Journalism Union Backs Lack of Accountability for The 1619 Project

Unions are a vital tool to protect worker rights but history is replete with sad examples of unions that become thuggish bullies to serve their own interests and the status quo.

A disappointing example of this occurred Sunday when The New York Times Guild, the union that represents at journalists at the NYT criticized NYT opinion columnist Bret Stephens for criticizing The 1619 Project, a deeply flawed series about slavery in America published by The New York Times Magazine last year.

(To make matters worse, the Guild’s condemnatory tweet contained embarrassing typos:  “It says a lot about an organization when it breaks it’s [sic] own rules and goes after one of it’s [sic] own. The act, like the article, reeks.”)

Instead of supporting a courageous columnist who stood up to the powerful media force that signs his paycheck, the union pounced like a cat on a mouse.

Instead of defending important, long-standing journalism ethics, the Guild backed management under the guise of supporting worker solidarity.

Where’s the accountability?

Meanwhile, management at the NYT has emerged to defend the series.

On Tuesday, NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet, who sits in the office where the buck supposedly stops, defended his job performance by ignoring critics and proclaiming the series to be “principled, rigorous and groundbreaking.”

NYT Publisher A.G. Sulzberger issued a fawning statement on Monday calling The 1619 Project a “journalistic triumph” and lauding its editor, Nikole Hannah Jones as a “principled journalist who has deserved every bit of praise that has come her way.”

Sulzberger and Baquet said nothing about the journalistic malpractice reflected in the editing of the series, including blatant disregard for facts.

They chose not to address post publication ethical lapses by the NYT editors who silently deleted statements and supposed facts from the project and the internet without acknowledging any error.

They also were mum on the unseemly (and successful) campaign by the NYT to legitimize the series by branding it with a Pulitzer Prize for excellence. A group of academics are now demanding the Pulitzer Prize Board withdraw the Pulitzer awarded to Hannah-Jones for commentary.

Proudest Accomplishment?

“As I’ve said many times, 1619 is one of the proudest accomplishments of my tenure as publisher,” said Sulzberger.

Sulzberger apparently doesn’t want to talk to anyone outside the NYT about his proudest accomplishment. He is content to sit back and allow Hannah Jones be the focal point for criticism. The NYT management team appears to feel they are not accountable to the public like the institutions covered by the NYT.

The NYT ignored a request for comment on Tuesday.

As Stephens points out in his masterful essay, the 1619 series’ radical and false revision of history was completely unnecessary; the real history on slavery and race relations in the United States is enough to warrant a long-overdue reckoning.

So what explains the hyperbolic marketing of the series, which claims without evidence that America’s democratic founding ideals were false when written and every concept, document and institution that guides America was designed to promote slavery?

Did the NYT sensationalize the series and take advantage of the historic suffering of African Americans to sell products (i.e., newspapers, books, a movie) and to re-establish its own brand name (I.e. curriculum distributed to schools) in a shifting media landscape?

Sceptics would say The 1619 Project was above all a brilliant marketing tool for the NYT brand.

Editorial Malpractice?

It is not too much to expect that a major NYT initiative be properly fact-checked. Clearly, it wasn’t.

The series asserted, wrongly, that slavery was a uniquely American crime, ignoring world history from the earliest days of the Roman Empire.

The series sought to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” Incredibly, Hannah Jones now insists the series does not argue that proposition at all “but what it does argue for is that we have largely treated slavery as an asterisk to the American story.” Meanwhile, the “true founding” proposition was silently omitted from the series by the NYT as Hannah Jones deleted her Twitter history.

The series asserts, wrongly, that a primary reason for the Revolutionary War was to defend slavery. This is simply not true. Moreover, the Times knew it was not true when the story was written because its own expert says she argued vigorously the proposition was false. This error goes to the heart of the series.

Historians say that slavery was not a central economic driving force in America, African Americans were not alone in combatting slavery but were joined by whites (i.e. abolitionists), etc. etc.

Baquet said the project “fell fully within our standards as a news organization. In fact, 1619 — and especially the work of Nikole — fill me with pride.” So Times standards permit disregarding or twisting facts and silently deleting errors without acknowledging them in corrections?

The problems with this series are greater than an incompetent magazine editor or a misguided project editor – the problems belong to the New York Times as an American institution that purports to be honest and truthful.

No Comment

The Guild tweet was suddenly deleted on Monday, with a message that it was “tweeted in error. We apologize for the mistake.”

 The Guild declined to respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

As an attorney who for years has consulted with workers who are experiencing abuse in the workplace, I have talked many times to workers who felt bullied or betrayed by union representatives because they were a different color or ethnic background or because they insisted upon their rights.

In recent years, journalists have imperially decried the thin blue line that police erect to protect errant members from accountability. That is exactly what the Guild has done in this instance, to protect Sulzberger and the NYT management team, and the Guild should be ashamed.

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