Media Criticism

New York Times Union Hits Times Columnist Bret Stephens for Daring To Criticize the 1619 Project

"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 union tweeted. "The act, like the article, reeks."


Bret Stephens is a conventionally conservative columnist for The New York Times who tends to write about many of the same issues I cover for Reason: free speech on college campuses, illiberalism and incivility, cancel culture, etc. (I am occasionally critical of his columns, even when I agree with their general thrust.)

On Friday, he wrote a long piece about the 1619 Project, the Pulitzer-winning series of New York Times magazine articles spearheaded by Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. The articles re-envisioned 1619—the year that African slaves first arrived in the English colonies in North America—as the America's true founding. The project has drawn praise for calling attention to the country's original sin of slavery, but also much criticism for factual errors and rhetorical exaggerations. Most notably, the 1619 Project wrongly claimed that preserving slavery was an important reason for the colonists' rebellion against the British.

Stephens' column takes great pains to praise Hannah-Jones for all that she was able to accomplish with the 1619 Project, which he hails as "ambitious" and "unabashedly patriotic." But he also knocks Hannah-Jones for her mistakes, and he calls her out for committing a rhetorical slight-of-hand: Both Hannah-Jones and Times magazine editor Jake Silverstein have denied ever claiming that they proposed 1619 as an alternative date for the true American founding. This is simply false: As I have shown in two recent articles, they absolutely billed the 1619 Project this way. In fact, Hannah-Jones claimed that this was the point of the 1619 Project as recently as September 15.

Stephens presents yet more evidence:

I emailed [Hannah-Jones] to ask if she could point to any instances before this controversy in which she had acknowledged that her claims about 1619 as "our true founding" had been merely metaphorical. Her answer was that the idea of treating the 1619 date metaphorically should have been so obvious that it went without saying.

She then challenged me to find any instance in which the project stated that "using 1776 as our country's birth date is wrong," that it "should not be taught to schoolchildren," and that the only one "that should be taught" was 1619. "Good luck unearthing any of us arguing that," she added.

Here is an excerpt from the introductory essay to the project by The New York Times Magazine's editor, Jake Silverstein, as it appeared in print in August 2019 (italics added):

"1619. It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country's history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation's birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country's true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?"

So Stephens' criticism is solid. But some at the paper are evidently unhappy about it. On Saturday, the Twitter account for the newspaper's employee union took a cheap shot at Stephens, tweeting that his article "reeks."

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

The tweet references the fact that Times writers are usually supposed to refrain from explicitly criticizing each other in public. It's true that this is a rather irregular column, and Stephens acknowledges as much in his concluding paragraphs, noting that he "thought long and hard about the ethics of writing this essay." A general prohibition on colleagues savaging each other's work makes sense as a policy.

But the union's interest in this principle is not exactly consistent. When opinion editor James Bennet dared to publish a controversial op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.), Times employees attacked him—with the full support of the union, which coordinated talking points that recommended using the language of workplace safety to argue that the words in the Cotton piece literally put Times staffers in danger. They also castigated opinion writer Bari Weiss, in public as well as private, for continuously publishing pieces with which they disagreed. The results included the exits of both Weiss and Bennet from the paper.

When the Times subsequently published an abominable piece of Chinese Communist Party propaganda defending the government's crackdown on Hong Kong, there was no public outrage from staffers. No one complained about lapsing editorial standards. The union did not fret about the safety of Hong Kong–based journalists.

Criticizing Stephens for breaking Times rules and "going after" a colleague is yet another hypocrisy on the part of the union representing Times staffers—because that's exactly what they did to Bennet and Weiss. Defend at all costs those who agree with the ideology represented by Hannah-Jones, and punish or purge the dissenters: That's the only principle in play here.

Late Sunday night, the account deleted the offending tweet, writing:

This is probably evidence that they got in trouble for the tweet, rather than evidence that they realized the sentiment behind it is self-serving and selectively applied. In any case, it's the double standard that reeks, not Stephens' column.