Readers, Please Help Me Understand What This Graphic Means
I have absolutely no idea and it's breaking my brain.
Happy post-Super Bowl Monday, readers.
This morning, I saw something in a recent Semafor newsletter of Ben Smith’s that has been bugging me well into the early afternoon. It’s this:
“Sign of the Times: Mentions of 1619 and 1776 in the New York Times since 2019.” And, well, okay! That’s sure… something. But what? I stared at it the same way my dog Tater Tot stares at the Amazon Echo when Alexa announces today’s weather (yes, yes, I know, I’ve basically invited a surveillance device into my home, yes, yes, I’m not proud of it, but I like being able to say “Alexa, turn the living room lights off” and having it do exactly that): confused, contemplative, curious.
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Is this meant to tell us that “1619” has fallen out of style?
Is this meant to tell us that people (including the paper of record) are rejecting “wokeness” or something like that?
It felt like some sort of Rorschach test for people who read way too much about politics. Naturally, I decided to ask others if they had any clue what this was supposed to be about. Maybe I was missing something really obvious. Or maybe it didn’t mean anything at all?
Some of the responses:
“I think it’s about how they made the 1776 Project to directly refit the 1619 Project and showing that one is still being talked about.”
“Seems like Semafor wanted the graphic to suggest a patriotic counterattack against wokeness. But as you note, it's skewed by a revival of the play ‘1776.’ And that revival has actors who ‘identify as female, transgender and nonbinary,’ according to NYT, so ... ‘wokeness’ wins.”
“What bothers me is their time scale for their data points... it's not every six months...every seven or eight months? Is there a table of data?”
“I think they're trying to make the case that the salience of the 1619 project is declining as people reject that message for a more patriotic one (as indicated in the rise of references to 1776. They've failed to note that there was a recent Broadway revival of the musical. lol.”
It reminded me of some recent brain-breaking riddles without obvious answers that have made the rounds online.
“Imagine how good your life would be if you had a 26yo nursing assistant by your side, now replace S with N,” reads one.
Nurning Annintant? (here was someone’s best guess, which makes some sense)
And more recently, “let’s go swimming and get sushi after…. Now replaces the s with an m.”
Let’m go mwimming and get mumhi after?
Steve Dinneen at City A.M. thinks he’s cracked the code: it’s engagement-bait that has no actual answer but exists simply because the people going “WTF? I don’t get it” online reacting to it will cause it to get way more engagement than it otherwise would have. Sounds plausible to me!
Anyway, back to the “1619” vs. “1776” thing.
The 1619 Project was released by The New York Times in August 2019.
The project marked the 400th anniversary of American slavery, and, according to the introduction, “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
The project, to put it mildly, led to a lot of weird right-wing freak-outs, often based on misreadings or outright inventions about what conservatives thought was in the 1619 Project. I’m not here to go point-by-point through the attacks and defenses on this work of journalism (I do highly recommend you read through the original NYT Magazine feature; there’s a lot of really interesting stuff in there!). There are some really decent pieces out there that do criticize the project in good faith, so be sure to read those, as well.
For the most part, the reason “1619” stayed with people was because the right-wing couldn’t stop talking about it and trying to ban it from being taught in schools. (Not very “free speech” of them!) NYT published the project in 2019, a book came out in 2021, and Hulu released a streaming series in 2023.
When you actually do a search for “1619” on the Times website, you’ll find a lot of articles about the backlash to the project as well as stories about the partisan push to deny “1619” author Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure at the University of North Carolina. And, similarly, if you search “1776” on the Times website, you’ll see a lot of recent articles about… uh… the Broadway revival of the musical “1776.”
So what, exactly, is Semafor trying to say with this graphic? I don’t have the slightest clue.
I emailed Smith this morning with the following question: “What's the context of this ‘Sign of the Times’ graphic supposed to be? Is there a particular point this is supposed to be making?”
He hasn’t gotten back to me, but if he does, I’ll be sure to update this space with the answer. Or rather, to back back to our dear “nurning annintant,” I’ll be nure to update thin npace with the annwer.
I think this is what happens when the press treats every aspect of our lives like it's a f---ing sporting event. "1776, behind for most of the race, pulls ahead at the end for a decisive victory over 1619" is what this looks like to me.
Also odd they ended the data points before the Hulu series for the 1619 Project came out. In fact, there are 8 data points for what look like 3 years, starting with the beginning of 2019 and ending at the beginning of 2022. They could've just shown the number of total mentions of "1619" and "1776" for each of the four years, 2019 to 2022, but it's impossible to tell what the time spans are or when the overall time span ends. Junt ntupid.
Whatever else it's supposed to mean, it indicates that media folks still care entirely too much about the editorial opinions of the NYT