Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize on Monday for an essay the New York Times corrected substantially after an array of respected academics disputed its grasp on history. That means the Pulitzers bizarrely rewarded inaccurate journalism with journalism’s highest prize.
That Hannah-Jones’s article advanced historical inaccuracies is not a matter of opinion, it was a determination made by her own publication. Tacked onto the piece, which was an introductory article to the Times Magazine’s controversial 1619 Project, is a 36-word Editor’s Note stating, “A passage has been adjusted to make clear that a desire to protect slavery was among the motivations of some of the colonists who fought the Revolutionary War, not among the motivations of all of them.”
That note links to a 500-word “update” from the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein, who concedes, “We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists.”
This two-word change is actually an admission of substantial error. (Read why here.) It was also added a long seven months after the article’s publication—during which schools were encouraged to use materials from the project as curriculum—following criticism from a wide variety of prominent historians. Five of those historians, including James McPherson of Princeton and Gordon Wood of Brown, penned a letter to the Times identifying the project’s errors. Here’s how they addressed Hannah-Jones’s essay:
On the American Revolution, pivotal to any account of our history, the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false. Some of the other material in the project is distorted, including the claim that “for the most part,” black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “alone.”
The clarification is small — just two words –but important. We add tht slavery was one of the primary motivations for "some of" the colonists to declare independence. As written, it appears that I am saying this was a universal motivation of ALL colonists. I wasn't clear enough
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) March 12, 2020
On Twitter, Hannah-Jones herself referred to the change as “important,” admitting she “los[t] important context and nuance” in the Pulitzer-winning essay. While this admission of error is laudable, the Times and Hannah-Jones stood by misinformation they ultimately determined to be serious for months.
The Times also appears to have ignored guidance from historians asked to review the piece before publication. In a Politico article titled, “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me,” Northwestern professor Leslie M. Harris, wrote, “Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay. In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.” And even beyond what the Times edited, historians identified other inaccuracies in the project.
Making a historically inaccurate assertion, standing by it for months, then editing the claim more than half a year later—and conceding that change was important—is obviously not journalism worthy of the industry’s highest award in commentary writing. Although, given the industry’s ongoing struggle to report factually accurate information, perhaps it’s actually rather fitting.
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