The Pulitzer Prize for Tabloid History

The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Like the “suicide” of Jeffrey Epstein, the outcome is stunning but not surprising. On its face, the project is completely undeserving of journalism’s highest prize. It is not journalism, but history in tabloid form.

Are we to believe that after American historians have been investigating themes related to race and slavery for nearly two centuries, the New York Times has only now somehow found a secret source that gives them a scoop?

The simple fact is that the Times is neither prepared nor qualified to write history. Neither is Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s director whose introductory essay for the magazine won the Pultizer for commentary. We should not be surprised that the project offers particularly bad history. This is the frank conclusion of our nation’s most eminent historians—including several who have themselves won Pulitzer Prizes, in actual history. 

Gordon Wood called it “so wrong in so many ways.” James McPherson said, “It does not make very much sense to me.” Pulitzer Prize finalist Sean Wilentz led a group of historians who were “dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project” related to “matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism.”

One would at least think that the winner of journalism’s highest prize should represent “honest” journalism, but the Times went out of its way to present a knowingly dishonest account of American history. One of the magazine’s hand-picked fact-checkers, a historian at Northwestern University, flatly refuted one of the project’s central and most damning claims—that the American Revolution was fought explicitly to protect slavery. The Times printed this claim anyway. The editor who allowed the claim to be printed, Jake Silverstein, was rightly forced to print a retraction.

This should have been a big enough embarrassment to disqualify the 1619 Project from consideration for any journalistic award. So, if you are wondering how inaccurate, dishonest, non-journalism can win journalism’s top prize, well, the fix was in from the start. The administrator of the Pulitzer Prize, Dana Canady, is a 20-year veteran of the Times. Times op-ed columnist Gail Collins is also a member of the Pulitzer Prize board. At least three other current members of the Pulitzer board have written for the Times.

For the Pulitzer Prize, this kind of self-dealing is par for the course. More troublesome than these shadowy backroom deals, though, is the appearance of coordination by a network of unaccountable organizations, resting on massive tax-advantaged endowments, to magnify the influence of this inaccurate and incendiary view of American history. The MacArthur Foundation gave Hannah-Jones its “genius grant” in 2017, helping her build the foundation for her project. Then the Pulitzer Center (which has no official connection to the Pulitzer Prize, which is administered by Columbia University) announced plans immediately after the publication of the 1619 Project to push its content into K-12 schools and colleges.

The success of the 1619 Project in wresting control of our historical narrative is not an accident. It is the outcome of a detailed and deliberate public relations strategy. Inquiring minds may want to know: Who is behind the unaccountable organizations driving this strategy, and why have they orchestrated an elaborate strategy to teach us to hate America?

In a healthy journalistic profession, inquiring minds would ask such questions, and be awarded for it. But the profession of journalism is shaped now, more than ever, by the “yellow journalism” perfected by the namesake of the profession’s highest award. Indeed, even his biography on the Pulitzer Prize website admits that Joseph Pulitzer recognized “no apparent restraints on sensationalism or fabrication of news.” The New York Times has discovered that sensationalist journalism, and tabloid history, spark the passions that power newspaper sales and hate clicks.

Greedy capitalists (i.e., greedy corporate leftists)—including the holders of Class A and Class B shares in the New York Times Company—have long known that there is profit in exploiting the people’s vices. But who cultivates the virtues that hold a people together?

In America, we have relied on the teaching of our history to inculcate these civic virtues. Students have been taught about the marginal figures from our nation’s history who claimed that some groups are incapable of sharing in the responsibilities of self-government or are unworthy of the blessings of liberty.

But students have also learned what the historians critical of the 1619 Project emphasize—that the vast American center, going back to our founding, repeatedly has rejected these sentiments. The deliberate sense of Americans over time has been to deny the legitimacy of any kind of racial caste system, and to embrace an American citizenship that requires all to be respected equally under the law and to respect the law equally.

This kind of education emphasized the development of an American consensus on the meaning of our founding ideals and brought young people into that consensus. It is being driven out by the tabloid history of the New York Times 1619 Project which is organized around the sinister claim, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.”

At a time when our nation is forgetting the men who authored those ideals, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and those who helped us more fully to realize them, like Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, the New York Times is resurrecting and amplifying the same argument voiced by notorious and discredited characters like John C. Calhoun, Roger Taney, and Alexander Stephens—that America’s founders did not believe what they said about equality.

We should not forget the United States fought a bitter Civil War to repudiate the ideas of Calhoun, Taney, and Stephens. Why should the leadership of the New York Times go unchallenged as it allows the stoking of these fratricidal passions just to further enrich its chief shareholders, the Sulzberger family and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim? And why should the leadership of the Pulitzer Prize Board, Pulitzer Center, and the other unaccountable organizations peddling these pernicious ideas not be scrutinized?

A nation that has no single racial, ethnic, or religious identity, but has only its history and principles to unite it, must guard that history and those principles jealously. Both are too important to be entrusted to writers of tabloid history or practitioners of yellow journalism, regardless of the prizes they give themselves.

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About Jason Ross

Jason Ross has a Ph.D. from Georgetown University. He is currently at work on a book (with Gordon Lloyd), Slavery and the “Well Constructed Union”: Use, Misuse, and Neglect of Madison’s “Debates. Follow him on Twitter, @Jason_C_Ross.

Photo: Gary Hershorn/Corbis via Getty Images

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