The Collapse of the Fourth Estate

Peter Wood

Editor’s note: This article was originally posted by Minding the Campus and is posted here with permission.

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.

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.

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.

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 is President of the National Association of Scholars

Image: Utsav Srestha, Public Domain

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