By:
October 14, 2020

The New York Times’ “1619 Project” about slavery in the United States came out more than a year ago. But it’s now back in the news with a Times opinion columnist criticizing the piece and a call for its Pulitzer Prize to be removed.

I’m still not sure why this is suddenly a topic again right now. But it is.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison is the latest to take a deep dive into “The 1619 Project” with her latest piece: “How the 1619 Project Took Over 2020.” Ellison looks at the backlash the project took from scholars, politicians and even the Opinion section of the Times. The controversy centers on some of the claims made in “The 1619 Project,” such as what role slavery had to do with the colonists’ decision to declare independence from Britain.

Ellison quotes a wide array of sources, including the project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian who sparked the pushback against some of the project’s assertions.

“I threw the thing across the room, I was so astounded,” Wilentz said upon reading it, “because I ran across a paragraph on the American Revolution, and it was just factually wrong.”

Wilentz, along with several other academics, then went public with their criticisms and sent a letter to the Times. Jake Silverstein — editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine, which published the project — told Ellison, “We perceived it right away to be an attack on the project,”

Thus began a controversy that continues to this day and has dozens of people weighing in, including President Donald Trump.

Hannah-Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, but just last week a conservative group called the National Association of Scholars called for her Pulitzer to be revoked.

The Pulitzer Prize Board put out a statement on Tuesday and has no intention of taking back Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer.

The Board wrote, “That essay was selected as one of three finalists by a jury judging entries in the Commentary category. In deciding among the three, the Pulitzer Board considered the Times revision of the piece, the editors’ notes relating to it, and criticisms raised by historians and others.”

Meanwhile, the Times is standing by “1619.” In a note to staff on Tuesday, Times executive editor Dean Baquet wrote the project is among the most important pieces of journalism the Times has published in his time as executive editor. He reminded colleagues that he does not oversee the Opinion section, which ran a column by Bret Stephens, who criticized the project by calling it “failed.”

Baquet added, “This column, however, raised questions about the journalistic ethics and standards of 1619 and the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones, who inspired and drove the project. That criticism I firmly reject. The project fell fully within our standards as a news organization. In fact, 1619 — and especially the work of Nikole — fills me with pride. Our readers, and I believe our country, have benefited immensely from the principled, rigorous and groundbreaking journalism of Nikole and the full team of writers and editors who brought us this transformative work.”

Hannah-Jones, however, told Ellison that she does regret the section on the American Revolution.

“I should have been more careful with how I wrote that,” Hannah-Jones said, “because I don’t think that any other fact would have given people the fodder that this has, and I am tortured by it. I’m absolutely tortured by it.”

Pushing Trump’s conspiracies

A Pennsylvania official mail-in ballot for the 2020 general election. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

President Trump keeps pushing this idea of widespread voter fraud with mail-in voting even though there has been no proof that such widespread fraud exists. But, reportedly, Fox News is doing what it can to help the president find that fraud.

The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, Diana Falzone and Justin Baragona write, “In recent weeks, Fox News’ Brain Room — the channel’s longtime research resource for its dwindling population of fact-based journalists, which suffered disproportionately in the latest round of layoffs — launched a behind-the-scenes operation that current and former staffers say is designed to reinforce and amplify Trump’s erroneous accusations.”

The Daily Beast reports that Fox News vice president and managing editor Tom Lowell sent a memo on Sept. 30 that said, “Starting this Monday, October 5th, the Brainroom Research Team will launch the Election Integrity Project. Included will be a one-stop document broken up by state that showcases different stories where election integrity is potentially compromised.”

Could one look at such a project and suggest it actually is a worthwhile attempt to uncover voter irregularities? On its surface, yes. But a Fox News veteran who was not named but reportedly has knowledge of the Election Integrity Project told The Daily Beast, “What it feels like is an attempt to push more baseless conspiracy theories and scare the viewers into thinking the election is being ‘stolen.’ It isn’t. It’s alarming that the Brain Room is a part of this, like it’s an attempt to give it an air of legitimacy. I don’t recall ever seeing anything like this before. … It feels like an attempt to use the Brain Room to try to lend credibility to something that isn’t credible. It feels like a stunt to support Trump’s baseless allegations that the Democrats are trying to ‘steal’ the election. If it is a collection or database of alleged voter fraud examples, I could see it being used to support Trump’s efforts to contest the election results, if Biden wins.”

And check out this damning quote from a Fox News staffer who said that voter fraud “is absolutely not an issue and is a figment of Donald Trump’s imagination that Fox is helping to promote. Trump takes his constituents as Fox takes its viewers — naive and uninformed — so they’re both getting away with it. This is extremely deleterious to the voting population. By finding outlier stories — low-percentage cases of something going wrong with a ballot — they are buttressing Donald Trump’s conspiracy theory of voter fraud. This should come as no surprise, however, because Fox is taking advantage of the fact that its audience only gets its facts from Fox — and the people running Fox know that.”

Fox News didn’t comment to The Daily Beast.

But this is noteworthy. A study by Pew Research looked at TV viewing habits and belief in voter fraud. Of those who say voter fraud is a “major problem,” 52% list Fox News as their main source of news. Compare that to CBS (20%), ABC (17%), CNN (16%), NBC (14%), MSNBC (14%), NPR (3%) and The New York Times (3%)

Meanwhile, that same survey showed only 3% who consider Fox News their main news source see voter fraud as “not a problem” at all. No other group is anywhere close to that number. The next closest are CBS viewers at 25%.

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Just a thought

A fellow media observer made a good point to me about the controversy at The New York Times involving one of its star reporters, Rukmini Callimachi. There are disconcerting questions about the validity of some of her reporting on terrorism and the Islamic State. The Times is now investigating her work, according to New York Times media columnist Ben Smith.

But back to this point: In its investigation, here’s hoping the Times is looking just as closely at how her work made it through editors. While the reporter is ultimately responsible for turning in sound work, editors are there to make sure that the work is bulletproof — especially against claims of fabrication, disinformation, inaccuracies or even simple, honest mistakes.

If we learn there really are problems with some of Callimachi’s work, she shouldn’t be the only one blamed. Haven’t her editors failed her? Shouldn’t they, too, be scrutinized just as closely?

NFL > every other sport

Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James celebrates winning the NBA Finals last Sunday. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The “Sunday Night Football” game — a thrilling and close game between the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks — drew 11.4 million viewers. That easily outdistanced the NBA Finals — a series-clinching blowout with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers beating the Miami Heat. That game drew 5.6 million viewers. Now, the instinct for some is to immediately draw a political conclusion, mostly because President Trump likes to criticize the NBA for speaking out on social causes.

But, if you follow this stuff, you know there is no basis for that. For starters, the NFL also is known for supporting racial and social causes, too. And, at the real heart of the matter: No sport rivals the NFL.

As The Big Lead’s Liam McKeone wrote, “The NFL should not be used as a baseline for any ratings discussion for anything on television, much less the NBA, because it regularly posts outlandishly high numbers. NFL games regularly top end-of-year lists for most-watched programs on television in any given season. The circumstances do not matter. Death, taxes, and high NFL viewership/ratings. The numbers from this Sunday do not indicate the NBA is in a death spiral of viewership and should be panicking.”

Why do journalists need guards?

As I mentioned in Tuesday’s newsletter, a private security guard hired to protect journalists from a TV station in Denver during coverage of demonstrations is being investigated after shooting and killing a demonstrator. My Poynter colleague Al Tompkins looks at the shooting, as well as why media organizations hire security guards.

The power of gossip

Walter Winchell, circa 1930s (Photo: Granger and PBS)

PBS’s excellent “American Masters” series has a cool looking new episode coming up on the life and career of syndicated columnist, radio news commentator and TV host Walter Winchell. The documentary, titled “Walter Winchell: The Power of Gossip,” airs Oct. 20 on most PBS stations. It will be narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and feature Stanley Tucci as the voice of Winchell.

Winchell rose to prominence in the 1930s with a Hearst newspaper chain column and radio program, reaching a combined audience of 50 million. His signature style of broadcasting using Jazz Age slang made him one of the most powerful media figures in the country. Audiences later turned on him after his alliance with Sen. Joseph McCarthy and public feuds with Ed Sullivan and Josephine Baker.

Winchell biographer Neal Gabler, one of those interviewed for the documentary, said, “Walter Winchell is the architect of modern American media. He turned journalism into a form of entertainment.”

The film was written, produced and directed by Ben Loeterman.

Media tidbits

  • Mediaite’s Leia Idliby notes that Joe Biden has rounded up 19 newspaper endorsements for president so far. That includes The New York Times, which has endorsed a Democratic nominee for president for the 16th consecutive election. The last Republican endorsed by the Times was Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.
  • Axios’ Sara Fischer reports that The Washington Post has created a modeling tool that will help its newsroom tell if an election is too close to call and where votes remain to be counted. However, the Post’s director of engineering, Jeremy Bowers, says, “This tool is not designed to call races or predict outcomes. It is designed to give readers a sense of where things are headed, not to predict what is happening. We are descriptive rather than predictive.”
  • A new “Real Sports” on HBO debuts next Tuesday. The new episode will have a feature on video game stars, many of whom are just kids who have become rich and famous in that world; recognize the 100th anniversary of the founding of baseball’s Negro Leagues and the movement to recognize the accomplishments of Black players in the segregated era; profile a golfer from Buffalo who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit; and revisit the story of Steve Gleason, the former NFL player suffering from ALS.
  • “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” has a voter information guide called “Better Know A Ballot.” It’s a site with videos and voter information specific to all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s book about leadership during the pandemic came out Tuesday. It’s called “American Crisis.”

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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