How did the New York Times Magazine’s deeply flawed 1619 Project win a Pulitzer Prize, the highest accolade in the profession of journalism, after America’s top historians challenged the essay’s main premise and other aspects of the project?

Project editor Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true,” was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary on May 3, 2020. This award goes to “opinion writing containing well-reasoned and compelling argument on a topic or topics of public interest, whether originally researched or reported, informed by personal or analytical experience.”

A spokesperson for the Columbia University Pulitzer Prize organization, Edward M. Kliment, said in a statement Sunday that “challenges to the Nikole Hannah-Jones essay, including editors’ revision of a sentence in the essay, were vigorously discussed by the Pulitzer Board” prior to voting.

Not only does Kliment’s statement fail to justify the award but it raises questions about the integrity of the process.

Kliment apparently was referring to a “clarification” run by the NYT on March 11 in which the Times stated it had “adjusted” a passage in the essay to read that protecting slavery was the main reason “some of” the colonists fought to rebel from England.

The correction took all of the air out of the Hannah-Jones essay, which claimed America seceded from Britain primarily to protect the institution of slavery. It showed her essay was neither well reasoned or compelling.

Moreover, the NYT didn’t provide evidence to support even the sharply limited claim.

Gordon S. Wood, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian and perhaps the leading scholar of the Revolutionary War era, is quoted as stating, “I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776.”

Even giving the NYT the benefit of the doubt, the correction was still a devastating admission that Hannah-Jones’ premise was incorrect.

However, Kliment said: “Although Board deliberations on this and all other awards are confidential, its conclusions about the critical merit of the winning essay were encapsulated by the citation: ‘For a sweeping, provocative 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.’”

Integrity

Since when does the Pulitzer Board allow a nominee to revise a work after its publication date? The essay that was published by the NYT in August 2019 was the essay that was placed before the Pulitzer organization for consideration, not the revised (corrected) essay.

Moreover, the following instructions are given by the Pulitzer Board for evaluating submissions: “Pulitzer judges want to review the material as it was released to the public – whether it evolved as a series of short dispatches or was presented as a polished narrative.”

Were the other nominees afforded a second bite of the apple? Or just the NYT?

Additionally, the Pulitzer organization has a questionable stake in The 1619 Project. The organization’s website states: “As The 1619 Project’s official educational partner, the Pulitzer Center has connected curricula based on the work of Hannah-Jones and her collaborators to some 4,500 classrooms since August 2019.”

Stacked?

Was the seven-member Pulitzer “jury” that selected Hannah-Jones’ essay stacked?

The jury included Brent Staples, an African American who has served on the NYT editorial board since 1990. Staples, who won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2019, clearly had a conflict of interest. He failed to return an email request for comment.

Two other jurors were formerly affiliated with the NYT:

  • Lydia Polgreen of New York City, an African-American who is currently head of content at Gimlet Media, a podcast studio affiliated with Spotify. She is a former editorial director of NYT Global and was a NYT reporter in West Africa and India and South Africa; and,
  • Peter Maass of New York City, a former writer for The New York Times Magazine who is now a senior editor at The Intercept, a  left-leaning publication supported by Ebay founder Pierre Omidyr.

The jury was led by Mark Russell, executive editor of The Commercial Appeal, a daily newspaper in Memphis, TN. Russell, who is African American, was the only member of the jury to respond to an email request for comment. Without elaborating, Russell wrote: “I stand firmly behind our selection of Hannah-Jones’ entry.”

Other jury members were:

  •   Stephanie Merry of Washington, D.C.,  editor of book coverage for The Washington Post Styles Section.
  •  Inga Saffon, an architecture critic who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for criticism while working at The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2014. She wrote a story in June that led to the resignation of Stan Wischnowski, the long-time editor of the Inquirer. An article Saffon wrote carried a headline, Buildings Matter Too, which was deemed offensive to the Black Lives Matter movement.
  •  John Archibald, a columnist for Alabama Media Group in Birmingham, AL, who won a Pulitzer for commentary in 2018.

STAMP OF EXCELLENCE

What does it matter?

The Pulitzer Prize is like a Michelin star for a restaurant, an Academy Award for a movie or a Nobel Prize for a politician. The stated mission of the Pulitzer organization is to” honor the best of American journalism.” A Pulitzer signifies the work meets the highest standards of journalism.

The Hannah-Jones essay was marred by intentional disregard for the truth, disproven assumptions and factual errors.

The nation’s leading historians for the era told the NYT: “On the American Revolution… the project asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain ‘in order to ensure slavery would continue.’ This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding — yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.”

By placing its stamp of excellence on the essay, the Pulitzer Board disregarded the critics of the series and encouraged members of the public with little or no knowledge of American history to do likewise.


Worse, the NYT ignored evidence that the premise of Hannah-Jones essay was incorrect at a time when it could have been corrected.

Leslie M. Harris, a historian at Northwestern University whom the NYT consulted to fact check the essay, wrote in Politico that she “vigorously” disputed the idea that patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America. They ignored her.

And now the Pulitzer Board, it seems, has ignored her.


The flubbing of the 1619 essay has not gone unnoticed. It has been severely criticized by African-American activists, led by Robert Woodson and the 1776 initiative, and President Donald Trump, who is seeking to withhold funds from school systems across the country that have adopted the 1619 curriculum.

Factual problems with the series including disputed claims that plantation slavery was a model for the capitalist economy and that Abraham Lincoln was a racist who planned to deport blacks.

“Those are all matters of enormous historical complexity, but they are treated by the 1619 Project with a wave of the hand and no research,” wrote Allen C. Guelzo, a Princeton University historian.