News and Commentary

A Fact-Checker Warned NYT About Their Inaccurate 1619 Project. The Times Didn’t Listen.
New York, United States of America - July 8, 2017. The New York Times building in the west side of Midtown Manhattan.
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A history professor who helped fact-check The New York Times’ debunked 1619 Project said her edits were ignored.

Leslie Harris, a history professor at Northwestern University and an author, took to Politico to explain her experience with the Times’ 1619 Project and its claim that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery. Harris said she previously had argued against the idea to include that claim. She said she received an email from a Times research editor asking her to verify the following assertion: “One critical reason that the colonists declared their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery in the colonies, which had produced tremendous wealth. At the time there were growing calls to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire, which would have badly damaged the economies of colonies in both North and South.”

I vigorously disputed the claim. Although slavery was certainly an issue in the American Revolution, the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.

The editor followed up with several questions probing the nature of slavery in the Colonial era, such as whether enslaved people were allowed to read, could legally marry, could congregate in groups of more than four, and could own, will or inherit property—the answers to which vary widely depending on the era and the colony. I explained these histories as best I could—with references to specific examples—but never heard back from her about how the information would be used.

Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway, in Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay. In addition, the paper’s characterizations of slavery in early America reflected laws and practices more common in the antebellum era than in Colonial times, and did not accurately illustrate the varied experiences of the first generation of enslaved people that arrived in Virginia in 1619.

Harris, however, tried to minimize in her essay the Times’ adherence to that claim and the central theme of trying to rewrite American history. Harris suggests that the “one sentence about the role of slavery in the founding of the United States has ended up at the center of a debate over the whole project.” Harris, however, acknowledges that five academic historians signed a letter claiming “that the 1619 Project got some significant elements of the history wrong, including the claim that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery” but that the Times refused to correct the errors.

There are more errors than just that one, glaring, misrepresentation of our nation’s founding, yet supporters of the project have coalesced around that issue (which is a much bigger problem for the project than they let on) to pretend the rest of it is sound and necessary. Harris, for example, points to the fact that the Times’ 1619 Project is “a strong Pulitzer contender” as if the award means anything anymore.

Still Harris acknowledges just how wrong the Times got its Revolutionary era facts wrong, and the fact that her concerns were ignored shows just how little the paper cared to be factually right – rather than politically right – in regards to the entire project.