John Drescher on Hussman and Hannah-Jones, and on objectivity: ‘Eventually I stopped using the word’

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

John Drescher

John Drescher stoked a lot of conversations among journalists and educators nationwide last week when he broke the story for The Assembly that Walter Hussman, the top donor and namesake of the school of journalism and media at UNC-Chapel Hill, had expressed his concerns to university administrators and at least one trustee about the school’s potential hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Drescher has had a long and distinguished career in journalism in these parts, including stints as a reporter at The News & Observer, a reporter and editor at The Charlotte Observer and managing editor of The State in Columbia. Starting in 2002, he served for five years as the managing editor and a decade as executive editor of The N&O. (I seem to remember that he was also the interim publisher there for a minute.)

He recently spent two years as an editor on the politics, investigations and enterprise team at The Washington Post. Back home now, he’s helping The Assembly, the statewide digital magazine that launched this year, as a contributing editor.

Drescher was my direct boss for more than a decade at The News & Observer. I caught up with him Tuesday to talk about the Hussman story, the state of play at UNC now, what “objectivity” in journalism really means, his new work and the future of local journalism in North Carolina.

What can you tell us about how you got the story?

You know, I just got a tip. I had not heard anything about Walter Hussman’s involvement with the Nikole Hannah-Jones matter, and I just got a tip that said he indeed had been involved. And here’s the challenge … everybody these days is kind of not saying much, you know — it’s become perhaps the culture wars story of the moment. You can find people with strong opinions, but the people who actually are on the inside weren’t saying much.

What surprised you most as you reported it?

Well, first I was a little bit surprised to learn that Hussman had weighed in pretty strongly on the matter … that was kind of new to me, and potentially startling. I mean, you could see the potential problems there, when you have a $25 million donor weighing in on an issue like this. And that’s bound to bring pushback from people at the university. And indeed, it has, and I will tell you that there are people, insiders, at the university, on both sides of this issue, in agreement that they didn’t want Walter Hussman involved. I mean, the people who run the university, the people on the Board of Trustees — from what I picked up, they don’t want donors throwing their weight around, and they felt like Walter Hussman was throwing his weight around.

“I do know that the faculty, in particular, is unhappy. And it’s not just the faculty. I mean, there are Board of Trustees members who are unhappy with his involvement.” 

So the story that I reported says that there was one trustee who he spoke with directly. And that’s Kelly Hopkins, and she declined comment, but other trustees expressed concern about Walter Hussman’s involvement, and they are on both sides of the tenure issue.

Do you think that will have any effect on an eventual tenure decision, if there ever is one?

Good question. I don’t know. The trustees have been so tight-lipped, even before Nikole Hannah-Jones’ lawyers threatened a lawsuit, and now I think they’re even more so. And so everybody’s kind of lawyered up and not saying much. But I do know that the faculty, in particular, is unhappy. And it’s not just the faculty. I mean, there are Board of Trustees members who are unhappy with his involvement.

Tell me your reaction to his statement about not wanting to speak publicly, given the fact that he was already on the record in the emails. 

Yeah. Well, he drew a distinction between public comment and private comment. I interviewed him once, and we emailed back and forth numerous times, and I told him, “There won’t be any surprises in the story; I’m gonna tell you what I have. And you can respond as you see fit.” And so I sent the essence of some of the emails to him, and he affirmed that they were correct and accurate. And so at that point, he knows that his opinion is out, and he chose, really, not to defend it. And you know, that’s his call — I mean, obviously I wanted to give him the chance to do it, and he declined, so I just moved forward.

What’s your take on the challenges facing the university leaders now, and especially Dean Susan King?

Yeah, well, I should also note that Susan declined to talk with me. But did you see the email that she put out last night? She said she told (Hussman) that this was the faculty’s decision to make, not his. (Earlier) she put out a statement on this question about journalism, you know, the core values that Walter Hussman espouses, and in some ways some different values that Nikole Hannah-Jones believes in. My take on that was that (King) was emphasizing some of each. 

You’ve been a reporter, and obviously you’ve guided hundreds of reporters. How do you define journalistic objectivity?

As a newsroom manager, eventually I stopped using the word “objectivity,” because I didn’t feel it was productive anymore, because what would happen is, journalists would just argue endlessly about whether a human being can be objective or not. And I just want to get beyond that debate. And so I talked more about being fair, being accurate, recognizing your own inclinations and biases. Reporting deeply, you know, weighing all the evidence. 

As an alumnus and a donor to the school, what’s your opinion on the influence of big donors on journalism schools at public universities?

I guess the question is, what’s the right level of involvement. And I want to give Susan King, and people on her faculty, a lot of credit. Prior to this development, they have embraced this discussion (of objectivity). I mean they’ve held forums on this issue, and Walter Hussman was one of the speakers at those forums. And they had people with differing views — Wes Lowery, former Washington Post reporter who’s one of the best-known representatives of a different view, was on one of these forums, too.

“I think Susan King and her faculty have basically been doing what you should do at a university, and that’s talk about different views and get your students to think about them.”

And I just saw something that Ryan Thornburg sent out — you know, he’s been teaching about this, and I know other members of the journalism faculty have, too. And so I think Susan King and her faculty have basically been doing what you should do at a university, and that’s talk about different views and get your students to think about them. So they haven’t shied away from this issue. They’ve embraced it. And to me it seems like that’s what journalism schools should do. 

And it will be different at different publications. If you’re a staff writer for, let’s say, a magazine like The Atlantic, it might be different than if you’re a reporter for ABC News, or The Associated Press. Which is even more reason for journalism students to be exposed to the different views on this.

Who do you think has a really smart take on this issue?

Well, I agree with much of what Susan said — except she used the word “objectivity.”

I think there is some common ground here. I think even Nikole Hannah-Jones and Walter Hussman have common ground. I think they both would agree that you want to be fair and that you want to be accurate and you want to question your assumptions. But clearly there are some differences about whether people can actually be objective, and I think increasingly (we have) critics of what’s called both-sidesism. On some issues, you’re not doing anybody favors to give equal treatment to both sides. I mean, the facts are so heavily weighted on one side that you need to tell your readers that. 

You don’t have a Holocaust denier in your Rolodex.

Right. I mean, there are some issues — and I would say climate change is one of them now — where the scientific evidence is so weighted on one side that to do an old-school “on the one hand, on the other hand” article is not doing anybody a service.

Tell me about your work with The Assembly.

We launched a little more than three months ago, and I’m helping Kyle Villemain out. [Read more about The Assembly in the NC Local newsletter of March 10.]

And, gosh, we’ve got a really nice collection of stories already. 

My title is contributing editor. So basically I help in any way that I can. I was the editor, a couple of weeks ago, on a really terrific story out of Greensboro, about a police hog-tying case that has received very little attention, and you know, honestly, I’m really proud of that story, which was reported by Ian McDowell with assistance from Anne Blythe. That’s a terrific piece of journalism, which by the way was followed by NBC News last week. They did their own version of that story, NBC News and The Marshall Project — Joe Neff was the reporter for The Marshall Project. We got some court documents that hadn’t been reported on before, some depositions that hadn’t been reported on before. And that’s a current issue. You know, Roy Cooper’s commission that he appointed to look at policing and criminal justice recommended against hog-tying, and several police departments in North Carolina had banned it.

So, that’s a long way of saying The Assembly, in a short period of time, has published some really good stories, so we just want to keep it going and build our readership and keep doing good journalism.

How was your time at the Post?

Fantastic. It was a little over two years, in a really fantastic newsroom. I just can’t say enough about the people there. I was expecting everybody to be really talented and driven. What I wasn’t expecting was everybody to be so collegial and collaborative, and it’s not the stereotype that you have of the big newsrooms. But it’s a terrific newsroom, and I was just fortunate to be part of a lot of really fantastic stories.

What’s your No. 1 concern about journalism right now?

The financial side. You know the Post and the Times have done great, and they have a national, even international, readership, and they’ve got a business model with digital subscriptions that works for them, and that’s fantastic. But you still have the question of local and regional journalism, and how it’s going to be funded. And so that’s my biggest concern because we need … we need reporters. We need reporters in courthouses and at city council meetings, and we just need to cover the institutions, because the people in the room just act differently when there’s no reporter there. And our democracy is better when we have more reporting. I have a theory that the quality of democracy is directly linked to the per capita number of reporters, and that the more reporters we have in our society, the better our democracy will be.

“We need reporters in courthouses and at city council meetings, and we just need to cover the institutions, because the people in the room just act differently when there’s no reporter there.”

What do you think is the best approach to make journalism sustainable?

I think the jury’s out on that. There’s a tremendous amount of experimentation going around, and The Assembly is part of that. We’re a subscription-based model. Our basic subscription is $3 a month. I think eventually we’ll probably have some advertising revenue and some event revenue, but mostly it’ll be a subscription model. And so we’re part of the experiment, and there’s a lot of people in the state experimenting and doing really interesting things. It’s really impressive. So, we just gotta keep at it and see what works for the long term. 

I’m just hopeful that all these new initiatives will succeed, and that we’ll keep local journalism strong in North Carolina.

NC Local News Workshop