Free Beacon article noted with a straight face that it’s “unclear whether Wilder will cover the Middle East,” but a simple query could have ascertained that she was not. Wilder had been an intern at the Arizona Republic covering local news and was starting as a “news associate” in AP’s Phoenix bureau. What seems to be her first and last story for AP was a co-authored piece about a school shooting in Boise, Idaho.

What’s more, some of Wilder’s social media behavior denounced as scandalous by the Stanford College Republicans was pretty mild. She called the late pro-Israel tycoon Sheldon Adelson a “naked mole rat-looking billionaire” and Ben Shapiro “a little turd.” Fetch the smelling salts! I’m sure no College Republican has ever called, say, George Soros or Rachel Maddow bad names.

I cannot say strongly enough that Wilder should not have been fired. What happened to her is a classic witch-hunt. It smacks of a media organization throwing an employee under the proverbial bus to ward off negative publicity. It’s unfair and sets a bad precedent.

If there’s a “but” coming (and there is), it applies not to AP’s behavior in this case, but to the question of what this incident says about “cancel culture” in general.

First of all: I greatly respect Adam Serwer, but Palestinian rights as the issue that consistently gets the most people fired or blacklisted? Really? I may not be aware of every such case, to be sure, but I doubt that the list approaches the firings and other “cancellations” related to violations of racial orthodoxy. I was easily able to compile a list of more than thirty such cases just from the past year, from high-profile (veteran New York Times science reporter Donald McNeil, pressured into resigning because of allegedly racially insensitive comments on a 2019 trip with a group of high schoolers) to obscure (a Kentucky hospital nurse fired after she posted an admittedly obnoxious video criticizing Black Lives Matter and refusing to “apologize for being white”). Some of these cases involve declarations that black lives matter but “all lives matter” too, or an insufficient show of solidarity with BLM. How many people in North America (other than a politician getting blowback from constituents) suffered repercussions for inadequate solidarity with Israel, or for saying something along the lines of “both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to be safe”? (By contrast, the tweets that cost pro-Palestinian English professor Steven Salaita a job offer—wrongly, in my view—at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2014 appeared to suggest that Zionism justified anti-Semitism and cheered the disappearance of three teens from an Israeli settlement in the West Bank who were later found murdered.1)

I’m not engaging in “whataboutism.” Obviously, none of this justifies firing even vitriolic critics of Israel, or using state laws barring public contracts with entities that boycott Israel to require speakers at state universities to pledge that they don’t support such boycotts (a practice I deplore). My point is simply that pro-Palestinian views are not the biggest cause for speech-related firings and blacklists in the U.S.

But it is currently the biggest (only?) progressive position that may, at least in its more extreme forms, get people in trouble at mainstream liberal or centrist institutions in the United States. That’s mainly because radical anti-Israel views may overlap with a recognized form of bigotry against a religious, cultural, and ethnic minority, i.e. Jews.

While I have been critical of the conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel polemics, I think that it would be absurd to deny that strident anti-Israel animus often manifests itself in Jew-hating forms, especially now. After the recent string of anti-Semitic attacks in the U.S. linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one can’t dismiss claims by Jewish college students that anti-Israel militancy makes them feel unsafe. Here, “unsafe” may actually mean “in fear of physical violence,” not “traumatized by an offense to my identity.”

Students for Justice in Palestine is pretty militant. A backgrounder by the Anti-Defamation League, which stresses supports for SJP’s First Amendment rights, also notes that it has a history of demonizing pro-Israel Jews and comparing them to white supremacists, as well as a history of confrontational behavior—from disrupting events and shouting down speakers to putting fake “eviction notices” on dorm room doors to dramatize Palestinian evictions.

One incident of SJP-related extremism recounted in the ADL backgrounder indirectly involves Wilder. In July 2018, Stanford SJP member Hamzeh Daoud made a Facebook post promising to “physically fight Zionists on campus next year” (then edited it four hours later to change “physically” to “intellectually”). In the ensuing outcry, Wilder defended Daoud’s post as an expression of “Palestinian pain.”

Should Wilder be blacklisted for her activism or attacked as anti-Semitic? No, absolutely not. (For what it’s worth, Wilder is Jewish.)

But there is another question that I think is useful to ask. Would a recent college graduate who had been involved in a right-wing campus group with a similar history of aggressive behavior—for instance, a pro-life group that routinely shouted down pro-choice speakers, vilified pro-choice women as “baby killers,” and plastered dorm room doors with photos of dismembered fetuses—have gotten a job with a national media organization? And if she had, would progressive groups have shied away from targeting her? My guess is that if Emily Wilder had been a pro-life, pro-gun rights, or anti-affirmative action activist, this story would not exist because she never would have had a job at AP.

Which, I repeat, she should not have lost.

The Nikole Hannah-Jones saga at the University of North Carolina raises somewhat similar issues, though unlike Wilder, Hannah-Jones did not lose a position—she simply gained one that was not as prestigious or secure as was originally offered.

In the Hannah-Jones case, we still don’t know exactly what happened. The initial story by the left-leaning website NC Policy Watch that sparked such a strong social media reaction suggested that Hannah-Jones’s tenure at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media was revoked after a conservative backlash against her hiring. The article quoted an unnamed member of the UNC Board of Trustees as saying that “politics” was the reason Hannah-Jones was not granted tenure:

“This is a very political thing,” the trustee said. “The university and the board of trustees and the Board of Governors and the legislature have all been getting pressure since this thing was first announced last month. There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight.”

The “thing” was Hannah-Jones’s appointment as Knight Chair, announced on April 26. The article then discussed the intense criticism from conservative websites that followed, specifically noting a column on the site of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal arguing that Hannah-Jones’s hiring indicated “failed university governance” and should have been blocked by the Board of Trustees.

This account seemed to suggest that the Board denied Hannah-Jones instant tenure because of the backlash. But in fact, as the Raleigh News and Observer clarified, “the lack of action from the Board of Trustees on granting tenure for Hannah-Jones came before UNC’s announcement of her hire in April. She accepted the position as a non-tenured professor this spring.” The departure from standard procedure was that the board failed to approve tenure even though it was recommended by faculty and administrators. (In most university hiring decisions, faculty and administrators are the difficult hurdles, and trustees a rubber stamp.)

This sequence was confirmed to me by Hussman School Board of Advisors chair Joyce Fitzpatrick. When I emailed Joe Killian, the principal author of the NC Policy Watch article, for clarification, he replied that while the unnamed trustee’s comment concerned the public backlash, “it was in the context of the political pressure (from outside the board that impacts the inter-board politics) that is ongoing” and that “legislators and conservative groups were aware this was coming down the pipeline and had conversations with the BOT members before it went public.”

Regardless of whether there was outside pressure on the board, the charge of viewpoint discrimination against Hannah-Jones rests on the fact that the previous two Knight Chairs at UNC both got tenure at the time of their appointment. (Some Knight Chairs at other schools have held untenured posts.) Hannah-Jones has received a fixed five-year term at the end of which she is eligible for tenure.

Board of Trustees chairman Richard Stevens has also said that it was UNC Hussman School Dean Susan King who suggested a fixed five-year term after being told that the board needed more time to “vet” Hannah-Jones. While Dean King is currently unavailable due to previously scheduled medical leave, Fitzpatrick disputed this version of the events in response to my email query, stating, “This is not my understanding.”

Whether the board refused to act outright or tried to bide time, it appears that its official objection to instant tenure for Hannah-Jones was that she is a “non-academic.” Dean King said as much in her message to faculty, and a second unnamed trustee mentioned it to NC Policy Watch: “There was some discussion about ‘She is not from a teaching background, she is not from academia, so how can she just get a tenured position?’” However, as that trustee noted, this objection “doesn’t hold water,” since the whole idea of the Knight Chairs is to bring in professional journalists. UNC’s two other Knight Chairs, Penelope Abernathy and JoAnn Sciarrino, are also non-academics.

It’s possible, however, that the board was jittery about Hannah-Jones not because of her specific views, but because she is a controversial figure. (The closest any other Knight Chair comes to being controversial is Michael Pollan, critic of factory farming and defender of psychedelic drugs.) That may still count as political discrimination, but it’s a bit more complicated.

Now let’s try another “reverse the politics” exercise. Suppose the chair was offered to New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Bret Stephens—or to Hannah-Jones’s “canceled” ex-colleague Donald McNeil, the veteran, award-winning science reporter and Pulitzer contender.

Can anyone doubt that in either case, many of the same professors now up in arms over the lack of tenure for Hannah-Jones would be vocally against even a non-tenured post? This is especially true since the faculty statement explicitly mentions politics (“Nikole Hannah-Jones does necessary and transformative work on America’s racial history”) even as it laments the “politicization of universities, journalism, and the social sciences.” 

If Hannah-Jones got her job offer downgraded because of political pressure, that’s alarming. But it’s also impossible to discuss this situation fairly without discussing the politics on the other side.

I have written two long articles looking into the 1619 Project and specifically into its Pulitzer-winning lead essay by Hannah-Jones. For the record, I think the personal parts of her essay—about her effort to understand her father’s patriotic love for a country that had treated him as a second-class citizen and her own embrace of an American identity—were moving and beautifully written. A retelling of history in which black people’s struggle for freedom and dignity is central to the American story is an essential project.

Regrettably, in Hannah-Jones’s retelling, this story becomes a false narrative claiming that the Founders’ vision of liberty was not just profoundly marred by hypocrisy about slavery and race, but concocted to win independence from England “to ensure that slavery would continue.” (A later “clarification” noted that only “some” of the founders had such an agenda.) The Revolution’s anti-slavery and abolitionist elements are ignored.

To some extent, these are matters of legitimate disagreement. But some aspects of the 1619 Project raise questions about Hannah-Jones’s professionalism. Northwestern University historian Leslie Harris, a black scholar who supports the project’s goals, has written that she pointed out serious inaccuracies in the essay to a Times research editor; the errors still got into print. Eventually, Hannah-Jones admitted to The Washington Post that she should have sought more input from “scholars with particular focus on colonial history, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.”

Hannah-Jones has dismissed 1619 Project detractors as “a small group of white professors and conservatives.” In fact, they include historians who have worked to correct narratives that downplayed the role of slavery and white supremacy in U.S. history—such as Paul Finkelman, president of Gratz College in Greater Philadelphia and author of numerous books on slavery and race—and left-wing black scholars such as political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. and historian Barbara J. Fields.

There is also little doubt that the 1619 Project has been, to some extent, insulated from criticism by politics, i.e. reluctance to challenge (at least openly) a media project regarded as a key cultural moment for the black community. This was evident from Serwer’s sympathetic account in The Atlantic in late 2019.

I came across the same attitude last year in phone interviews with two history professors, both award-winning authors. One told me that the project and especially Hannah-Jones’s essay was full of “omissions and distortions,” but would only speak anonymously. The other speculated that it was “possible” that the stirrings of anti-slavery opinion in Britain were seen as a threat by some American colonial slaveholders in the early 1770s—while conceding there was no record of controversy about this—and did not respond to my follow-up query about the accuracy of other 1619 Project claims.

Notably, the only historian on the 2019-2020 Pulitzer Board, New York University’s Steve Hahn, later told The Washington Post that “any serious historian would have questions about some of the [essay’s] claims” and that he voiced these concerns to the board, with no effect. (Also notably, within a month of the announcement of Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer on May 4 of last year, the description of her prize-winning work on the Pulitzer site as “a sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay” was stealth-edited to replace “deeply reported” with “provocative.”)

Hannah-Jones’s post-Project actions, especially on social media, raises more concerns. She has made startlingly irresponsible claims, from the assertion in a New York University lecture that Germany has done a better job of reckoning with its past than the U.S. because it has virtually no Jews left to serve as a living reminder of its crimes, to the amplification of a conspiracy theory about government agents setting off fireworks in New York boroughs to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement. Her penchant for attacking and taunting can verge on James Lindsay-like trolling. Most recently, she responded to what she considered an irksome query from a right-of-center journalist by tweeting a screenshot from his email complete with the phone number—which triggered a rash of harassing calls—and leaving it up for two days even after it was brought to her attention.

Given such issues, one can surely see valid reasons to demur on an instant lifetime appointment. One can also legitimately wonder if the political climate made it difficult for any UNC faculty or administrators with such concerns to voice objections.

Even in this case, interference by a politically appointed Board of Trustees is hardly (contra the Martin Center) a desirable remedy. It simply adds a new layer of political pressure—the proverbial two wrongs that don’t make a right.

But here’s another wrinkle to this story. Assuming this is a matter of political pressure and thus a “cancellation,” Hannah-Jones is the second person at UNC to be canceled for political reasons in the past year.

The first, at UNC-Wilmington, was criminology professor Mike Adams, strong-armed into accepting early retirement last July due to outrage over his provocative tweets mocking women’s studies, slamming rioters as “thugs” (while also, it should be noted, strongly condemning police actions in the death of George Floyd), and comparing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions to slavery. He committed suicide a few days before he was due to retire.

In contrast to Hannah-Jones, no faculty rallied to support Adams last year—just as no faculty rallied to support him in 2006 when he was denied a full professorship despite extensive qualifications, apparently because of some faculty members’ displeasure at his often acerbic conservatism. In 2014, with the help of FIRE, he won a viewpoint discrimination lawsuit against UNC.

FIRE will also side with Hannah-Jones if the evidence shows she was similarly targeted. Most of Hannah-Jones’s supporters would not side with Adams.

This brings me back to the point I made last week about free speech and criticism of Israel, occasioned by the controversy at the University of Toronto about the withdrawal of a job offer to pro-Palestinian legal scholar Valentina Azarova.

When “cancellation” targeting journalists or academics comes from the right, it is almost invariably met with a strong pushback from within the profession. This is already the case with both Wilder and Hannah-Jones.

When “cancellation” targeting journalists or academics comes from the left, it almost invariably comes from within the profession. Who speaks for Donald McNeil or Mike Adams? Certainly not their colleagues.

That makes right-wing “cancel culture” more episodic and easily contained. Yes, it can still be damaging and should be resisted by any genuine advocate for freedom of speech. (So, of course, should state-level bills championed by conservatives that would restrict teaching of “divisive concepts” on race and sex—a different, but extremely bad, kettle of fish.) But to argue that the real “chilly climate” for speech in the mainstream media and the academy comes from occasional right-wing hits? That’s projection on a par with claims that it’s the Democrats who are really responsible for subverting democracy by delegitimizing election results.

Correction: The original version of this post said that Donald McNeil was fired by the New York Times. In fact, he resigned under pressure.

1

On July 20, 2014, Salaita tweeted, “Zionists: transforming anti-semitism from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” His defenders argue that in the context of preceding tweets, he clearly meant that they do so by conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. On July 9, after the disappearance of the three teens who were later found dead, he tweeted, “You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”