Last weekend, Bret Stephens, the New York Times opinion columnist best known as a climate-change denier who dabbles in race science and has a penchant for using his power to try and intimidate and silence others, regurgitated months-old and increasingly politically-motivated criticism of a year-old journalism project. The characteristically unoriginal column would have been unnecessary in any event, offering as it did no fresh perspective or new information; what stood out about it was that its subject, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, was the creation of his own Times colleagues.
In a staff meeting yesterday, Times assistant managing editor Carolyn Ryan attempted to explain why the Times published the column. The column, titled “The 1619 Chronicles,” elicited a since-deleted rebuke from the paper's union, reportedly made Nikole Hannah-Jones, who led the 1619 project, “livid,” and prompted executive editor Dean Baquet to “reject” the bulk of Stephens’ column. Ryan was asked about the paper’s position on publishing pieces critical of coworkers, given that there is a clear policy against criticizing colleagues on Twitter and in Slack. According to a recording obtained by VICE News, Ryan said there is nothing “quite as particularly stinging” as being criticized by one’s own publication. Echoing Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger’s comments from the weekend, she said we “want to be a publication where there is this vigorous exchange,” calling it a “healthy thing.” She went on to invoke Maureen Dowd’s 2005 column about Judith Miller’s shoddy and shady reporting as a precedent for Stephens' column.
In an email, Ryan said that she was not drawing a parallel between the 1619 Project, a widely praised examination of the brutal legacy of American slavery, and Miller’s reporting, widely reviled and deeply flawed work that provided cover for the United States to invade Iraq, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Ryan wrote in the email that she mentioned Dowd’s column when “talking about the wide latitude we have historically given to columnists at the NYT to weigh in on anything they want, and at times (though it is rare) that has included writing about other colleagues' work.”
In the meeting, Ryan also addressed the discrepancy in who gets to write about what and how at the New York Times.
“I think writing, reporting, and having edited an op-ed is quite different from Slack and Twitter and some of the ad-hoc interactions and almost kind of, not passive-aggressive, but kind of subtweeting behavior that we don’t really like to see,” she said.
“On these forums we are creating and nurturing and we expect a culture of respect, and if you’re talking about your colleagues they’re still your colleagues and you have to approach that with respect and we don’t want people personally attacking one another on Slack. It’s just not who we are, it’s not the kind of workplace that we want to have. And we are thinking more deeply and developing some more guidelines to make this more clear, because we do get questions like this and it's a really important area in terms of what kind of a company we are, and we will have more detail on that in the next few weeks to a month, but I think they’re very different and I continue to think that we have to interact and behave in a way where we are conveying respect for our colleague at all times.”
VICE News asked Ryan how staffers who don't conveniently have an opinion column are supposed to participate in this vigorous exchange if they are banned from doing so publicly on Twitter and privately in Slack. VICE News also asked why it is that Stephens can make sweeping accusations about Hannah-Jones “simplifying [complexity] out of existence through the adoption of some ideological orthodoxy” in the pages of the Times, but a staffer writing on Twitter or Slack that Stephens, say, produced boring and contemptuous columns due to his own ideological orthodoxy would be "behavior that we don’t really like to see.”
In response, Ryan reiterated her remarks from the staff meeting and said that “our columnists are recruited and employed, essentially, to weigh in on a range of issues of public debate—that is their role and their job.” Staffers who weren’t hired to fill this role, it appears, should simply stay quiet.
Before it became another fertile battleground in the culture wars, the 1619 Project was a singular reframing of American history. The central idea of the project—which grew to include, among other things, 10 essays by mostly Black writers and artists, a podcast, and a school curriculum—was that the founding of the country is best understood not as the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but as the arrival of a ship, carrying enslaved people, in Virginia in 1619. The premise of the project is as straightforward as it is elegant: The country that we live in now would not have existed without the enslaved people who were brought here in chains 400 years ago. As the text accompanying Hannah-Jones’ opening essay read:
The 1619 Project is a major initiative from the New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
Stephens' main issue with the project is seemingly that it exists. Among the links to fringe websites and confusing claims that there are no contradictions between the Founders' ideals of liberty and equality and the fact that they owned human beings, his column makes a central criticism: The project, which aims to reframe the country’s history, in fact reframed the country's history. He wrote:
Journalists are, most often, in the business of writing the first rough draft of history, not trying to have the last word on it. We are best when we try to tell truths with a lowercase t, following evidence in directions unseen, not the capital-T truth of a pre-established narrative in which inconvenient facts get discarded. And we’re supposed to report and comment on the political and cultural issues of the day, not become the issue itself.
As fresh concerns make clear, on these points — and for all of its virtues, buzz, spinoffs and a Pulitzer Prize — the 1619 Project has failed.
Stephens wasn’t the first—and won’t be the last—person to criticize the 1619 Project. Everyone from President Trump, who has attacked the project as part of his bizarre campaign against critical race theory, to the World Socialist Website, which described it as "one component of a deliberate effort to inject racial politics into the heart of the 2020 elections and foment divisions among the working class,” has done so. Stephens’ myopic and ahistorical view of when “journalists are at their best” aside, what made his critique stand out was simply that he was a Times columnist accusing Times colleagues of having “failed” in the pages of the New York Times. Why there was space for him to do so is the interesting question.
Among the many criticisms of the 1619 Project have been some perfectly legitimate ones. In December, five historians wrote a letter to the Times outlining their problems with the project’s historical analysis. Chief among them was a line from Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in which she asserted that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” at a time when “Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution.” This, it’s been argued, is not accurate, and after initially defending it, in March, the Times, which is generally loath to admit fault of any kind, updated the story and added a clarification.
Also in December, however, the Times was quietly amending another, more central statement of the project’s thesis. The phrase “understanding 1619 as our true founding” was deleted from the paragraph of text accompanying Hannah-Jones’s essay quoted above. It now reads as follows:
The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.
The deletion of the phrase—clearly understood by anyone reading the project in good faith not as locating the legal founding of the United States in 1619 but as locating the birth of the nation there, the way one could locate it in 1607 or 1789 or 1865—was not noted or addressed by the Times. When discovered by Quillette last month, the deletion gave rise to a torrent of largely bad-faith criticism that amounted to accusing Hannah-Jones and the Times of essentially walking back the thesis of the project. (Stephens joined in the chorus in his own column, in which he presented Hannah-Jones' statement that the obviously metaphorical claim that the country was founded in 1619 was obviously metaphorical as somehow damning.) Silverstein gave the following explanation, which raises more questions than it answers, to the Washington Post, which published a report this week called “How the 1619 Project took over 2020”:
Silverstein explained that the altered words were from display text penned by a digital editor that they were “continually having to write and revise” for different platforms “to hone how we are rhetorically describing the project.”
He also acknowledged amending some of the prose in his own editor’s note: It had not initially appeared online, he said, and when they added it to the site in December, “we made a few small changes to improve it” — not to backpedal, but to thin out rhetoric that seemed in hindsight like “too much flourish.” The paper’s standards department agreed that no acknowledgement of the changes was necessary.
There was, of course, no need for the phrase to be removed, nor was there any need to “thin out rhetoric.” The point of the project was to present a different frame for understanding the history of the United States by placing American slavery at the center of the narrative. As Hannah-Jones pointed out on Twitter, these changes to the text didn’t and don’t drastically change the overall meaning and thrust of the project as a whole. She wrote, “Those who point to edits of digital blurbs but ignore the unchanged text of the actual project cannot be taken in good faith,” and this is true. There is, though, an argument to be made that the changes did serve to undermine the project, both on its own terms and because they provided an opening for further attacks on the project’s integrity. (Hannah-Jones did not respond to a request for comment; Times Magazine editor in chief Jake Silverstein referred VICE News to remarks he gave to the Post and did not answer follow-up questions.) Absent a real explanation for why the “true founding” phrase was removed, it’s best understood as the Times attempting to appease critics who won’t be appeased. This decision was part of what opened the door for Stephens to swoop in with his take.
Another part, though, was the Times' curious decision not to cover the story. The 1619 Project has, for mostly stupid reasons, been controversial: This week alone Vanity Fair, CNN, and the Washington Post all reported on it, while media ethics site Poynter published what it billed as “a deeper look into the controversy of The New York Times’ ‘1619 Project’” (but which turned out to simply be an aggregation of the Post's reporting). And in the past, when the Times has made the news, that news has been covered by the Times itself, especially if other outlets covered it.
For example, in 2018, when neo-Gamergaters came for old tweets made by then newly-hired editorial board member Sarah Jeong, the Times covered the criticism as news, writing, “Times Stands By Editorial Board Member After Outcry Over Old Tweets.” Last summer, the Times covered the demotion of editor Jonathan Weisman following a series of racist tweets. And just recently, media columnist Ben Smith wrote about the questions surrounding the Times' Caliphate podcast. As this recent Columbia Journalism Review story clearly lays out, the questions about Caliphate deal with poor reporting and factual inaccuracies, while concerns about the 1619 Project deal mostly with objections to placing Black people at the center of the American narrative; still, both have been hot topics of discussion and media coverage. The Times covered one as news. It left the other to Bret Stephens.
(Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoads Ha said, “Our newsroom is independent and free to pursue stories as they see fit.”)
The 1619 Project has not “warped, distorted, and defiled the American story,” as President Trump claims; Hannah-Jones isn't a liar who seeks to stoke “racial divisions,” as the World Socialist Web Site argued; and the project certainly isn’t a “failure,” as Stephens inveighed, peering down from the Times opinion page. If there is a problem here, it's the Times caving to bad-faith critics, and giving one a perch. It's unfortunate for healthy and vigorous exchange that nearly no one at the Times would be allowed to say that.
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