On Tuesday, 21 prominent scholars sent a powerful letter demanding that the Pulitzer Prize Board revoke the 2020 Prize for Commentary it had awarded to The New York Times‘ Nikole Hannah-Jones for the essay that launched “The 1619 Project.” Since the essay’s publication last year, The Times has retracted one of its central claims and then stealth-edited the project’s website to remove the claim that America’s “true founding” did not come on July 4, 1776, with the Declaration of Independence but on August 20, 1619, with the arrival of the first black slaves. Worse, Hannah-Jones proceeded to act as though she never made this claim.
The essay — entitled “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written” — falsely claimed that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” The Times issued a correction, but only after historian Leslie Harris, one of the Times‘ own fact-checkers, publicly revealed that she had flagged many such claims as false prior to publication, but the Times had not corrected them beforehand.
“The Pulitzer Prize Board erred in awarding a prize to Hannah-Jones’s profoundly flawed essay, and through it to a Project that, despite its worthy intentions, is disfigured by unfounded conjectures and patently false assertions,” wrote the 21 scholars, including Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, Hoover Institution Fellow Victor Davis Hanson, Claremont McKenna College professor Charles Kesler, and National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood.
“To err is human. But now that it has come to light that these materials have been ‘corrected’ without public disclosure and Hannah-Jones has falsely put forward claims that she never said or wrote what she plainly did, the offense is far more serious. It is time for the Pulitzer Prize Board to acknowledge its error rather than compound it,” the scholars added.
“Given the glaring historical fallacy at the heart of its account, and the subsequent breaches of core journalistic ethics by both Hannah-Jones and the Times, ‘Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written’ does not deserve the honor conferred upon it,” the scholars alleged. “Nor does The 1619 Project of which it is a central part, and which the Board seeks to honor by honoring Hannah-Jones’s essay. The Board should acknowledge that its award was an error. It can and should correct that error by withdrawing the prize.”
The 1619 Project’s corrections
When the Pulitzer Board announced the prize on May 4, 2020, it praised not only the essay but the 1619 Project as a whole, which focused on the claim that America’s “true founding” came in 1619, not 1776. (Ironically, the Spanish brought slaves to present-day South Carolina in 1526, almost 100 years before the project’s date.)
Yet later scrutiny left the Project’s flagship essay discredited. As the scholars noted, “prominent historians, most of them deeply sympathetic to the Project’s goal of bringing the African American experience more fully into our understanding of the American past, nevertheless felt obliged to point out… the Project’s serious factual errors, specious generalizations, and forced interpretations.” Hannah-Jones did not refute the criticisms or meaningfully engage with them.
When five prominent historians wrote a letter to the Times expressing their “strong reservations about important aspects of the 1619 Project,” The New York Times Magazine‘s editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein brushed their complaints aside. Following another joint letter, Silverstein claimed the paper’s “research desk” had examined the criticisms and “concluded no corrections are warranted.”
When Harris came forward in March, The Times finally acknowledged that American patriots did not seek independence in order to protect slavery, but the correction did not fully revoke the false claim. Rather, the altered text still claimed that “some of the colonists” declared independence in order to protect slavery, a claim for which there is no evidence.
The most devastating non-correction came last month, however, when the Times‘ website for the 1619 Project removed the notorious claim that 1619 represented America’s “true founding.” Hannah-Jones then proceeded to act as though she had never claimed such a thing.
As the scholars noted, “the false claims were erased or altered with no explanation, and Hannah-Jones then proceeded to claim that she had never said or written what in fact she has said and written repeatedly, assertions that the Project materials also made.”
“The duplicity of attempting to alter the historical record in a manner intended to deceive the public is as serious an infraction against professional ethics as a journalist can commit. A ‘sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay,’ as the Pulitzer Prize Board called it, does not have the license to sweep its own errors into obscurity or the remit to publish ‘deeply reported’ falsehoods,” the scholars wrote.
The political backlash
The Times deep-sixed its “true founding” claim on September 18, one day after President Donald Trump denounced the 1619 Project in a fiery Constitution Day speech. He announced a “1776 Commission” as a response to the Times‘ project, aiming to teach America’s children the true value of patriotism. “We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” he declared.
Trump has consistently pushed back against efforts to demonize America’s past and its heroes. He gave a powerful Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore, condemning the Marxist critical race theory that aims to “deconstruct” various aspects of American society as examples of racist oppression.
Following the police abuse of George Floyd, protests across the country devolved into violent riots, seemingly inspired by Marxist critical race theory and the 1619 Project.
When vandals toppled a statue of George Washington in Portland, they spray-painted “1619” on the statue. When Claremont’s Charles Kesler wrote in The New York Post, “Call them the 1619 riots,” 1619 Project Founder Nikole Hannah-Jones responded (in a since-deleted tweet) that “it would be an honor” to claim responsibility for the destructive riots. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) called for the “dismantling” of America’s “economy and political system,” in order to root out supposed racist oppression.
Portland activist Lilith Sinclair provided a chilling example of Marxist critical race theory and its ability to inspire an aimless revolution. “There’s still a lot of work to undo the harm of colonized thought that has been pushed onto Black and indigenous communities,” she said. As examples of “colonized thought,” she mentioned Christianity and the “gender binary.” She said she organizes for “the abolition of … the “United States as we know it.”
The riots have proved the most destructive (in terms of insurance claims) in U.S. history. While Democratic nominee Joe Biden has condemned violent looting and arson, he refused to condemn antifa or Black Lives Matter agitators, instead attacking “right-wing militias” as if they were the true instigators of violence.
While leftists repeat claims of “institutional racism,” the riots have victimized the black community. The destruction disproportionately hit black communities in Kenosha, Wisc., Minneapolis, and Chicago. The riots destroyed black lives, black livelihoods, and black monuments. At least 26 Americans have died in the riots, most of them black.
For these and other reasons, many black leaders have denounced the official Black Lives Matter movement, the founders of which have described themselves as “trained Marxists.” Over 100 black pastors recently condemned the Black Lives Matter movement and urged Nike to distance itself from it.
The 1619 Project’s connection to the riots should also encourage the Pulitzer Prize Board to withdraw the prize.
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Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.