Phil Magness
+ Your AuthorsArchive @PhilWMagness Economic & political historian. I do data analysis about the past & present. No more lockdowns. Opinions are my own. RT =/= endorse. Oct. 17, 2020 4 min read

As the person who broke the story about the NYT's textual deletions from the 1619 Project, I'll offer a few thoughts on this response from the paper in the thread below.

First is the matter of the deletion, the now infamous line about 1619 supplanting 1776 as our "true founding." The NYT is now depicting this as a relatively minor part of the web copy, and excusing @nhannahjones from culpability in it. This claim does not hold up under scrutiny.

Web copy matters greatly in the digital age, and that is how most people encountered the 1619 Project. That's why the now-deleted line became an immediate flashpoint for controversy in August 2019 when it was first published.

That line in fact dominated the first week of media coverage and criticism of the 1619 Project - so much that Nikole Hannah-Jones defended and repeated it in multiple public fora, including her now-deleted twitter feed and several tv interviews.

In fact, Hannah-Jones was still using the deleted line in her public appearances as recently as January, as the Detroit News shows here. 

Jake Silverstein's downplaying of her connection to the line therefore fails. Even if she did not pen the web copy, she absolutely embraced it, repeated it, and championed it in her public presentations about the project...until it suddenly vanished.

Recall too that the only reason the deletion was noticed is a CNN appearance last month where Hannah-Jones denied ever having made the claim about 1619 being the true founding rather than 1776. This claim was easily refuted as I documented here: 

But it also revealed the NYT's willingness to surreptitiously revise its own account of the journalism behind the 1619 Project. And that led to the discovery of the alterations they made to the text. No matter the excuses made, those undisclosed edits breach journalistic ethics.

But allow me to address another matter. Writing for the Times, Silverstein laments how the editing controversy distracts from the contents of the project and suggests that critics have unfairly seized on a minor line of text at the neglect of its substantive contributions.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I was one of the 1st scholars to do a deep and measured historical analysis of the 1619 Project's errors, focusing on the Desmond article about slavery's economics - a subject on which I have published extensively 

Over the next four months I followed the emerging debate closely, fact-checking both the 1619 Project's errors and where some of its historian critics had overstated their case. 

I also privately attempted to contact the Times twice in this period to point out 2 different unambiguous factual errors in the Desmond piece that warranted correction. In fact, Hannah-Jones herself directly suggested to me that I do so on her now-deleted twitter feed.

How did the Times respond? Well, the 1st attempt was completely ignored. When I questioned NHJ about this she first denied ever receiving the request. Then she accused me of lying about sending it. Then, after I produced receipts of the email itself, she deleted the tweet.

A few months later I identified another error in Desmond's piece where he had directly misrepresented a claim by one of his own cited sources. This time I emailed Silverstein, who declined to issue a correction and brushed it aside as a textual ambiguity.

I document both errors in the Desmond piece here for those interested. They are clear-cut factual errors that remain unaddressed in the Times to this day. 

My own experience reflected a pattern for the Times that other scholars encountered. The paper similarly brushed aside a letter by 5 top historians, organized by Sean Wilentz in December.

The paper completely dismissed another letter by 12 top civil war scholars in January, refusing to even print it. Their exchange with Silverstein is here. 

In the wake of these criticisms, Hannah-Jones became increasingly combative on twitter - regularly subjecting scholars who challenged the 1619 Project to a barrage of insults and verbal abuse. I experienced this myself, as did dozens of others.

In my case, NHJ penned multiple personal attacks on my own scholarly qualifications to evaluate the project - this despite the fact that I have authored some 2 dozen scholarly works on slavery, slavery's economics, the civil war, and the history of racial discrimination.

In fact, Hannah-Jones herself had even previously cited my work on Lincoln and colonization in defense of a contested claim in her 1619 Project essay (and she was factually right on that point). She stopped doing so once she realized that I was the author.

As these examples reveal though, scrutinizers of the project such as myself made multiple substantive, nuanced, and in-depth critiques of its historical content. The NYT not only refused to engage them, its writers responded by blowing us off and attacking us personally.

This set the stage for the events of the last month and, sadly, it took an outright scandal about secretive and undisclosed textual edits to one of its most controversial claims to force the newspaper's hand.

Even acknowledging that scandal - and let's call it exactly what it is, a journalism scandal - continues to meet resistance at the Times, as seen in its own writer's guild revolt against Bret Stephens for daring to even mention it in his column.

But the great tragedy here is not the criticism or tone of the debate - it's the shadow cast onto the entire project by the NYT's own dismissive and demeaning handling of substantive scholarly criticism in the wake of publication. And that, @jakesilverstein, is entirely on you.

You can follow @PhilWMagness.


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