Scholars: Pulitzer Prize Board Should Revoke Award for 1619 Project: ‘Serious Factual Errors, Specious Generalizations’

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 21: Reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones attends The 75th Annual Peabody Awards
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Peabody Awards

The National Association of Scholars has made public a letter to the Pulitzer Prize Board calling for it to revoke the prize that was given to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her part in the New York Times’ “The 1619 Project,” which claims the motivation for the founding of the United States of America was to enshrine slavery.

The letter, which has 21 signatories, focused on Hannah-Jones’ lead essay for the controversial project:

That essay was entitled, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.” But it turns out the article itself was false when written, making a large claim that protecting the institution of slavery was a primary motive for the American Revolution, a claim for which there is simply no evidence.

When the Board announced the prize on May 4, 2020, it praised Hannah-Jones for “a sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.” Note well the last five words. Clearly the award was meant not merely to honor this one isolated essay, but the Project as a whole, with its framing contention that the year 1619, the date when some twenty Africans arrived at Jamestown, ought to be regarded as the nation’s “true founding,” supplanting the long-honored date of July 4, 1776, which marked the emergence of the United States as an independent nation.

Beginning almost immediately after its publication, though, the essay and the Project ran into controversy. It has been subjected to searching criticism by many of the foremost historians of our time and by the Times’ own fact checker. The scrutiny has left the essay discredited, so much so that the Times has felt the need to go back and change a crucial passage in it, softening but not eliminating its unsupported assertion about slavery and the Revolution.

The letter said as a whole the project “was marred by similar faults,” with prominent historians who are dedicated to telling the truth about the nation found “serious factual errors, specious generalizations, and forced interpretations.”

The letter said that Hannah-Jones ignored the joint letter from five historians sent to the New York Times in December 2019 expressing “strong reservations about important aspects of The 1619 Project.”

“The New York Times Magazine’s editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein brushed aside the letter with the explanation that ‘historical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new scholarship and new voices,’” the letter said.

Twelve historians got a similar response to another letter sent to the Times on December 30, 2019.

“Mr. Silverstein again responded, saying that the Times’s ‘research desk’ had examined their criticisms and ‘concluded no corrections are warranted,’” the letter said.

And, the letter noted, on March 6, 2020 Leslie M. Harris, a historian and one of the Time’s own fact-checkers said that she had warned the leftist media outlet about “an assertion that ‘the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America’ was plainly false.”

Harris also identified numerous other mistakes that she pointed out to the Times ahead of the publication of The 1619 Project, but no action was taken. 

The letter noted some minor changes were made but without public comment, including an amendment to the digital version of the Project’s text. 

“Not until September 19, 2020, when historian Phillip Magness compared the original and digital versions of the essay in the journal Quillette, did the alterations come to light,” the letter said, adding that changes did not include Hannah-Jones’ essay. “These were not changes to Hannah-Jones’s essay itself, but to the crucially important introductory materials whose claims — for example, the “reframing” of American history with the year 1619 as the nation’s ‘true founding’ — form the underlying rationale of the entire Project.

The letter revealed that scholars are documenting the evolution of The 1619 Project.

“The duplicity of attempting to alter the historical record in a manner intended to deceive the public is as serious an infraction against professional ethics as a journalist can commit,” the letter said.

Signatories to the letter include Larry P. Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, Victor Davis Hanson, the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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