Sending history down the memory hole
Education | The New York Times rewrites its revisionist record of the country’s founding
by Laura Edghill
Posted 10/07/20, 04:10 pm
The New York Times’ controversial “1619 Project” continues to stoke criticism, this time for rewriting its own story. “History is a harsh mistress when trifled with,” wrote The Heritage Foundation’s Jonathan Butcher late last month. He, along with numerous other critics, pointed out that the Times quietly edited key statements in the online version of the report since its release.
The New York Times Magazine published the 1619 Project, a collection of essays and reports about race, as a special edition in August 2019. The title refers to the year colonists in Virginia first purchased African slaves from a trade ship. The original description of the project said it aimed “to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
Revised as it appears online now, the description eliminates the words “understanding 1619 as our true founding.” That’s no small change. The Times and the project’s editor, Nikole Hannah-Jones, asserted last year in numerous interviews and social media posts that the initiative hinged on moving the nation’s founding from 1776, the year the Colonies declared independence from Britain, to 1619.
That claim, along with others, spurred accusations of poor scholarship. A group of five professors from universities such as Brown, Princeton, and Texas State wrote a letter to the Times in December pointing out three major factual errors and calling some of the project’s other conclusions distorted and misleading. “The 1619 Project teems with historical howlers,” Princeton historian Allen Guelzo said.
Northwestern University professor Leslie Harris said the Times consulted her and ignored her warning that one of the project’s main arguments was false. “Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war,” Harris wrote in a follow-up critique for Politico.
The Times staunchly refused to admit the project had any flaws but eventually issued an update in March that attempted to explain some of the most controversial statements. Eagle-eyed critics discovered the new textual edits in September.
“The Times—it now appears—decided to send [the controversy] down the memory hole—the euphemized term for selectively editing inconvenient passages out of old newspaper reports in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984,” Phillip Magness, a fellow of the American Institute for Economic Research, wrote for Quillette.
Hannah-Jones appeared to revise her previous statements, as well, telling CNN last month that the project “does not argue that 1619 is our true founding.” In speeches and interviews, such as this one in January in Detroit, she had previously said, “Our true founding is 1619, not 1776.”
On Tuesday, a group of 21 scholars issued a public letter calling on the Pulitizer Prize Board to rescind an award—the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary—that Hannah-Jones won in May for her lead essay in the project. The essay was “false when written" and hasn't stood up to scrunity from historians, the letter states. The letter also noted the secret changes to the text: "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."
More than 4,500 of the nation’s 131,000 public schools have adopted a curriculum published alongside the 1619 Project.
President Donald Trump tweeted last month the Department of Education was considering whether to withhold federal funding from schools that use it. He also pledged at a Constitution Day ceremony to establish the “1776 Commission” to help restore patriotic education in the nation’s schools. “It will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and make plans to honor the 250th anniversary of our founding,” Trump said.
Meanwhile, a nonprofit group recently launched a patriotic curriculum of its own titled 1776 Unites. An initiative of the non-profit Woodson Center, founded by civil rights veteran Bob Woodson and charter school organizer Ian Rowe, the project aims to build a “positive movement in response to the overwhelming narratives of oppression, grievance, and ignorance to America’s history” while showcasing “the millions of black Americans who have prospered by embracing the founding ideals of America.” Woodson said he did not design the curriculum as a rebuttal to the 1619 Project but rather as an inspirational alternative.
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Laura is an education correspondent for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and serves as the communications director for her church. Laura resides with her husband and three sons in Clinton Township, Mich. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.