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1619 Project faces renewed criticism — this time from within The New York Times

Posted October 12, 2020 5:10 p.m. EDT

— Amid all the external debate that the 1619 Project has provoked in the past year, the project led by Nikole Hannah-Jones has also prompted internal criticism at The New York Times.

Some of the angst is chalked up to the usual sniping that happens when a reporter, in this case Hannah-Jones, becomes a "star," in newsroom parlance.

But there are substantive critiques too, and they were surfaced in an unusual column by Bret Stephens, a Times op-ed writer with a conservative bent.

Stephens wrote in a Friday column that the acclaimed project, which aims to reframe the history of the US around the beginning of American slavery, had "failed."

The column touched such a nerve that A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The Times, issued a statement of support for the 1619 Project on Sunday night.

Sulzberger, told staffers that he had gotten questions about whether the opinion column represented "an institutional shift" in support for the project

"That couldn't be further from the truth," Sulzberger wrote in a Slack channel accessible to all staff. "It is a journalistic triumph that changed the way millions of Americans understand our country, its history and its present."

After praising Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for heading the project, Sulzberger said that the 1619 Project ranks as "one of the proudest accomplishments" the paper has had during his tenure as publisher.

"It's also sparked a national conversation unlike anything I've ever seen before, and that makes it a natural subject for an opinion columnist to write about," Sulzberger added. "I believe strongly in the right of Opinion to produce a piece even when — maybe even especially when — we don't agree with it as an institution."

In other words, the project continues to have the full weight of the Times behind it -- despite scrutiny it has received from some historians, including some who support the effort overall, and from conservative commentators who have aimed to undermine the project's core purpose.

Last month President Trump referred to the project as "totally discredited," which is not true.

He said "this project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom."

In the words of The Times, the project "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative."

Many staffers at The Times are enormously proud of the undertaking and see it as a symbol of the news organization's agenda-setting power.

There have been grumblings, though, about Hannah-Jones' sometimes defensive posture and her occasional battles with critics on Twitter. Last week, before Stephens' column came out, she wrote in a tweet, "In 1894, the NYT called Ida B. Wells a 'slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress' for daring to tell the truth about lynching. 100 years later she earned the Pulitzer Prize. These efforts to discredit my work simply put me in a long tradition of [black women] who failed to know their places." (The next day, however, she noted in a tweet, "There have certainly been some astute (and certainly more good-faith and intellectual) critiques from the left. I have found many of them interesting and have relished the way they help me challenge my own thinking and hopefully keep growing.")

Stephens' column, published on Friday, acknowledged the ambitious nature of the 1619 Project and defended it from critics who have characterized it as anti-American.

But Stephens pointed to debate about the project among some historians and argued that editors at The Times, "however much background reading they might have done, are not in a position to adjudicate historical disputes."

He said "the 1619 Project is a thesis in search of evidence, not the other way around." And he concluded that the 1619 Project "has given critics of The Times a gift."

Stephens' column was widely praised by conservatives. For a period of time on Saturday, both the column and the original 1619 Project link were on the paper's most-emailed list. The column remained on that list as of Monday afternoon.

Some supporters of the 1619 Project ridiculed Stephens for writing it. In an extraordinary move, The New York Times Guild went as far as to excoriate Stephens in a tweet over the weekend.

"It says a lot about an organization when it breaks it's own rules and goes after one of it's own," the guild tweeted. "The act, like the article, reeks."

The guild later deleted the tweet, saying that it was "tweeted in error."

"We apologize for the mistake," the guild added.

Jake Silverstein, the editor of The New York Times Magazine, where the project originated, wrote on Twitter that "while we disagree strongly with Bret's column, we welcome debate about the historical analysis The 1619 Project rigorously advances. I'm proud of the fact that over the past year, the project has had such a profound impact on discussions about our history. We stand behind this work entirely." Silverstein called Hannah-Jones a "national treasure."

Stephens, who won the Pulitzer Prize while at The Wall Street Journal, has been one of The Times' most controversial figures since moving to the newspaper in 2017.

Earlier this year, Stephens also expressed disagreement with The Times when he wrote a piece defending a controversial column by Republican Sen. Tom Cotton. The Times ultimately said that Cotton's column shouldn't have been published and the episode led to the resignation of James Bennet as editorial page editor.

Hannah-Jones did not respond to a request for comment about Stephens' newest column.

But in an appearance on "Reliable Sources" last month, she said the project is not going anywhere.

"We are expanding the project into TV and film, as well as books," she said. "Vast numbers of Americans have appreciated this work. It has not made them hate their country. It has made them better understand their country. And really what the 1619 Project is a charge for us to work to live up to the majestic ideals of our founding."

Hannah-Jones isn't the only star reporter at The Times to draw scrutiny from within the paper in recent weeks. Rukmini Callimachi, a reporter at The Times who focuses on extremism, has faced questions about her work after the subject of her hit podcast "Caliphate" was recently charged in Canada with perpetrating a hoax. Ben Smith, who writes about media for The Times, examined the criticism leveled against Callimachi in a column on Sunday.

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