Let me wade ever so gently into New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’ latest, in which he joins legions on the right in trashing his own newspaper’s Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project. Since I’m a firm believer in the adage that if there’s something rotten floating around the top of the barrel you need not go fishing underneath to see if there’s something better, I’ll just point to this one passage. Stephens writes:
Here is an excerpt from the introductory essay to the project by The New York Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, as it appeared in print in August 2019 (italics added):
“1619. It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?”
“1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619?”
In an email, Silverstein told me that the changes to the text were immaterial, in part because it still cited 1776 as our nation’s official birth date, and because the project’s stated aim remained to put 1619 and its consequences as the true starting point of the American story.
Readers can judge for themselves whether these unacknowledged changes violate the standard obligations of transparency for New York Times journalism. The question of journalistic practices, however, raises deeper doubts about the 1619 Project’s core premises.
Pardon the long excerpt, but I wanted you to get the full context. Now, was anyone who read the original text somehow fooled into thinking that the United States was actually founded in 1619? Did anyone go running to Wikipedia to double-check on that 1776 thing? Of course not. It is ludicrous to think that the idea of 1619 as our country’s founding year is anything other than “a metaphoric argument,” as Nikole Hannah-Jones, who conceived of and produced the project, argues.
Echoing President Trump, Stephens complains that this supposedly adulterated history is being taught to school children. Well, the obvious response to that is that maybe the editors decided to tweak the language a bit because they knew kids who haven’t been exposed to this history might, in fact, take the 1619 date literally. So what?
All of this is pretty rich coming from Stephens, who less than a year ago offered a cryptic quasi-endorsement of the idea that Ashkanazi Jews are genetically more intelligent than others, and then got off with an Editor’s Note that didn’t quite acknowledge what he had done, as Jack Shafer of Politico pointed out at the time.
When the latest Pulitzer Prizes were announced on Monday afternoon, it felt like they’d been beamed in from another dimension.
The awards honor the best in journalism from the previous year — a time when COVID-19 was barely a blip on the radar and didn’t yet have a name. You can be sure that coverage of the pandemic will dominate next year’s Pulitzers. This year, though, they were all about journalism that exposed neglected communities in rural Alaska, corruption in Baltimore, corporate and governmental malfeasance at Boeing, and the never-ending horror that is the Guantánamo Bay detention center.
Two winners, in particular, caught my eye. Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times won the commentary award for her lead essay accompanying The 1619 Project, a massive effort that re-examined American history through the lens of slavery. The Washington Post took home the explanatory-reporting prize for a series showing the effects of climate change. Both are the sort of journalism that will have staying power even after the pandemic has receded into the background.
Locally, The Boston Globe was left empty-handed for the sixth consecutive year. But it took finalist honors in three separate categories with excellent work that is worth examining more closely.
The 1619 Project, grounded in the idea that American history began with the introduction of slavery in Virginia that year, was a massive multimedia effort. It took up an entire issue of The New York Times Magazine last August, featuring contributions from a wide range of writers. It sparked a series of podcasts. It’s been reworked as a school resource. But the animating focus is the 7,600-word lead essay by Hannah-Jones, who conceived of the project and who has been its public face.
By honoring Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer judges chose a piece of writing that is not only worthy but also controversial. And perhaps the most controversial assertion she makes is that the American Revolution was sparked by, among other things, the belief among slave-holding interests that the colonies needed to become independent so that the British wouldn’t abolish slavery. As Hannah-Jones puts it: “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”
Did she get it right? Late last year, a group of five historians wrote to the Times arguing that Hannah-Jones was wrong about that central argument. “This is not true,” they wrote. “If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.” That sounds devastating. And Leslie M. Harris, one of the historians with whom The 1619 Project consulted, has written that the Times ignored her warnings. But in an answer to the five historians, Times Magazine editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein cites compelling evidence — including a reference to the Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s book “These Truths” — that fear of abolition was in fact a significant reason why the slave-holding white power structure supported independence.
In the Columbia Journalism Review last August, Alexandria Neason wrote, “For the media to tell the truth about the U.S., it must commit to both a reeducation of its readers and of its workers. Efforts like The 1619 Project look backwards to inform a path forward.”
Almost as an exclamation point, a Pulitzer was also awarded posthumously to Ida B. Wells “for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.” Hannah-Jones’ Twitter handle is Ida Bae Wells.
By honoring Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer judges have ensured that the conversation she sparked will continue.
The Washington Post last August published the first of a series of 10 stories aimed at showing not merely that climate change was inevitable, but that it was already here, resulting in extreme temperatures and other effects in the United States and around the world. The data-driven series, titled “2˚C: Beyond the Limit,” examined places where the average temperature has risen by at least 2 degrees Celsius.
“A Washington Post analysis of multiple temperature data sets found numerous locations around the globe that have warmed by at least 2 degrees Celsius over the past century,” the Post reported. “That’s a number that scientists and policymakers have identified as a red line if the planet is to avoid catastrophic and irreversible consequences. But in regions large and small, that point has already been reached.”
In awarding the explanatory-reporting prize to the Post, the Pulitzer judges called “2˚C: Beyond the Limit” a “groundbreaking series that showed with scientific clarity the dire effects of extreme temperatures on the planet.” The series offers close-up looks at the effects of climate change such as floods, droughts and extreme heat in places ranging from New Jersey to California, from Qatar to Siberia, as well as a conclusion headlined “How We Know Global Warming Is Real.”
Yet in looking over the Post’s award-winning work, I couldn’t help but think of the epistemic closure that characterizes the political right these days. The Post’s audience no doubt appreciated the deep, fact-based reporting. But at a time when extremist allies of President Donald Trump are refusing to accept the reality of a pandemic that has already claimed about 70,000 American lives, it’s hard to imagine that climate change-deniers will be swayed by new evidence.
Whether a news organization wins a Pulitzer or not often comes down to the competition. The Baltimore Sun won in the local-reporting category for exposing corruption involving Mayor Catherine Pugh. Actually, make that the former mayor.
The Boston Globe didn’t expose any official wrongdoing in “The Valedictorians Project.” But by comprehensively reporting on the struggles experienced by Boston’s valedictorians in the years following their high-school graduation, the Globe revealed that the city was failing even its brightest, most successful students. The reporting was supplemented by data visualizations, videos and other interactive features. It may not have brought down a mayor, but it was certainly worthy of the finalist citation it received. (Disclosure: Several of our Northeastern journalism students worked on the project.)
Two other finalists from the Globe were also recognized.
In feature writing, Nestor Ramos was cited for his story on Cape Cod and climate change, “At the Edge of a Warming World” — which, like “The Valedictorians Project,” was enhanced with a vibrant multimedia presentation.
In feature photography, Erin Clark was honored for — as the Pulitzer judges put it — her “respectful and compassionate photography of a working Maine family as it falls into homelessness and finds new housing, albeit precarious.”
It has been an extraordinary few weeks for The New York Times.
From an outcry over a headline that blandly reported President Trump’s denunciation of racism in El Paso without acknowledging his own history of racist comments, to the demotion of an editor for several racially clueless tweets, to a fraught meeting with the staff called by executive editor Dean Baquet, the Times has found itself in an unaccustomed position: under fire from its core audience of liberal readers.
In sifting through Baquet’s remarks as well as those of the Times’ critics and defenders, it strikes me that the dispute is over two conflicting views of journalism’s role in covering a uniquely awful and dangerous presidency. The two sides are talking past each other, in large measure because much of what they say sounds similar. That is, they are on parallel tracks that never quite meet.
The Baquet side is that the Times is aggressively covering a terrible president, and is now in the midst of shifting from the Russia investigation to race. In this view, the coverage has been relentlessly harsh and negative (and accurate) but based on traditional journalistic values such as the respect accorded any president and the reality that Trump’s supporters need to be understood and explained.
“Our role is not to be the leader of the resistance,” Baquet said at the town hall meeting. In fact, that’s pretty much the same view expressed by Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron when he said, “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work.” Like many other observers, I give the Post higher marks than the Times in not normalizing this most abnormal of presidents. But, fundamentally, Baquet and Baron are on the same page.
The critics’ view is that even tough-minded accountability journalism is not enough for a president who regularly expresses racist opinions and enacts racist policies, who gladly accepted foreign intervention in the 2016 election, and who is undermining democratic norms through his lies, his attacks on the media, and his false claims that the electoral system is rigged against him.
As Ashley Feinberg put it in Slate, “the problem for the Times is not whether it can navigate social-media controversies or satisfy an appetite for #resistance-based outrage, both of which it can tell itself are not a newspaper’s job to do. It’s whether it has the tools to make sense of the world. On this point, Baquet was not reassuring or convincing.”
Liberal criticism of the Times may have reached the point of absurdity with Sunday’s unsparing profile of Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s thuggish anti-immigration policies. The headline in the print edition, “Shift Against Immigration Lifted a Young Firebrand,” drew howls from the left for not clearly labeling Miller a racist. The comedian Frank Conniff tweeted: “NY Times today called Stephen Miller a ‘young firebrand.’ Also once described Norman Bates as the ‘reclusive iconoclast of the hospitality industry.’”
NY Times today called Stephen Miller a "young firebrand." Also once described Norman Bates as the "reclusive iconoclast of the hospitality industry."
In fact, the headline wasn’t nearly as bad as the one from El Paso that caused such an uproar earlier this month: “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism.” And, as with that first headline, the digital version was better, if more neutral than Trump critics might like: “How Stephen Miller Seized the Moment to Battle Immigration.” Besides, the story, by Jason DeParle, was first-rate.
The real issue over the two headlines may be the declining importance of the print product as well as the difficulty of writing good headlines in small spaces. As Baron once said, “ I mean newspaper headlines are terrible, right? They all have to be constrained within column sizes, so if you have a one-column head it’s all headline-ese. People don’t speak in headline-ese.”
There are larger forces at work in the liberal critique of the Times as well. As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen observes, the Times, like all newspapers, is far more dependent on revenues from its readers as it shifts its business model from advertising to digital subscriptions. And many of those customers have taken to social media to let the Times know it when they don’t like what they see.
More to the point, the Times may very well have gotten Trump elected because of its obsession with Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for official business. The Times’ coverage of the email story reached its ludicrous apogee with an over-the-top front page after then-FBI Director James Comey announced he had reopened the investigation just before the election — a blow from which her campaign did not recover, even after Comey said “never mind” a week later.
In Rosen’s view, the Times’ coverage of Clinton amounts almost to an original sin, and the paper has never come to terms with its readers — who, he writes, “are appalled by Trump and want to see his dark sides further exposed. They want the Times to be tougher on his supporters and more relentless in calling out his lying, his racism, his misogyny, his xenophobia. They want Times journalists to see what they see — an assault on democratic institutions — and to act accordingly. And they want a reckoning with the coverage of Hillary Clinton in 2016 because they know that somehow this is in the way of all other things.”
Of course, the reason that the Times has come under fire from liberals is that they see it as their paper. Whatever criticisms they give voice to are mild compared to the vitriol from the right — as we’ve experienced in recent days with the reaction of Newt Gingrich and others to the Times’ 1619 Project, marking the 400th anniversary of slavery in what became the United States. The 1619 Project promises to be a landmark achievement for the Times, which makes it all the more appalling that right-wing critics would rather defend white supremacy than come to terms with slavery’s legacy.
As Baquet said during the meeting with his staff, “Look, we are scrutinized. I ran another newspaper [the Los Angeles Times]. I’ve never seen anything like this. We are scrutinized more than any other news organization in the country, in the world probably. To be frank, some of that comes with being the biggest and, I would argue, the best. And as hard as it is to do this, I think we have to accept it.”
Baquet is right. As good as The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal are, the Times is still our best, most comprehensive general-interest newspaper. It is far from perfect. I’m still angry about the way it covered the run-up to the war in Iraq, the Whitewater non-scandal, and, yes, the 2016 campaign. If you’d like to go back a century, Walter Lippmann wrote that it blew the Russian Revolution and its aftermath as well.
But the Times’ journalistic values — offering a tough but straight report on what its editors have judged to be the most important news of the day — are always going to clash with the wishes of some of its audience to see their opinions and beliefs affirmed rather than challenged.
The Times has gone too far in normalizing Trump and Trumpism, and it often falls short on tone and emphasis. But you know what? We can adjust for that. It’s worth it.