Pulitzer makes it official: "Fake but accurate" is today's reporting gold standard

It took sixteen long years for the journalism establishment to vindicate Dan Rather, but yesterday the Pulitzer Prize committee finally accomplished its goal. As John wrote yesterday, the egregiously error-filled “1619 Project” won recognition from Pulitzer as “a sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay,” without mentioning that it came under fire from professional historians from across the spectrum for errors, omissions, misrepresentations, and falsehoods. There’s more at stake here than just a bad award, and a much longer arc to the attempt to legitimize revisionism and agenda journalism.

Which is exactly what the 1619 Project was and is, an example so bad that its publisher finally had to retreat on its central claim. The committee cited the “public conversation about the nation’s founding” that the essay prompted, but that had more to do with the New York Times’ refusal to correct or withdraw the essay when confronted with all of its errors and manipulations. That debate finally resulted in the New York Times issuing a major correction to the piece weeks later that reduced the thesis from “the American Revolution was motivated on a desire to protect slavery” to a gauzier claim that some individuals within the revolution wanted to protect slavery.

When the World Socialists launch a four-part rebuttal to defend the American Revolution from revisionism, that’s a sign that agenda journalism has gone off the rails. To everyone, that is, except the Pulitzer Committee and the revisionists that have adopted the Dan Rather standard of “fake but accurate” to advance their agendas.

For those who don’t recall, Rather fronted a 60 Minutes II segment in September 2004 that used falsified documents to claim that George W. Bush had failed to fulfill his Texas Air National Guard duty and had gotten off the hook because of his family’s political clout. The documents were easily demonstrated to be fake; a New Media effort led by Power Line, Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs, and others in lesser roles (myself included) forced CBS into retracting the piece and eventually firing those who played a role in getting it on air.

Once pressed, the truth emerged that the documents had been created in Microsoft Word. CBS claimed that their source had retyped them from the originals, and advanced the idea of “fake but accurate” in defending their reporting. (Ironically, the NYT report on “fake but accurate” itself needed several corrections after publication.) Sixteen years ago, that drew hoots of derision from nearly all quarters, but not from some until well after Bush’s re-election effort concluded. CBS News made sure to take its sweet time for that purpose, but eventually found that the memos were both fake and inaccurate.

Rather still defends that segment to this day, however, and has a following that ignores the fact that it was based on falsified documents and never had any corroboration. Rather has been exiled from newsrooms since then, although he still remains on the scene as an analyst and a scold, rehabilitated enough to keep his face on screen. Brian Williams, who veered all the way into fabulism and personal lies, managed to get back into NBC’s good graces on a much shorter curve.

And now we have the Pulitzer committee making it official: facts don’t matter as long as the narrative pleases. Does it get clicks? Does it generate “a public conversation” regardless of whether it’s properly researched and approaches its topic fairly and accurately? Is it woke? That’s good enough for today’s journalistic establishment — even if it eventually wasn’t for the essay’s own publisher.

Stephen Glass was ahead of his time, it seems, in putting narrative over truth. Hack Heaven and Spring Breakdown might have qualified as Pulitzer finalists this year. The next time journalists lament the lack of trust and support from their consumers, remind them how they lost both in the first place, starting with this Pulitzer.

Jazz Shaw May 05, 2021 4:01 PM ET