The New York Times’s 1619 Project has been heralded as either a defining piece of historical journalism or a topic that fundamentally misses the mark, with both sides represented within the organization’s newsroom.
The latest argument took place over the weekend when conservative columnist Bret Stephens published his latest piece, which was summed up as, “Journalism does better when it writes the first rough draft of history, not the last word on it.” His comments, however, provoked a response from the New York Times Guild, the union for the publication’s reporters.
Stephens, in the piece, praised the project and Nikole Hannah-Jones, its creator and leading voice, calling it “ambitious,” but he also took the project’s contributors to task for a number of factual inaccuracies that have long plagued the project’s proponents.
In particular, Stephens said that the language in the piece was quietly changed without an update.
The passage originally claimed “that the country’s true birth date” is not 1776 but 1619, when, the article claims, the first African slaves arrived on U.S. soil. Both Hannah-Jones and New York Times magazine editor Jake Silverstein dismissed the changed language, which now reads, “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?” saying that they were never arguing that the country’s founding was anything but 1776.
The New York Times Guild rebuked Stephens for the column on Sunday.
“It says a lot about an organization when it breaks it’s own rules and goes after one of it’s own,” the guild tweeted. “The act, like the article, reeks.”
The guild then deleted it and apologized.
“We deleted our previous tweet,” a subsequent tweet said. “It was tweeted in error. We apologize for the mistake.”
Historian Leslie Harris, who was hired by the New York Times to fact-check the article, revealed in March that she had warned the New York Times that Hannah-Jones’s claim that “the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America” was false, among other corrections.
Despite the backlash and accuracy questions, the 1619 Project won a Pulitzer Prize, and some academics have sought to get it revoked.
The 21 signatories, all of whom are academics, professors, or scholars, assert that the claim “protecting the institution of slavery was a primary motive for the American Revolution” has no supporting evidence.