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National Association of Scholars calls on Pulitzer Prize Board to revoke award given to '1619 Project' author


'The Board should acknowledge that its award was an error'

Reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Peabody Awards)

The National Association of Scholars on Tuesday published an open letter calling for the Pulitzer Prize Board to rescind its prize awarded to the lead author of the New York Times "1619 Project."

The letter was signed by 21 scholars and public writers declaring that the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary awarded to Nikole Hannah-Jones earlier this year was given in error, criticizing Hannah-Jones' essay as "profoundly flawed" and "disfigured by unfounded conjectures and patently false assertions."

"We call on the Pulitzer Prize Board to rescind the 2020 Prize for Commentary awarded to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her lead essay in 'The 1619 Project,'" the letter states. "That essay was entitled, 'Our democracy's founding ideals were false when they were written.' But it turns out the article itself was false when written, making a large claim that protecting the institution of slavery was a primary motive for the American Revolution, a claim for which there is simply no evidence."

Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and one of the signatories, says the impetus for the letter was the recent revelation that the New York Times stealth edited the central claim of the "1619 Project" — That America's "true founding" was in 1619 when slaves were first imported to North America, not 1776 when the Founding Fathers of the United States published the Declaration of Independence of the 13 colonies. The Times edited that claim out of Hannah-Jones' essay.

"These actions on the part of both the Times and Hannah-Jones are profoundly irresponsible and disturbing," Kurtz wrote for National Review. He criticized how Hannah-Jones has repeatedly denied ever claiming that "1619" was America's true founding, when it is easily demonstrable she's made this claim repeatedly since her essay was first published.

"Imagine that a Pulitzer Prize for Literature had been awarded to a novel for which it later emerged that the most famous passage had been plagiarized. At that point the prize would rightly be revoked. Now imagine that a Pulitzer Prize for Literature had been awarded to a novel whose author, after receiving the prize, surreptitiously edited out the most famous passage from the e-book and denied repeatedly that the passage had ever been in the novel to begin with. In that case, the prize would not be revoked, but the author would be considered to have gone at least semi-mad," Kurtz wrote.

"What do we say, then, about a Pulitzer Prize for journalism where the publisher edits out the most famous passage/claim and the author repeatedly denies that the claim had ever been there to begin with (although she herself made the claim repeatedly in a variety of public contexts well after publication of the original text)? What do we say when the author points to the stealthily edited text as proof that the claim edited out was never actually made to begin with, despite the fact that she herself repeatedly made the claim for months on end?"

Since its publication, the "1619 Project" has faced substantial criticisms from historians and scholars of all political persuasions for historical inaccuracies. Conservatives have widely opposed curricula based on it being taught in schools. President Donald Trump in September denounced the project and issued an executive order to create the "1776 Commission" to make recommendations for "patriotic education" to be taught in American schools to counter its "toxic propaganda."

The National Association of Scholars letter reviews the record of stealth edits to Hannah-Jones's essay and uses evidence to accuse her of "duplicity" in defending her essay.

"The duplicity of attempting to alter the historical record in a manner intended to deceive the public is as serious an infraction against professional ethics as a journalist can commit," the letter says. "A 'sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay,' as the Pulitzer Prize Board called it, does not have the license to sweep its own errors into obscurity or the remit to publish 'deeply reported' falsehoods."

The Pulitzer Prize Board erred in awarding a prize to Hannah-Jones's profoundly flawed essay, and through it to a Project that, despite its worthy intentions, is disfigured by unfounded conjectures and patently false assertions. To err is human. But now that it has come to light that these materials have been "corrected" without public disclosure and Hannah-Jones has falsely put forward claims that she never said or wrote what she plainly did, the offense is far more serious. It is time for the Pulitzer Prize Board to acknowledge its error rather than compound it. Given the glaring historical fallacy at the heart of its account, and the subsequent breaches of core journalistic ethics by both Hannah-Jones and the Times, "Our democracy's founding ideals were false when they were written" does not deserve the honor conferred upon it. Nor does The 1619 Project of which it is a central part, and which the Board seeks to honor by honoring Hannah-Jones's essay. The Board should acknowledge that its award was an error. It can and should correct that error by withdrawing the prize.

Without mentioning the National Association of Scholars by name, Hannah-Jones responded to "efforts to discredit my work" on Twitter, noting how Ida B. Wells received a Pulitzer Prize 100 years after the New York Times called her a "slanderous and nasty minded mulattress."

She said she takes the criticism as "a badge of honor."

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