The New York Times thinks itself “worth it”

February 11, 2020 • 9:15 am

by Greg Mayer

A few weeks ago, I asked “Is Maggie Haberman worth it?” This was in response to the New York Times‘ growing “wookeness”, as I called it: the pervasion of woo and woke ideology throughout the paper. A major aspect of this in the paper is their 1619 Project, a major effort to rewrite American history from a racialist perspective, and to, furthermore, evangelize for racialism. The Times dismissed criticism from historians, and last Sunday took out a two page ad in itself to promote the project. (Does one part of the Times pay some other part for these ads?) The Times may or may not think Maggie Haberman is worth it, but they sure do think the 1619 Project is! Here’s the first page:

And here’s a closeup of the text:

This is the second page:

And the text up close. This is the part that really got me. The Times is saying that I, as a subscriber, must share responsibility for the Project, and then thanks me for doing so. And to rub salt in the wound, their website is called “/worthit”, the very thing I have begun to doubt.

The Times catchphrase now is “The truth is worth it.” And the truth certainly is. But the Times no longer seems to know what is true.

The day after the two page ad, I received an email (sent to all subscribers) from Nikole Hannah-Jones, the leader of the 1619 project:

Dear Reader,
I am a journalist at The New York Times Magazine and the creator of The 1619 Project. I cover racial inequality and injustice for the magazine, and in many ways, this project feels like the journalistic endeavor I’ve been working toward my entire life.
I understood that 1619 — the year the first enslaved Africans were sold into Virginia in British North America — was a pivotal year in American history, but one that very few Americans had heard about. So, as the 400th anniversary of American slavery approached, I pitched a project that would dedicate an entire issue of The New York Times Magazine to examining not just that historic moment, but the ongoing legacy of slavery across modern American life.
That is how The 1619 Project, which would grow to include not just an issue of the magazine, but a special section of the newspaper, a podcast and a series of live events, was born. For eight months, the sweeping effort consumed many talented editors at The Times, as we all worked together to produce something worthy of the anniversary.
The day the project launched, it sold out all across the nation, and we have sold out of several additional releases since. I’ll never forget how it felt to see people posting videos and photos, proudly announcing that they had snagged a copy of The 1619 Project for themselves. What I have heard again and again from readers like yourselves who engaged with the project, is that they simply did not know this history before.
That is the power of The New York Times. We are unparalleled in resources, talent and the commitment to do unprecedented journalism that transforms national conversations and the way we think about our world. I do not know of another news organization that could have given this type of journalism its authority and its reach. And we most certainly could not do this without your readership and support.
Thank you for supporting journalism that matters.
Nikole Hannah-Jones

They seem to really want me to cancel my subscription!

As Jerry noted the other day, the woo goes on as well. (Because newspapers track clicks assiduously, I now make a point of only reading the myriad bursts of wookeness in my paper copy, lest I contribute to the growth of this material—there’s no such thing as a bad click.)

But while the Times increasingly strains a reader’s patience, there is, as I noted in my original “worth it?” post, still much that is good. The following article takes on the use of unproven and improbable medicines in the treatment of coronavirus. Not visible in this link, but present in the paper version, was the subtitle “Ancient Medicine Raises Concerns”. This is the Times as it should, and used to, be.

43 thoughts on “The New York Times thinks itself “worth it”

  1. What all the journalist should do is pick up a good American History book or two. Finding the truth is much more interesting that a cause.

  2. If the racialist project succeeds (and it shows signs that is is succeeding in academia, media, the culture, and industry.), the American (western) liberal democratic experiment is doomed. Others may disagree. I see this is a battle over two core narratives: 1. good and valid principles that were applied badly in the past, or 2. principles that at their core are flawed due to their provenance from racism and therefore must be dismantled and replace with conscious counter-racialism.

  3. I find it hard to believe that the issue sold out (in the sense of people buying all the copies). I suspect that they are juggling the numbers (is selling fifty copies to a news-stand selling fifty copies?), or they have institutional partners who bought them up.

    1. The claim is utterly worthless; it is mere assertion. It’s no different than claims on book jackets and marquees and should be treated with as much respect.

      The thing that bothers me the most about this project is encapsulated in this bit at the end of their blurb;

      “It (the 1619 project) explores how slavery has shaped nearly everything in America, from music to traffic to capitalism – even our democracy itself”

      That is a true enough statement on its face – slavery was one of the most important issues that has shaped the history of our country – we killed more than half a million of our people to destroy it and in the end, never really finished the job. So it sounds like they’ve done something worthwhile – a fresh look at our history, perhaps.

      Then one reads the damn thing….

      I agree with many here – much of it is racialism pretending to be history. Alas that it is now ensconced in our brave new historical narrative.

      Hope dwindles.

  4. Well, Greg, I imagine we will never agree about the value and “truth” of the 1619 project. You write: “A major aspect of this in the paper is their 1619 Project, a major effort to rewrite American history from a racialist perspective, and to, furthermore, evangelize for racialism. The Times dismissed criticism from historians, and last Sunday took out a two page ad in itself to promote the project.” I have a few observations:

    1. Historians rewrite history all the time. Indeed, this is their function. Based on the climate of the times and new evidence, they offer new perspectives on past events. If this were not the case then there would be little use for historians. Rather, there would be a race to write the first history of an event and then every subsequent history that offered a different interpretation could be accused as attempting to rewrite history with its negative connotation. If you believe that the 1619 Project falsifies our understanding of the past then saying that directly would have made your intent clear. Starting in the late 1960s, a new generation of historians rewrote the history of slavery rejecting the views of an earlier generation of historians (the Dunning school) that slavery was a benign institution that Christianized the savage Africans and that the Civil War had little to do with slavery. Was this “rewriting” bad?

    2. I find it curious that you use the term “racialist.” I have not seen it used much by historians, but the socialists on their website love bandying it about. I take that term to mean that matters of race predominate in society over other forces such as social class. Whether or not race or social class or something else has most defined American history is a subject of legitimate debate. To understand American history, as all history, many forces need to be considered. But, I believe that the socialist contention of the predominance of social class is dead wrong due to several characteristics of American society, particularly through the mostly successful efforts of the ruling elites to divide the working class through issues of race, ethnicity, and religion. I wonder if these fringe socialists ever contemplate why in over 100 years of agitation, they have accomplished so little? I also suspect that Bernie Sanders is not their kind of socialist.

    3. Certainly, the vast majority of people are not aware of the internal debate within the history profession regarding the 1619 project. As on most historical topics, reputable historians vigorously debate and criticize each other. Such is the case here. It is simply wrong to give the impression that an amorphous group called “historians” has unanimously criticized the 1619 project. Below are links to articles by reputable historians defending the essence of the 1619 project: that race and slavery played a major, if not sole, role in the shaping of American history. And to understand this one must go back to 1619, not 1776.

    1. I will read these with interest. I need to know more in particular about slavery and the American Revolution.
      That the civil war was mainly fought over the issue of slavery is well accepted now, given there were many speeches and written statements saying exactly that.

    2. Excellent points, as always.

      From an historians perspective, does it matter if a new history is actually true? I don’t mean that as a snark; history is, after all, written by the victors. There are very few events of significance that have a single cause and it is often worthwhile exploring all of them, even those that played more minor roles.

      Perhaps a better way to put it; were events actually shaped by what the new history proposes? In many cases in the project it appears the authors cherry pick evidence or events because they confirm their views about what drove the development of our society but, as some of the historians who’ve criticized the project have pointed out, ignored accepted drivers which does not.

      In the sciences one of the worst things an investigator can do is to ignore countervailing evidence. It strikes me that in at least a few places the 1619 project is guilty of this. I think that’s where a lot of the criticism stem.

      1. That makes sense. Ignoring critics also casts doubt on the honesty of their project. It seems they are driven by their need to make a statement, not explore the truth. In other words, it is not history done properly.

      2. Books have been written about the essence of your question: is there such a thing as objective history? My short answer is no. It is easy enough to look at a work of history and identify factual errors, such as getting a date wrong. But, good historical writing is not a listing of facts; that is what you find in an almanac. The purpose of historical writing is to interpret and analyze events, to give them context. To accomplish this, the historian will pick out of an infinite universe of facts those that support the argument or thesis of the topic being discussed. A good historian will also discuss facts that go against the thesis and explain why they should be given less weight than the other facts. So, it is impossible for an historian not to cherry-pick facts.

        Thus, because the historian by necessity must cherry-pick facts and give her own interpretation of them makes objective history is possible. The good historian will attempt to leave personal bias out of the narrative (realizing that this cannot be totally achieved) or at least for the sake of full disclosure announce to the audience her biases.

        It is because of the interpretive nature of historical writing that we see history revised ( I do not like the term “rewritten” because it is something all good historians do and the negative connotation applied to it). Historical writing about slavery illustrates its interpretative nature. For the first half of the 20th century most discussions of slavery viewed it as benign. After this, a new generation of historians viewed it as far from benign. Why the change? The earlier historians, influenced by the times they lived in, accepted the racist argument that African-Americans were not fit to have an equal place in American society. The later historians, influenced by the civil rights movement and the study of evidence that revealed that the institution of slavery was cruel and monstrous, sharply broke with the earlier generation.

        The bottom line to all this is that history must be read critically. Do not assume that any particular work on a particular topic is necessarily “true” or “objective.” Read widely and draw your own conclusions as to what interpretation you think bests explains the past.

        1. I’m not sure that I agree with the contention that historians are obliged to cherry-pick facts (unless we have a different understanding of the term). Of course, from the near infinite quantity of information that is theoretically out there, the historian is obliged to select evidence that is relevant to the question she/he is asking but that is quite different to disregarding the relevant evidence that doesn’t happen to support the conclusions she/he hopes to draw. The latter would constitute ‘cherry-picking’ in my book and would constitute an intellectually disreputable method of working.
          Perfectly objective history may be an ideal that is rarely if ever attained but it seems to me that is is nevertheless an ideal that all historians should strive for.

          1. If you don’t like the term “cherry-pick”, I will try to explain what historians do without using it. What facts an historian uses to support the thesis of the writing is a subjective act. Different historians writing on the same topic may choose to include certain facts and ignore others. The honest historians do not do this out of a desire to purposely distort the analysis of the topic but simply out of a sense of what is important and what is not. For example, in trying to understand Thomas Jefferson’s attitude towards slavery some historians will point out that there is abundant evidence that he was not a particularly benevolent master. Other historians will dispute whether the evidence is, in fact, abundant or argue that it is not particularly important and, therefore, will ignore or downplay Jefferson the slave master. Hence, historians subjectively decide what is important to include in their narratives.

            1. It’s not the term I object to but the practice. It would be one thing to argue that the evidence that Jefferson was not a benevolent slave owner is limited or that, set against evidence of positive things that he did, it is insufficient to totally undermine his reputation. It would be quite another to wilfully ignore the evidence of his shortcomings as a slave owner because it doesn’t support your thesis. I assume that it is not the latter that you are saying is normal practice for historians?

              1. Obviously, I cannot speak for thousands of historians. So, I can only give you my impression which is that the vast majority of professional historians do not knowingly distort or omit relevant evidence. This does not preclude the possibility that historians can differ in their evaluation of the evidence.

              2. I entirely agree that historians can – and clearly do! – differ in their evaluation of the evidence. I am heartened by your impression (which I am sure is much better informed than mine) that the vast majority of professional historians do not knowingly distort or omit relevant evidence.

      1. Thanks for the link. Cathy Young has written a long essay that would take quite a bit of time to respond to it in the depth that it deserves. From a quick reading, there is probably a lot I would agree this. It does illustrate how historians can disagree honestly about the meaning of historical events.

        This seems to be Young’s main concern with the 1619 Project when she asks this question: “Can a liberal democracy function when it starts teaching its children that its founding was not simply flawed but made up as a cynical excuse for white men to hold on to their slaves?” This seems to imply that even if the Revolution was fought, in part, to protect slavery then we still need to teach the myth because otherwise liberal democracy would fall apart. This argument is remarkably similar to those who say we need religion even if it is total nonsense because otherwise immorality would run rampant.

        But let’s say that the critics of the argument that the Revolution was fought to protect slavery are correct. Let us concede that the Revolution was fought for the noblest of reason; let us agree that the slaveholding revolutionaries had only the purest goals – to achieve liberty being suppressed by a tyrannical king and that the thought of protecting slavery never once crossed their minds. Yet, these people never did anything substantive to end slavery and that the next generation of slaveholders no longer considered a slavery as an embarrassment, but a positive good. There is one positive thing that can be said for the secessionists of 1860-1861 – they were honest. They made no bones that they were seceding to protect slavery. We cannot read the minds of the revolutionary slaveholders. But it is reasonable to assume that if they considered slavery in danger that they would not be talking about defending it while endlessly blathering on about how the king was taking away their liberty.

        My conclusion is that there is no sure way to measure the extent the southern revolutionaries rebelled to protect slavery. It is a question historians will debate for a long time, probably never coming to an agreement. Much more important is the incontestable fact that the southern revolutionaries never did anything to end slavery and just a few decades later their descendants were willing to destroy the Union to protect it. I leave it to each reader to decide whether the words of the slaveholding revolutionaries were more important than their actions (or non-actions).

      2. Thank you so much for the link. I have tried to keep up with the 1619 back and forth, and it has become difficult to do so.

        I read Ms. Young’s essay and my impression is that it is, if not devastating, then at least a big blow against the critics who criticized those questioning 1619 Project.

        Especially damming is Ms. Young’s direct aim at one of the books, Geral Horne’s “The Counterrevolution of 1776”, which appears to play a strong role in the 1619 Projects editor and writers’ thinking.

        After a long critique, Ms. Young writes this: “All of which is to say, chances are that Horne is a “historian” in roughly the same sense that someone teaching biology at Young Earth Creationist College is a “biologist.”

        I would love to see a rebuttal to Ms. Young’s impressive essay.

    3. Historian– Thanks for your careful comments. I’ll respond to them in turn.

      1. As an evolutionary biologist, very much interested in the estimation of phylogeny, I am well familiar with the difficulties and possibilities of knowing what occurred in the past. New evidence can and does change our best estimate of what happened, and this is true for the history of both mice and men. The discipline of history, if it is to be what is called in German a Wissenschaft (a broader term than “science”, as narrowly understood in English), then it must admit of their being things that are not true. It can of course be hard to know some things, and some things we will never know. For reasons having nothing to do with the 1619 Project, I happened to read earlier today two accounts of emancipation in the Danish West Indies in 1848 by two participants, one a minor Danish official (but the brother of the governor who issued the emancipation decree), the other a Danish naval officer. They had rather different takes on what was going on. But by reading both, and knowing that their paths crossed, but that each saw different parts of the event, I came to a clearer understanding of what happened, and what motivated the participants. But we can’t know exactly what happened (there were literally thousands of participants only some small number of whom recorded the event). Were I a historian of the Danish West Indies, I would search out as many accounts as I could, and these accounts might well change my overall reconstruction of what happened, because of the new evidence they provided. (I gather that, even during the 19th century, the understanding of how emancipation came about in the DWI changed significantly, as more was learned.) So, of course, our best estimate of history changes.

      But some parts of the 1619 Project are just wrong. (I’ve said so in previous posts– I’m not sure how you thought my intent unclear.) I have relied not on my own historical authority, but linked to a variety of historians’ arguments to that effect. The Dunning school (I actually had it in mind as among the range of pro-Southern opinions I referred to, but didn’t want to go into the gory details of that range, which even includes secessionists) was wrong about the Civil War having little to do with slavery, and its wrongness is demonstrated by abundant evidence (e.g. the secession ordinances). And, so too are those defenders and participants in the 1619 Project who agree with the Dunning school on this point (I don’t imagine they are monolithic in their views).

      2. I did struggle to come up with a proper term for the ideology behind the 1619 Project. I and others have used the term “identitarianism” for the view that individuals are to be judged by their membership in particular groups (race, sex, religion, etc.), and that such groups can be given a moral ranking; “intersectionality” is an at least related ideology. I did see the term “racialism” on the WSWS website, and it did seem to capture the distinctively race-based aspect of the 1619 Project’s ideology, and this certainly influenced my using it. To be explicit about it, I’m using racialism in the American Heritage Dictionary sense: “An emphasis on race or racial considerations, as in determining policy or interpreting events.” (Interestingly, the AHD records the synonymy of “racism” and “racialism” as “Chiefly British”.)

      3. If readers thought there was an amorphous group called “historians”, it would have been because they had carefully read the pieces I linked to. What I was struck by was the diversity of historians who criticized the 1619 Project. (I of course do not mean diversity in the identitarian sense, but in the intellectual sense. Although, contra at least one of the Project’s defenders, they are not all white.) Their specialties, inclinations, and specific criticisms varied; they did not all agree; at least one seemed to be British (and thus would have a different, and perhaps more dispassionate, view). Their overall ideological inclinations seemed to range from average American academic to Marxist. So, indeed, the group was “amorphous”– it lacked structure.

      I was struck by the link to the bibliography from the American Institute for Economic Research provided by revelator60 (thanks!, BTW), a libertarian group which also seems to be critical of the 1619 Project, and its bibliography dutifully records the criticisms of its ideological foes at the WSWS. Struck from left, right, and center, the 1619 Project has engendered widespread criticism. (I hold no brief for the Fourth International, and while struck by the, at the time, apparent concentration of criticism there, it was what the interviewees said to WSWS, not socialist solidarity, that convinced me– when you’re right, you’re right.)

      WEIT readers already knew of one of the three defenders you mention, as I had linked to him, calling him “an historian at Indiana University”, and Jerry has linked to other defenders (for example, here). Victoria Bynum (a 1619 critic) mentions yet another defender in the material I linked to, and, unlike the New York Times, modifies her views in response to criticism. So there’s not unanimity, but I think the sharp criticism from a broad range of critics who do not seem to share an ideological agenda must say something; and many of them have said it quite strongly.


      1. Greg, thanks for the response. Perhaps we will continue the discussion in the future. For now, I will reiterate why I think the 1619 Project is valuable, despite all the factual errors that have been pointed out. It alerts the American public to the major role race has played in the unfolding of American history. The debate over its arguments has caused many people (probably millions) to contemplate why American society is what it is. I think this is a good thing.

  5. I canceled late last year. Mostly because of the both-sides-do-it junk reporting. Interesting when I called to cancel the women I spoke with asked in a tired voice if I was canceling because of Bret Stephens’ latest editorial. I never read his column, ever. I assume that day it was particularly odious.

    1. I reasonably gather that she was instructed by higher-ups to ask the Stephens question. As if no liberal columnists could possibly prompt a cancellation request.

  6. There was a commercial for the 1619 project during the Academy Awards. My wife never heard of this, so I explained that although parts of the projects were laudable, it also makes bogus claims like stating that the American Revolution was fought in order to sustain slavery in the colonies.
    Her reaction was as expected.

  7. This publicity for the 1619 Project is analogous to someone ending a story with “Honest!” It immediately alerts the hearer to its potential dishonesty. Just the idea of non-historians attempting to do history on this scale and in such a respected newspaper bugs me no end. It would be different if there were a large group of historians trying to make the claim that the US was founded in racism and the NYT was reporting on it. Instead, they’ve hatched it themselves in order to claim some kind of civic virtue. This promotion is them banging their own drum for their project because no one else is drumming loud enough for them. My middle finger is raised to their efforts.

  8. Question for readers:

    Why is slavery considered to be “America’s original sin”?

    What is so original about a practice, slavery, that nearly approaches historical ubiquity? What is unusual is its growing disrepute in the West at nearly its instantiation in the United States.

    In terms of the “1619 Project”, In which other countries/regions is slavery also part of its DNA (a metaphor used by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project’s editor)?

    BTW, I have read the defense of the 1619 Project and they seem to slice off small parts to defend, but seem circumspect and elliptical in the project’s larger claims such as 1619 being the real foundational date of the United States, not 1776. Or that slavery was not primary to the Civil War.

    After 35 years as a subscriber, I finally cancelled my subscription to the Times because of its reporting distortions on identity issues/immigration/Israel, as example, the way it would play with statistics to buttress intersectional narratives.

    And also its endless racializing such as this, especially in the Op Ed section…(Keep in mind that the group with the highest average income in the US are from Asia, higher than white people):

    “Parasite Won, But Asian-Americans are still Losing”

  9. I would define a racialist as someone who studies race and attitudes toward race, with emphasis on differences between different races and how that has effected culture. A racialist believes there are differences but makes no value judgments.

    That differs from a racist who does make value judgments.

    It would also differ from people who deny that races exist and believe there are no racial differences.

  10. I love the old style typesetting used to write “1619”. It looks like it is the kind from the printed material from 100’s of years ago.

  11. Would anyone like to join me in the “1166 Project”? Our plan is to publicize the idea that all of European History really descends from Henry II’s Assize of Clarendon in 1166. This was a royal decree establishing Assize courts to settle legal issues, including those of land ownership. The Assize courts determined in law the conditions of serfdom (or villeinage), which in turn gave rise to all the defects of the modern world, such as Fox News, people who don’t read the NYT,
    cultural appropriation. microaggressions, and all the rest.

    1. That sounds good but I vote for 1066. When the Normans took over I think is when all the problems, including those Henry II dealt with really started. Without 1066 we would not have democrats and republicans.

      1. I could agree, except that William the Bastard belonged to a marginalized group, namely bastards, and so cannot be reproached.

    1. Thanks again for the link. I am not familiar with many of the sources listed. I intend to look at them.

      If nothing else, one good thing that may come out of the 1619 Project is that it will perhaps get millions of people interested in history and reverse the terrible situation of historical illiteracy in this country.

      1. I found it irksome to have to take history in school/college with the concomitant exams. I thoroughly enjoy reading history on my own, remembering much more, then when I had to take a bloody test. E.g., Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” and Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.” Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery.” (Reading Washington reflecting on how, as a child in Hardy, VA, his rapture at how wonderful a baked sweet potato with brown sugar tasted. Something every spoiled human primate juvenile – and adult – brat should read as a corrective to self-absorption and sense of entitlement.)

  12. The NYT’s is an important window into the cognitive bubble of the American Establishment, comparable to reading a major paper in North Korea for insights into the regime there.

    If I want to know the status of a CIA coup in Venezuela, I only have to look at the NYT’s Venezuela coverage.

  13. Let’s not forget that white slaves were sent to America before African slaves. These were bought and sold to work the tobacco plantations. Both of them are a shame on the society as it was then. We now have other reasons to be ashamed of our society.

  14. I cancelled my subscription earlier this year but I still but the Tuesday paper (science) and the Sunday paper. My question is why now…the project is suspect because it never occurred to the Times until now.

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