Yes, Take '1619' to Task -- But Problem Goes Beyond One Story
I’ll join the chorus calling New York Times columnist Bret Stephens “brave” for last week’s takedown of his newspaper’s “1619 Project.” But I’d also like to ask him: What took you so long?
The 100-page collection of 18 articles that infamously claimed America’s “true founding" date is not 1776, but 1619 – the year enslaved Africans were first brought to these shores – has received withering criticism since it was published in August 2019.
Ten months ago some of the nation’s leading historians – including Pulitzer Prize winners Gordon Wood and James McPherson – wrote the Times to challenge a wide array of its claims, which the newspaper and its partner, The Pulitzer Center, were disseminating free of charge in the nation’s classrooms. The historians were especially troubled by its assertion that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery and the project’s near total erasure of the contributions of whites to dismantling slavery and working for freedom. Their letter described these failings as “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”
Their criticisms were echoed and extended by others including Leslie M. Harris, an African American professor of history at Northwestern University, who said she “vigorously disputed” some central claims of the project when she helped fact-check it before publication. “Despite my advice,” she wrote in Politico seven months ago, “the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway.”
Stephens’ sharply written broadside breaks no new ground. What it does provide is a skillful synthesis and endorsement of these voluminous critiques in the Times – by a Timesman. That is significant. But his decision to write the essay so long after the project’s mistruths have been laid bare – and months after it was honored with a George Polk Award and a Pulitzer Prize – suggests more rot at the Gray Lady and in American journalism.
As Stephens (pictured) himself suggests, the precipitating event was Phillip W. Magness’ Sept. 19 article in Quillette, which revealed that the Times has “taken to quietly altering the published text of the project itself after one of its claims came under intense criticism.” Most significant, the paper had scrubbed the claim that 1619 was “our true founding” from the online text without acknowledgment.
This is not mere editing, but stealthy expurgation intended to cover up the paper’s journalistic malpractice.
This sketchy conduct, presumably approved by New York Times Magazine Editor Jake Silverstein and others, warrants far more than a column. It demands a published response from the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, that acknowledges the misdeed and states whether Baquet knew of and/or approved the secret changes. Baquet must also detail the paper’s response and explain why the Times still stands by the project, given the need for such major corrections.
In this context, a column by someone with no authority at the Times beyond his opinion seems part of a strategy to acknowledge a problem without fixing it. For all his bravery in writing this piece, Stephens is the perfect foil for the Times, one that creates an escape hatch for 1619 acolytes.
It is relevant that Stephens – a conservative who came to the Times after a Pulitzer Prize-winning stint at the Wall Street Journal – is the columnist whom so many liberal Times subscribers love to hate. One of the few scribes at the paper who does not incessantly preach to its woke choir, he has generated strong pushback from colleagues and readers for his opinions on climate change and the Middle East. This may explain why the New York Times Guild initially felt comfortable sending a now deleted Tweet criticizing the editors for running Stephens’ 1619 piece, which, it said, “reeks.”
Stephens’ standing makes it easier for many Times readers to dismiss or ignore his devastating critique. Imagine the impact a similar piece might have had if it been written by David Brooks or Nicholas Kristof.
Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger appears to be unconcerned by the allegations. The man who forced editorial page editor James Bennet to resign because he ran a controversial op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, issued a brief statement Sunday that ignored the journalistic and factual issues raised by Stephens and others, and instead insisted that the 1619 Project was “a journalistic triumph” whose publication is “the proudest accomplishment of my tenure as publisher.”
[Baquet echoed Sulzberger’s comments in a note to his staff on Oct. 13, when this column was posted. Without directly addressing the ethical and factual issues raised, he asserted that “the project fell fully within our standards as a news organization” and that it “fill(s) me with pride.”]
The deeper issue raised by Stephens' column is that the 1619 Project is just one example of the degree to which the Times and other mainstream news outlets have displaced traditional journalistic practice with ideology. Informed by the tenets of social justice and critical race theory that have long dominated the humanities departments at leading universities, journalists have abandoned a commitment to the elusive ideal of objectivity for a naked embrace of results-oriented activism masquerading as reportage. In this regard, journalism is a symptom, rather than cause, of the deep-seated cultural relativism that pervades American culture.
The essence of the 1619 Project is the idea that America is a permanently racist nation whose founding ideals were lies. This is the capital T truth it seeks to advance. It dismisses facts that undermine that narrative, distorting the historical record because they are seen as roadblocks in the arc that bends toward justice. This approach relies on one of the most dangerous engines of dishonesty in human history: the notion that the means justify the ends.
That the Pulitzer board would bestow its prize for commentary to the lead writer of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, despite damning scholarly critiques, suggests how deeply this activist approach has infected journalism.
This impulse now drives much of the coverage in the Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, NPR, and other prestigious news organizations. The clearest example is reporting on Donald Trump, whom the left sees as an existential threat. This is the capital T truth they advance through stories that insistently eschew nuance to portray the president as a monster.
From climate change to identity politics, examples of their tendentious coverage are legion. But none is more thoroughgoing and dishonest than the years-long coverage claiming Trump colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election.
My RealClearInvestigations colleagues are among those who followed the leads and dug up the facts mainstream outlets refused to and, so, got the story right. Tom Kuntz, a former Times editor who leads RCI, detailed how the Times and the Post relied on untrustworthy anonymous sources, unfair innuendo and cherry-picked facts to advance this narrative in a series of stories that won both papers a Pulitzer Prize in 2018.
This effort to distort the truth continues unbowed and unabated. Last week, New Yorker writer Dexter Filkins wrote that Christopher Steele’s dossier – opposition research paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign that claimed the Russians had been cultivating Trump as an asset for decades – “has been neither proved nor disproved.”
In fact, much of it has been debunked and the key parts of it that haven’t been probably never will because you can’t prove a negative – one can’t ever prove that there is no videotape showing Trump paid Russian prostitutes to pee on a Moscow hotel bed the Obamas had slept in.
Shane Harris of the Washington Post encapsulated the ongoing dishonesty in an article last week acknowledging, after a fashion, damning new intelligence tying the Clinton campaign to Russiagate. In a single paragraph he both denied overwhelming evidence that the Clinton campaign helped generate that now debunked scandal while also insisting that the conspiracy theory was legitimate. Harris wrote:
“Trump allies have seized on the intelligence as evidence that Clinton was in some way involved in ginning up an investigation of Trump to tie his campaign to Russia. The president has consistently denied the charge as a ‘hoax,’ even though multiple investigations have documented numerous instances in which his campaign sought Russian assistance in damaging Clinton.”
There is hardly any evidence that the Trump campaign “sought” such assistance. The most that can be said is that it was receptive to offers of dirt on Clinton at the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. Her campaign, by contrast, used people like Steele to actively seek compromising material on Trump, which appears to have included Russian disinformation.
Such reporting is so brazen that it suggests a far deeper problem than any one story. Indeed, the deeply misleading Trump/Russia coverage and the 1619 Project are not deviations from the norm. They are the new standard at prestigious outlets that are committed to pursuing their notion of the capital T truth – inconvenient facts be damned.
This article was updated on Oct. 14 at 12:32 p.m.