Pulitzer and the Politicization of American History

Christopher Kendall

Today (March 4, 2020) the Pulitzer Prize selection committee announced the 2020 winners of the Pulitzer Prizes. In an unsurprising turn, the Committee gave its commentary award to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ and The New York Times’ 1619 Project.

How did a piece of historical commentary that misrepresents central elements of the American founding, rejects rigorous historical analysis, and elevates proudly biased distortions of history win the most prestigious prize in journalism?

The Pulitzer Prizes, launched in 1917, are dedicated to “Honoring excellence in journalism and the arts.” Yet despite this commitment to excellence, the committee opted to award a prize to a seriously flawed and poorly sourced series of articles. Hundreds of historians have diagnosed myriad historical inaccuracies promoted the 1619 Project, whose lack of rigorous scholarship led it to serial misrepresentations of the historical record.

The most telling of these diagnoses was a devastating critique by Leslie Harris, professor of history at Northwestern University, who assisted the Times in fact checking the 1619 Project. Harris recounted that she specifically flagged the 1619 Project’s assertion that, “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth.” Harris had “vigorously disputed the claim,” and predicted, correctly, that every critic of the 1619 Project would focus upon this glaring error. Despite Harris’ strong counsel to remove that claim from the article, “the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway.”

The Times’ response to most of its critics was to ignore them entirely. Its sole change, made in response to Prof. Harris’s critique, suggested that it was only making a cosmetic change to clarify for careless readers. Jake Silverstein, Editor-in-Chief of The New York Times, noted “that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists.”

Is this what we should expect of journalism worthy of the most prominent award in the field?

The Pulitzer Prize once stood for something meaningful, an effort to claw through the mire and highlight truly spectacular works that illuminate urgent and timely elements of our national character. Consider the 1954 winner, Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox; or the 1993 winner, Gordon S. Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution; or the 2007 winner, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower.

There are, of course, problematic elements in the prize’s history, such as the 1932 award to Walter Duranty, a New York Times correspondent, for a series on the USSR that repeated Soviet Union propaganda, disregarded any notion of widespread famine in Ukraine and parts of the USSR, and defended Stalin’s Moscow Trials. Or the 1946 award to William Laurence, a journalist and the official historian of the Manhattan Project, whose front page work for the Times disputed the idea that radiation sickness was a serious concern.

There are also instances of outright fraud, such as that of 1981 winner Janet Cooke’s fabricated story about a young heroin addict (Cooke returned her prize).

In these instances, subsequent work and reporting in the decades following the prizes’ awarding led to greater clarity surrounding the flaws and shortcomings of the journalist’s work. However, in the case of the 1619 Project, we don’t need to wait decades. We know what the shortcomings are.

The Pulitzer Committee awarding this prize to the 1619 Project is a blatant act of preference for a woke narrative that bears little resemblance to historical fact. The Pulitzer Committee may not be condemned for its past awards, but it ought to be for this one.

Photo by David Smooke on Unsplash

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