At this point the case against the New York Times’s decision to give Bret Stephens an op-ed column is well-known. His comments on race—he has warned of “the disease of the Arab mind” and believes Black Lives Matter contains “thuggish elements”—are atrocious. He doubts the validity of campus rape statistics, and is a climate change skeptic. In an interview with Vox’s Jeff Stein, he insisted that it’s “not true” that one in seven Americans experience hunger. (He’s wrong.) His presence at The Wall Street Journal made a perverse sense, in that the Journal is a bastion of an increasingly lonely school of conservative thought: tax cuts for the wealthy, unfettered market capitalism, more war. His move to the Times, however, has understandably incited outrage.
But Bret Stephens isn’t the only problem with the Times editorial page. He may not even be the biggest problem. At a time when smart opinion journalism has become a necessity to counteract the lies coming from the White House, as well as to offset the deficiencies of impartial journalism, the Times op-ed page is awash in out-of-touch, mediocre columnists who are badly out of sync with the era in which we live.
True to form, Stephens dedicated his first column to undermining the scientific consensus on climate change. “Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong,” he asserts. “Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.” Stephens’s concern here isn’t that people are rejecting scientific evidence of a phenomenon that will doom the planet; it’s that those of us who accept that scientific evidence are just too mean to those who have long used climate change skepticism to protect Big Business. In his conclusion, he boasts of having taken the work of Czeslaw Milosz for his epigraph. Milosz wrote to warn of authoritarianism, and it appears Stephens views the best conclusions of scientists in much the same lens.
Editorial page editor James Bennet has vigorously defended Stephens’s hire, inadvertently revealing some of the flawed thinking that goes into the Times’s op-ed page. “If all of our columnists and all of our contributors and all of our editorials agreed all of the time we wouldn’t be promoting the free exchange of ideas, and we wouldn’t be serving our readers very well,” he said in a statement. “He’s capturing and contributing to a vitally important debate.”
But the Times op-ed page, as judged by its regular columnists, imposes fairly strict limits on which ideas are exchanged. It runs from the standard right-wing propaganda of Stephens, to the centrist bromides of David Brooks, to a moderate liberalism that cheers Trump’s bombs on Syria and boos student protesters at Middlebury, to the howling wasteland that is Thomas Friedman’s column, where he screams gibberish at a merciless sky. (His last contribution to public discourse was a blow-by-blow description of playing golf in Dubai with a yogi. Truly, we are blessed.) When she is not describing her intolerance for weed chocolate, Maureen Dowd is commending Donald Trump for being the true dove in the presidential race. Frank Bruni, meanwhile, does whatever it is that Frank Bruni does.
The op-ed page is unbearably white—spare a thought for Charles Blow—and predominantly male. There is space for Ross Douthat to casually wonder if there’s a case to be made for a bigot like Marine Le Pen, but none whatsoever for a bona fide socialist, even though America’s most popular politician is a democratic socialist. Stephens isn’t even a particularly cogent or striking conservative—he’s bog-standard neoconservative material. His hire can’t even be defended as an attempt to understand the populist insurgence upsetting the Republican Party.
Stephens’s hire is therefore evidence of a much older problem at the Times. The guiding philosophy—if there is one at all—seems to be an unthinking embrace of the “both sides” approach to journalism. It doesn’t matter what discredited conservative ideas are in the paper of record, as long as they’re broadly considered “conservative.” Thus management can assure itself that it is being appropriately even-handed—no matter how badly this undermines the good work its reporters produce.
But politics is not a binary matter, especially now, when all the lines have been scrambled. It can’t be reduced to a simple liberal v. conservative divide, and if you tried the result would be a slate of columnists that is eerily two-dimensional.
It’s only possible to hire a writer like Stephens if you have no serious moral or intellectual objections to his views. The editors at the Times fall back on one axiom and elevate it to the greatest moral standard of all: the need for intellectual diversity. Bennet calls it a “free exchange of ideas.” Public editor Liz Spayd says it’s the antidote to a “liberal orthodoxy of thought.” The paper’s deputy Washington editor, Jonathan Weisman, dismisses Stephens’s critics as imbeciles who can’t stand “a conservative presence.”
This is a cop-out, in each instance; a form of anti-intellectual cowardice deployed to absolve the paper of any responsibility for its decisions. There is an inescapable moral dimension in granting anyone a column of such reach. A Times column confers prestige on the person who writes it, as well as on his ideas. It tells readers: “Here is an important thinker, stop and pay attention.” It is not so much a free exchange of ideas, which will fall and rise on their inherent worth, but a tipping of the scales.