Published October 6, 2020
An open letter released today and signed by 21 scholars and public writers calls on the Pulitzer Prize Board to rescind the Prize for Commentary awarded to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her lead essay in “The 1619 Project.” The letter is posted at the website of the National Association of Scholars here. (I am one of the signatories.)
The letter revisits the sorry tale of the 1619 Project’s errors and distortions and invokes these in calling for the revocation of the prize. The recent revelations that The New York Times stealthily edited out the signature claim of the project—that the advent of slavery in the year 1619 constitutes our country’s “true founding”—were, however, the immediate occasion for this letter. As Phillip Magness (another signatory) has shown, Nikole Hannah-Jones has several times denied ever claiming that 1619 was our true founding, although in fact she has made this latter claim repeatedly.
These actions on the part of both the Times and Hannah-Jones are profoundly irresponsible and disturbing. How can we explain them?
Jonah Goldberg has suggested that the Times may have undertaken its stealth edits, “out of a partisan desire to deny Donald Trump and his fans a talking point.” There is some evidence in support of this suggestion. As Wilfred McClay (another signatory) notes in Commentary Magazine, leaked transcripts of internal meetings at the Times suggest that the 1619 Project may have been part of a strategy designed to help elect a Democratic president by highlighting America’s (allegedly) endemic racism. Not long after President Trump effectively made American history a campaign issue in his Mt. Rushmore address this July, Hannah-Jones began to deny that she or the 1619 Project had ever asserted that the year 1619 was America’s “true founding,” citing the stealthily edited text of the project as evidence. (See especially the exchange with Ben Shapiro here.) The Hannah-Jones interview on CNN that helped kick off the controversy over the stealth edits took place the day after President Trump attacked the 1619 Project in his address to the White House Conference on American History. This suggests that Hannah-Jones was willing to jettison the most notable claim of her project—even to the extent of denying that she had ever made it—once that claim began to seem like a campaign liability.
When, however, were the stealth edits to the 1619 Project’s text actually made? Phillip Magness suggests that at least some of the stealth edits may have been made as early as December 2019, at a moment when the 1619 Project was coming under withering criticism from scholars. That alone may or may not suffice to explain the stealth edits. It is notable, however, that Hannah-Jones continued to claim that 1619 was America’s true founding until shortly after that claim became an issue in the presidential campaign. Moreover, while there is some evidence that stealth edits may have been made as early as December of 2019, we do not know for a fact exactly how many edits were made, when they were made, or why they were made. This itself constitutes the most serious sort of journalistic irresponsibility.
Imagine that a Pulitzer Prize for Literature had been awarded to a novel for which it later emerged that the most famous passage had been plagiarized. At that point the prize would rightly be revoked. Now imagine that a Pulitzer Prize for Literature had been awarded to a novel whose author, after receiving the prize, surreptitiously edited out the most famous passage from the e-book and denied repeatedly that the passage had ever been in the novel to begin with. In that case, the prize would not be revoked, but the author would be considered to have gone at least semi-mad.
What do we say, then, about a Pulitzer Prize for journalism where the publisher edits out the most famous passage/claim and the author repeatedly denies that the claim had ever been there to begin with (although she herself made the claim repeatedly in a variety of public contexts well after publication of the original text)? What do we say when the author points to the stealthily edited text as proof that the claim edited out was never actually made to begin with, despite the fact that she herself repeatedly made the claim for months on end?
If the most talked about claim of the 1619 Project, a claim cited in the prize itself, can simply be disowned and then the fact of the disowning lied about, it cannot ever have been seriously meant to begin with. It was laid down in bad faith.
At least some significant part of the motivation for these deceptions and prevarications appears to be political. And if we cannot investigate this in greater detail, that is because the Times has hidden its own post-publication editorial actions, the height of journalistic irresponsibility.
To my mind, this is the moral equivalent of discovering a plagiarized passage in a novel after a prize has been awarded. It’s one thing to know that the 1619 Project had a partisan political aspect. That would not, by itself, invalidate the prize so long as the claim being made was serious and seriously meant for substantive reasons. But to casually make a gigantic claim—a claim cited in the prize itself—then simply toss it away and cover up the fact of having done so, turns a core reason for the prize into a joke.
By striking the most famous claim of the 1619 Project and then covering up that act, the Times and Hannah-Jones have retroactively exposed their effort as a bad-faith project. In an important sense, they have delegitimized the central claim for which they received the prize to begin with, just as surely as they would have done by surreptitiously stealing that passage from another author.
In short, the Pulitzer Prize Board should revoke its award to Nikole Hannah-Jones.