Accuracy in Media

Once again the issue over whether Thomas Jefferson fathered a child or children by his slave, Sally Hemings, is back. We have often criticized the New York Times for perpetuating myths, and refusing to take into consideration evidence that contradicts them. Whether it is global warming, Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize, the fate of TWA 800 or Vincent Foster, the Times takes an attitude that the matter is settled, a consensus has formed, and there is no interest in publicly examining the contrary evidence. This story is one such myth.

Herbert Barger is the Jefferson family historian who has been vigilant debunking this story for many years. The story actually goes back some 200 years, to Jefferson’s election to the presidency. But in 1998, Nature magazine claimed that it is likely that Jefferson did father at least one of Hemings children, and perhaps more.

Since then, it has become one of those consensus stories, at least among liberal publications. It in some ways is like CBS’s Memogate. The story is a fake, but it has been repeated so often that many believe there must be some truth to it. We have shown in the past how New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples has been one of the most strident perpetuators of this story. He simply ignores the evidence showing that Thomas Jefferson was not the father of Hemming’s children. On July 25, 2003 he wrote that “Leading historians who doubted this have done an about-face since genetic evidence linked Jefferson to one Hemings child. There is a growing consensus that Jefferson fathered most, if not all, of Sally’s children, just as Madison Hemings claimed in a now-famous newspaper interview published in 1873.”

Staples revisited the story at the time of the scandal surrounding Sen. Strom Thurmond having fathered a baby with a black woman.  In a December 18th, 2003 column about the Thurmond scandal, he declared, “The cover-up hatched 200 years ago by Thomas Jefferson’s family was blown away a few years back after genetic evidence showed that Jefferson almost certainly fathered Sally Hemings’s final son, Eston, born in 1808. This led historians to conclude that Jefferson fathered all of her children in a relationship that lasted more than 35 years.”

And more recently in an April 10, 2005 story, Staples wrote the following:  “the 1998 DNA study [that] linked Thomas Jefferson to the final child of his lover, Sally Hemings has settled one argument……most historians have re-evaluated 200 years of evidence and Jefferson probably fathered most, if not all of her children.”

Thomas Jefferson was only one of eight living Jeffersons who might have fathered Eston, passing on to him the distinctive Jefferson Y chromosome. The most probable candidate, according to Herbert Barger, was Thomas Jefferson’s forgotten younger brother, Randolph. He says Randolph’s wife died around 1793 and he didn’t remarry until 1810. He was a frequent visitor to Monticello, and a slave oral history described him as liking to play the fiddle and dance with Jefferson’s slaves “half the night.”

Barger told Dr. Eugene Foster, who conducted the DNA test in 1998 and authored the article for Nature magazine, about Randolph and the seven other Jefferson men who could have fathered children by Hemings. A Nature editor claimed Dr. Foster did not share this information with them. Foster said that Nature told him he had a choice of two or three possible headlines. But when they told him that they were going to use the headline that declared without any qualification that President Jefferson was Eston’s father, he didn’t make it clear to the magazine that he would not permit it to be published as such, even though he knew it was incorrect.

The New York Times should stop publishing only one side of this ongoing dispute-the side that is lacking in evidence.

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