When Journalists Tell the Hard Truth

by FASPE Journalism Fellows Ian Kullgren, Christine Rushton, and Dustin Volz

This month, the New York Times dedicated a full issue of its weekly magazine to the lasting effects of slavery in America. Timed to the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship to arrive at the British colony of Virginia, it was arguably the largest reporting project on race ever undertaken by the Times. And it consisted almost entirely of black writers. “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in the opening essay. The same day the issue published, commentator Benjamin Weingarten proved Hannah-Jones’ point. 

“Contrary to its stated goals,” Weingarten tweeted, “it appears the purpose of the 1619 Project is to delegitimize America, and further divide and demoralize its citizenry.”

This was not the first instance of the Times writing about slavery. But the scale of the effort — and the fact that the writers were black — angered prominent white skeptics. Newt Gingrich slammed the project on Twitter and on Fox News, and others joined in. Some claimed the project was subversive opposition to President Trump.

From a journalistic standpoint, the Times’ effort to add a layer of thought to history — and how it connects to the present — should be rewarded, as should its effort to lift up voices of writers who have long been marginalized within their own industry by dint of their race. It is not only sound professional practice; the end product is a sound work of journalism, thoroughly researched and well-supported by facts.

The backlash demonstrates a theme Fellows discuss at length in Berlin: that Germany has done a better job memorializing the Holocaust than the United States has done with slavery. While Germany teems with thoughtful monuments to Holocaust victims, the U.S. can hardly discuss slavery without public figures obstructing the conversation. With its effort to push that conversation forward, New York Times’s project is a powerful and leading example of journalists’ professional commitment to telling the truth.

Read more at Vox.com.

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