Journalism Ethics Group Silent About Biggest Controversy in Years

What does The Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at Poynter Institute for Media Studies, founded in 2019 to advance ethical standards in the media, have to say about the on-going controversy regarding The 1619 Project?

It has been silent, even though this is the single biggest controversy involving journalism ethics in many years.

The center on Wednesday ran a story on its web site that promised a “deeper look” into the controversy surrounding The 1619 Project. The story regurgitated some clashing viewpoints without taking the obvious step of interpreting the issues in the context of journalism ethics. The Poynter Institute earlier ran a story lauding The 1619 Project as a “phenomenal piece of journalism.”

Historians and journalists have criticized falsehoods and apparent ethical lapses in the NYT series, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of slaves arriving in America. Among other things:

  • The series is based on the demonstrably false premise that a primary reason America fought the Revolutionary War was to perpetuate slavery. This, after the NYT’s own expert argued vigorously the proposition was false.
  • The NYT refused to make corrections, instead issuing a begrudging “clarification” that “some” columnists primarily fought to defend slavery, without supporting that claim.
  • Quillette disclosed the NYT made stealth edits to the project in response to fierce criticism. The series claimed that 1619, not 1776, was America’s “true founding.” That passage has disappeared without announcement or correction.
  • The series editor, Nikole Hannah Jones, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary by a seven-member jury panel that included a NYT editorial writer and despite the fact a major premise of her essay was incorrect.

Earlier this week, NYT Publisher A.G. Sulzberger and NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet issued statements insisting the 1619 series comported with the highest journalism standards and principles, which is reminiscent of the Hans Christian Andersen folktale, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Their pronouncement followed an op-ed piece published by the NYT by Bret Stephens, who criticized the series for “avoidable mistakes” and concluded the project was a ” thesis in search of evidence, not the other way around.”

Poynter’s Ethics Center claims to be “an authoritative voice for journalists, citizens and everyone interested in elevating discourse and fact-based expression while battling disinformation and bias.”

However, the ethics center did not return a request for comment on Wednesday.

The center began last year with a $5 million grant from a foundation run by its namesake, Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist. Newmark serves on numerous boards, including the one that runs Poynter, and his $5 million gift was the largest ever received by Poynter,

Poynter President Neil Brown declared, in a press release announcing the new center,  “The need for credible, trusted information is critical to a healthy democratic society.”  The center is run by Kelly McBride, co-author of The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century (2013) and co-host of the Everyday Ethics podcast. 

The Poynter Institute, based in St. Petersburg, FL, calls itself a “global leader in journalism” and a “thought leader.” It is funded by a dozen mostly liberal corporations, including the Tides Foundation, which distributes money from anonymous donors to “advanced progressive causes and policy initiatives.”

The Institute also houses PolitiFact, which describes itself as the largest political fact-checking news organization in the United States.

The Poynter Institute claims five core values guide its work – accuracy, independence, collaboration, fairness and transparency. (Maybe they should add a sixth – laying low and not pissing off the NYT.)

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