Accuracy in Media

A year ago, The New York Times Magazine, led by staff writer Nikole Hannah Jones, introduced the “1619 Project,” a series of racially charged essays asserting America’s true founding occurred in August 1619, when the first African slaves were brought to the shores of Virginia, rather than in July 1776.

Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, became a celebrity journalist and was established at the forefront of the intellectual vanguard that fuels the current Black Lives Matter protests. 

Now, however, Jones is backing away from the central premise of her entire project.  

To recap, outside of newsrooms, the 1619 Project inspired two noteworthy – and opposing – responses.

On one hand, a handful of America’s most distinguished professional historians called on the Times in a letter to correct numerous “errors and distortions” as well as other material they considered “misleading” and “distorted” about the series. 

Those scholars also registered sharp criticism for the series’ central argument: to wit, that the Founding Fathers wanted separation from Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” “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.”

On the other hand, the Pulitzer Center, which is not affiliated with the Pulitzer Prizes but whose goal is to promote “underreported global issues,” developed curricula based on the project and sent it to 4,500 classrooms nationwide. They announced that three months after the historians raised their objections.

The Pulitzer Center said it did so because the 1619 Project “challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.”

Moreover, as Reason magazine reported, “School districts in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Buffalo, New York, have decided to update their history curricula to include the material, which posits that the institution of slavery was so embedded in the country’s DNA that the country’s true founding could be said to have occurred in 1619, rather than in 1776.”

Yet Jones now suggests this was all misunderstood.    

Last week Willamette University Professor Seth Cotlar gushed over the work on Twitter, saying it “is not about history.” Rather, “It’s about memory; about what parts of the nation’s past we should hold in our memories going forward & about how we tell the story of the nation to our children.” 

Jones wholeheartedly supported Cotlar.

In a series of replies, she tweeted in part: “He is right: The fight over the 1619 Project is not about history. It is about memory. I’ve always said that the 1619 Project is not a history. It is a work of journalism that explicitly seeks to challenge the national narrative and, therefore, the national memory.”

“The project has always been as much about the present as it is the past. The crazy thing is, the 1619 Project is using history and reporting to make an argument. It never pretended to be a history.”

Except when it did. 

In November, Jones herself tweeted that the 1619 Project was  “American history, not black history.” 

Writing in December in The New York Times Magazine, Executive Editor Jake Silverstein noted, “The goal of The 1619 Project is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.”

In July Oprah Winfrey and the movie distributor Lionsgate announced a partnership with Jones, for which she undoubtedly will end up fabulously wealthy, to turn the 1619 series into a “multi-media history of slavery and its effects in America for a worldwide audience.” 

“What then,” Napoleon once asked, “is, generally speaking, the truth of history?” His answer: “A fable agreed upon.”

Jones, it seems, wants us to agree that her “fable” isn’t history, except when it suits her purpose.

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