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The Myth of the Times’ Intellectual Diversity

The paper's opinion section reflects elite establishment consensus much more than it does the reality of America's political divisions.

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. Flickr/Christopher Michel

Newspaper editors often have to fend off angry readers, but The New York Times’ James Bennet has found that some of his fiercest critics are his own colleagues. Bennet runs the opinion section, which encompasses the unsigned editorials; op-ed columnists (like Paul Krugman) and contributors; and reader letters. Since 2016, when Bennet joined the paper from The Atlantic and America elected Donald Trump, the op-ed page has featured more conservative voices, enraging both longtime readers and some on the staff. “The newsroom feels embarrassed,” one senior Times staffer recently told Vanity Fair.

The family quarrel at the Times has spilled out into the public, thanks to a campaign of leaks that seem intended to sting Bennet. In leaked Slack chat transcripts, anonymous Times employees complained about opinion staff editor and writer Bari Weiss, who was criticized recently for a tweet where she mistakenly described U.S.-born Olympic skater Mirai Nagasu as an immigrant—and then argued with those who corrected her. Some staffers alleged that her privileged position at the paper allowed her offenses and errors to go unchecked. In a leaked memo to colleagues and a transcript of a question and answer session with around a dozen Times employees in December, Bennet responded to these accusations by stating that the op-ed page suffered from “sameness” in the past, which he was trying to redress by “diversifying our range of opinion.”

Bennet’s apologia frames the dispute as a battle between those who are intellectually curious and open minded and those who are ideologically homogenous and hidebound. This is at odds with reality. While some criticism has been disproportionate to the offense—Weiss’s tweet was factually wrong, but written with good intentions—the op-ed page hasn’t quite lived up to Bennet’s high-minded call for freshness and diversity.

It’s true that Bennet has brought in new voices, and widened the spectrum of opinion found in the Times. But the paper is far from a model of freewheeling debate. The paper’s worldview remains largely confined to centrist neoliberalism. The paper makes plenty of room for Hillary Clinton supporters and Never Trump Republicans, but little for the wide swath of popular opinion beyond the center-left or center-right.

The problem is not that the Times is reaching out to conservatives, but rather that it is an establishment paper in a period where the establishment consensus is broken. And it’s trying to repair that consensus rather than truly reaching outside of it.

Friction between the Times’ news and opinion departments is hardly unique to Bennet’s tenure. In 2014, reporters whined to the New York Observer about Bennet’s predecessor, Andrew Rosenthal, calling him “lazy” for running editorials that are “completely reflexively liberal, utterly predictable, usually poorly written and totally ineffectual.” He was also accused of indulging star columnists like Tom Friedman, whom a Times staffer described as “an embarrassment” who was full of “blowhardy bullshit.”

The complaints under Bennet are quite different. The editorial page has largely avoided controversy, while the op-ed page is accused of deliberately offending liberal sensibilities. And rather than indulging center-left columnists, Bennet has hired neoconservative Bret Stephens, formerly of the Wall Street Journal. Stephens’s first column peddled a soft version of climate change denial, drawing more than 600 letters of protest and many cancelled subscriptions. The response was so intense that publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote a personal appeal to angry readers, urging them to stay with the newspaper.

Vanity Fair noted several other op-ed controversies under Bennet:

There was an episode last March when two prominent national security reporters at the Times took the unusual step of publicly disparaging a Times op-ed, written by the former British M.P.-turned-contentious Twitter phenom Louise Mensch, who has been criticized for fanning conspiracy theories pertaining to Russia. Another eruption involved an op-ed by Blackwater founder Erik Prince, which was alternately lambasted as a “pro-mercenary,” “advertorial,” and a “sales pitch for more mercenaries.” On the anniversary of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Bennet devoted the entire editorial page to letters from Trump supporters.

This month brought yet another eruption, when Bennet hired tech journalist and activist Quinn Norton to the editorial board. It was a bold and unconventional choice, but Norton was quickly fired after the Times learned that she had boasted of neo-Nazi friends and had a long history of using ethnic and homophobic slurs on Twitter. In a recent Atlantic article, Norton contended her remarks were taken out of context and used to create a caricature of her.

These episodes all have different coloration, but they often come down to the issue of intellectual diversity. “It’s a commonplace borne out by social science,” Bennet wrote in his February 15 memo, “that Americans are sorting themselves by party or convictions and losing the ability to engage respectfully—even if only to disagree—across those tribal lines. Most people seem to think this is a bad thing, but very few institutions are trying seriously to do anything about it. We are trying. It’s what The Times is supposed to do, and it’s what democracy needs.” He added, “We’re taking some chances, recruiting voices that are new to The Times and publishing pieces that press against our traditional boundaries.” In the Q&A session in December, Bennet spoke about “our ambition to capture the full range of—one can never capture the full range—but a wider range of the debate that’s out there.”

Bennet’s rhetorical shift from “full range” to “wider range” speaks to the challenge of his quest for diversity. The Times as an institution is resistant to “the full range” of debate in America because it is an establishment newspaper that historically has tried to mediate between elite factions, rather than represent public opinion as a whole. As Bennet told staffers in December, in an admirably frank admission of the paper’s neoliberal ideology, “I mean, I think we are pro-capitalism. The New York Times is in favor of capitalism because it has been the greatest engine of, it’s been the greatest anti-poverty program and engine of progress that we’ve seen.”

This opinion is under threat to a degree America hasn’t seen since the first half of the twentieth century. There’s a large and growing populist distrust of capitalism on the right (Trumpists who oppose free-trade treaties) and the left (Sanders-style socialists who want to expand the welfare state and regulate corporations). But Bennet’s agenda of diversification largely doesn’t include such voices because they don’t comport with the Times’ worldview.

Thus, the op-ed page’s ideological horizon remains exceedingly narrow. Its columnists range from liberal Hillary Clinton supporters like Krugman, Michelle Goldberg, and Frank Bruni, to conservatives who endorsed for Clinton as the lesser evil, like Stephens, David Brooks, Ross Douthat. The op-ed page has also featured conservative contributors like Charles Sykes, Mona Charen, and Erick Erickson—all Never Trumpers. It is a rare month when the page includes a contribution from a avowed Bernie Sanders or Trump supporter.

Perhaps Bennet will do so yet, but his moves since Trump’s election suggest that the intellectual diversity he seeks is really just a broader centrism. Rather than policing the boundaries of respectable opinion, which are much narrower than the actual debates taking place, Times could use an ideological perestroika: to truly open itself up the breadth of opinion in America. As Ryan Cooper argues in The Week, “To live up to the Times’ stated values, the paper must broaden its range of domestic policy views, particularly to the left, without publishing war criminals, flagrant bigotry, or the like. The Times already has plenty of centrist liberals and a smattering of conservatives, but still no leftist regulars who are even close to Bernie Sanders’ views.... But the key thing is that the Times ought to find smart domestic policy writers from all camps: leftists, libertarians, conservatives, socialists, and on and on and on.”

To be sure, finding credible pro-Trump writers might be difficult. Some of the most influential voices of Trumpism are partisan hacks like Fox News’ Sean Hannity or bigots like Ann Coulter. It’s hard to imagine either being suitable for the Times. Still, if the Times wanted to convey the rational case for Trumpism, it could find writers like Modern Age editor Daniel McCarthy, American Conservative editor Scott McConnell, Federalist editor Mollie Hemingway, George Mason University law professor F.H. Buckley, and Washington based journalist Helen Andrews. There are also writers who are anti-Trump but sympathetic to many features of Trumpism, such as National Review staff writer Michael Brendan Dougherty.

On the left, the Times could hire writers who are critical of capitalism, like journalist Naomi Klein (the author of The Shock Doctrine), University of Pennsylvania political scientist Adolph Reed, Nation Institute fellow Sarah Jaffe, Baffler writer Amber A’Lee Frost, and Nation senior editor Sarah Leonard.

Bennet is keenly aware of the divisiveness of American politics, and rightly believes the Times’ is responsible for representing these opposing views. “The world needs this from us right now,” Bennet said in the staff Q&A. “I don’t mean to sound pious, but it really is true that this is a crude and dangerously polarized time... And to simply assert that we know what the right answers are is not good for the democracy.” He also sees a higher purpose here. “Diversity for us is not just a moral necessity,” he wrote in his memo, “but the only road to fulfilling our purpose of enlarging human understanding.”

These are wise words, but they overstate just how diverse the Times’ opinion section has become. To read its op-ed page today is to gain a greater human understanding only of the elite establishment. Rather than confront what Bennet calls the “crackup of ideologies,” his section is selling a fantasy politics in which centrism is America’s dominant ideology. It’s a horse that can’t see its blinders.