The Collapse of the Fourth Estate

 

The Pulitzer Committee has awarded Nikole Hannah-Jones a prize for her lead essay in The New York Times’ “The 1619 Project.” The news doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. It was widely rumored that Hannah-Jones was under consideration, which raised the tantalizing question of how the Pulitzer Committee might find its way the past the evident obstacles. Those include her cavalier disregard of historical facts, her preposterous assertions conjured out of thin air, and her refusal to correct mistakes pointed out by dozens of reputable historians, some of whom have well-earned Pulitzer Prizes of their own.

Hannah-Jones’ essay eccentrically titled, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written,” is mainly remarkable in how much she manages to be wrong in a mere 7,700 or so words. She is wrong about Virginia being the first place that African slaves were brought to America, and wrong too about the status of the slaves whom a group of pirates brought to Virginia in 1619, many of whom gained their freedom. She is wrong that slavery was the founding institution of America and wrong about its importance in key events, including the American Revolution and the Civil War. Her mistakes about the American Revolution included the absurdity that the colonial Americans launched the Revolution to protect their right to hold slaves.

On this single point, The New York Times felt compelled to make a half-hearted correction to the effect that only some of the colonists harbored this motive. To date, no one has been able to identify a single Revolutionary leader, soldier, or supporter of the Revolution who held such a view. Even ardent supporters of slavery in the 1770s knew better because the British government at the time was stalwart in supporting slavery in the colonies. The meaningful opposition to slavery was among the revolutionary colonists, not the British. And this is no obscure historical fact. Historians working with primary sources have documented the slavery politics of the Revolutionary period in detail.

[Playing Politics With History]

How could Hannah-Jones have gotten the facts so spectacularly wrong? There is no answer that reflects well on her. Did she know the facts and chose to suppress them to enhance the fable she was composing? Did she disregard the facts because she believed that the history as recorded was a tissue of falsehoods and that she alone had been vouchsafed a vision of what really happened? (Or she and a handful of zealous believers in Afro-centric conspiracy theories.) Or was she simply ignorant of the facts, having paid little or no attention to both the documentary record and the syntheses of historians who have spent their careers examining that record? Our choices seem to be liar, lunatic, or hustler. I don’t know Hannah-Jones and can offer no judgment, but I am hard-pressed to imagine a fourth, more honorable alternative.

I can’t, but the Pulitzer Committee can. In bestowing the award, the Pulitzer Committee declared:

For a sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.

Award citations are usually composed very carefully, both in what they say and what they avoid saying. This one repays close attention. Take the opening triplet, “sweeping, deeply reported and personal.” These are meant to sound like high praise. Sweeping: bold, original, and comprehensive. Deeply reported: the work of someone who spared no effort to get beyond the surface of things and who wrote up her results according to the highest standards of journalism. Personal: the writer drew on her own experience, including anguish, to give the story even greater emotional depth.

But sweeping is also the cynical way of describing the work of a writer who over-generalizes and can’t be bothered with hammering out key distinctions, such as the difference between a slave and an indentured servant. Deeply reported also means repeating claims that people have made without bothering to check if those claims are accurate. By her own account, Hannah-Jones relied heavily on writings by a radical writer named Lerone Bennett Jr. (1928-2018). Bennett made up lots of pseudo-historical stories that seldom warrant more than a glance by serious historians, but Hannah-Jones seems never to have seen the need to question him. And personal also means self-indulgent or even solipsistic. The writer who specializes in the personal believes her own “truth” to the point of shrugging off all responsibility for ordinary accuracy.

[Why the NY Times’ 1619 Project Fails the Truth Test]

The Pulitzer Committee, choosing its words carefully, managed to sound magnanimous in its praise but avoided any language that would commit to the claim that “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false,” is good writing, good journalism, or good history—let alone an essay that approaches excellence.

The best that the Pulitzer Committee can say is that the essay was part of “the ground-breaking 1619 Project.” Entirely true. That doesn’t say Hannah-Jones’ essay was itself “ground-breaking,” but it is meant to imply something like that. If by ground-breaking, we mean a dramatic break from the usual, both her essay and the whole 1619 Project warrant the adjective. A declaration that slavery is the founding institution of America and the center of everything important in our history is a ground-breaking claim, of the same type as claims that America condones rape culture, that 9/11 was an inside job, that vaccinations cause autism, that the Moon landing was a hoax, or that ancient astronauts built the pyramids. Breaking ground isn’t always a good thing. Every crank, peddler of tall tales, and herald of false tidings is a ground-breaker too.

The Pulitzer citation then accurately, but somewhat deceptively describes the substance of the 1619 Project, as seeking “to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story.” Well, yes, it does that, but rather than including the enslavement of Africans in a larger story, the 1619 Project reduces all of American history to slavery and its supposed on-going consequences. If Hannah-Jones and her co-authors had simply made the best case they could that, despite being denied legal rights and suffering centuries of injustice, African-Americans made important contributions, the 1619 Project could have been a welcome addition to how Americans view our past.

But the Pulitzer Committee’s bland phrasing that the Project puts slavery at the “center of the American story,” disguises what the 1619 Project really does: it attempts to invalidate and discredit the whole of American history apart from slavery, as—to borrow Hannah-Jones’ phrase—false from the beginning. This is a warrant with some very odd consequences, including the erasure of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., the jettisoning of the ideals of the American Revolution, and the depiction of Lincoln as a racist who wanted nothing more than to exile American blacks.

[What the New York Times Got Wrong About Slavery in America]

The citation ends by declaring the beautiful outcome of Hannah-Jones’ labors, “prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.” If “conversation” includes letters to The New York Times from prominent historians strongly urging the paper to correct fundamental mistakes, yes, indeed, a conversation has opened. I have written a book about the 1619 Project (titled 1620, due out in November) to which end I collected and analyzed several hundred essays by historians and others who called out the Times for countless errors, large and small, in the Project. The other side of the “conversation” consists of Hannah-Jones quickly disappearing Tweets in which she venomously attacks her critics. (The Tweets, of course, are sweeping and personal.) The other side of the “conversation also includes the Times’ editorial replies to critics expressing its Olympian disdain for their views.)

The Pulitzer Committee no doubt had good reasons for giving Hannah-Jones this award, but I doubt they are the reasons expressed in the citation. The citation is no more than artful camouflage. The 1619 Project is a power play in which, at great expense in both money and reputation, The New York Times has attempted to intensify racial resentment and accelerate identity politics. The timing and the circumstances suggest the Times considered this a good move in rallying black opposition to President Trump, but it was also a move by the editors to appease its own increasingly belligerent faction of minority staff. These practical motives combine with the fundamental hostility to America of the Times and its core readership. Hannah-Jones has emerged as the public face of this “project,” and the Pulitzer Committee in granting the award to her is demonstrating its tribal loyalty to progressivism.

Pulitzer Prizes have been going to progressive historians from the start, and have included such figures as Vernon Louis Parrington in 1928 for his book, Main Currents in American Thought; and Bernard DeVoto in 1948 for Across the Wide Missouri. The difference between figures such as Parrington and DeVoto, and Hannah-Jones, is that, regardless of their political views, Parrington and DeVoto wrote outstanding works of historical interpretation, faithful to the facts. Hannah-Jones is just a fantasist with a grim vision and the backing of a now “woke” newspaper with the resources to propel almost any story to national prominence.

Peter Wood

Peter Wood

Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “Diversity: the Invention of a Concept.”

12 thoughts on “The Collapse of the Fourth Estate

  1. Many media outlets have twisted truth for a story but the New York Times has positioned itself as a high quality source. Now think of the bigger news scandals in our modern times.

    Judith Miller hyped claims by the Bush administration, serving as a megaphone to make the case for the Iraq war. Many of the claims she promoted were false.

    Jayson Blair, working for the NYT, plagiarized and fabricated stories. Jonathan Landman, Blair’s editor, told the investigators he felt that Blair’s being black played a large part in the younger man’s initial promotion in 2001 to full-time staffer. “I think race was the decisive factor in his promotion … I thought then and I think now that it was the wrong decision.”

    And of course there’s Sarah Jeong. The Times hired her, and defended her sometimes racist and misandrist comments on Twitter. They argued she was defending herself against attacks, but her comments were not specific to any person, but generalized cover all white men.

    Every paper has its biases. No other paper claims to be the arbiter of what’s “News fit to print”. The Times has blind-spots to their own biases, some of them arguably due to their social politics that let some people run wild.

  2. There is no mystery regarding the awarding of the prize. For a long time, affiliates of the NYT and WaPo have held a solid majority of the seats on the Pulitzer committee. They vote as a bloc after negotiating among themselves and usually give the award to a pet project of one of their papers. I have little doubt that on the day the NYT launched the 1619 project it was determined that it would be getting a Pulitzer, before the public had read a single word of it.

  3. I would like to see some honest scholar of African-American history look into the family of WEB DuBois. He was from Great Barrington, in the Western Branch of the Appalachian Mountains — even today it’s a 2.5-3 hour drive from there to Harvard Square, over the highest part of I-90 east of Montana, which then drops down to cross the Westfield River. (The Connecticut River Valley, a fault line deeper than the San Andreas, splits the Appalachians in Massachusetts, further north they become the Green and White Mountains. As a result, there are no good East-West roads in New England….)

    DuBois first went to Fisk University from 1885 to 1888 and then to Harvard from 1888 to 1890. Born in 1868, fatherless since 1870, and orphaned in 1885, how did *any* 17-year-old in remote Great Barrington know that such places even existed?

    While his father was a recent immigrant, his mother wasn’t — her folk owned land in Great Barrington. And what a lot of people forget about the American Revolution are the Committees of Public Safety and their practice of confiscating the property of those loyal to the Crown and redistributing it amongst themselves. This was never discussed much after the war, perhaps because the Treaty of Paris obligated the Americans to reimburse the Loyalists for their stolen property, and that was never done.

    The other thing to understand about the economy of Massachusetts at the time is that the prosperous people were those who sold things to the British, particularly food & firewood, which was largely transported by water. (It was easier to sail firewood down from Maine than to lug it 30 miles over the rutted dirt roads of the day.) The Patriots were the Trump Supporters of that era, the people who didn’t have good government jobs at better wages.

    What Nikole Hannah-Jones fails to understand is — at least in Greater Massachusetts, the Revolution *ended* slavery because most of the slave-owners were Loyalists, with what remained being eliminated when the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was interpreted to preclude slavery.

    So she’s not just wrong, she’s backwards.

    But back to DuBois. We know that one of his ancestors was a slave who obtained his freedom via service in the Revolutionary War (paging Ms. Hannah-Jones, paging Ms. Hannah-Jones). But what we don’t know is where his mother’s folk got their land — and my guess is that it was confiscated from a Loyalist during the Revolution.

    So the ultimate irony here could be that the cult hero of folk like Nikole Hannah-Jones (who is from Iowa, incidentally) was only able to attend college BECAUSE OF the American Revolution. So much for it being to preserve segregation & slavery….

  4. News Flash: Nobody really cares any more. If people want to destroy their own schools or kill each other, let them. Expectations have fallen to the point where black is white and 2+2=5. Every teachers knows what happens after years of failed efforts to impart knowledge–you just give up and go through the motions. This has not been an easy surrender for those of us who once believed in progress but reality is reality. Just let those who want prizes have them, if that keeps the peace.

  5. Maybe next the Times can do The 1937 Project, wherein Grover Furr sets the record straight regarding the much-maligned and underappreciated statesman Josef Dzugashvili.

  6. Seems like Hannah-Jones lies,distorts and conflates to prove a point. Sounds a lot like our president – who lies,distorts, and conflates like no other president in living memory ! That is unfortunate, but even with the Pulitzer, she is no match for Trump, who has the bully (literally) pulpit.

    1. In what way does this have anything to do with the Pulitzer committee awarding a lying grifter the award? Man, I cannot wait to see pictures of the delicious, delicious TDS tears in November.

  7. Unfortunately, this is not a benign “project” nor is it a unimportant award.The 1619 project was bad enough, but will now always be coupled with the phrase “Pulitzer prize winning 1619 Project”, which will lend it an air of increased worth.

    Already, there are school systems that are adopting this as part of their curriculum when teaching US history.

    It will do an untold amount of damage.

  8. History can never be just the events of the past. Inevitably, there must be selection and coordination of a subset of facts. That necessary departure from universalist congruency has now been misinterpreted as a license to construct a “usable past”, in which one starts with a short term political objective, and constructs a bogus narrative to support the objective.
    Despite the fact that the NYT employs many responsible, skilled journalists, it also has a long history of flogging false, prize winning, narratives from Walter Duranty in the 1930’s to Nikole Hannah-Jones today. It’s disheartening, and it is going to continue.

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