Why Is the New York Times Elevating a Climate Skeptic and Right-Wing Ideologue to Its Op-Ed Page?
Are you a New York Times subscriber whose appetite for white male columnists isn't sated by the likes of Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristoff? Do Ross Douthat and David Brooks leave you hankering for another "principled" conservative voice? If so you're in luck, as the newest addition to the paper's op-ed page believes the threat of climate change is wildly overblown, the campus rape epidemic is a liberal fantasy and black lives matter no more than any other, however "politically incorrect" the sentiment has become. Needless to say, he's a white man.
Since Trump's election, you can almost see the Overton window shifting in real time. Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren, once Fox News stalwarts, are either hosting or soon to be hosting programs at NBC and MSNBC respectively. The White House has granted press credentials to Gateway Pundit founder Jim Hoft, a right-wing crank last seen striking poses associated with racist Pepe memes, prompting speculation Trump is openly trolling the press corps. Meanwhile his administration features several members of the Breitbart stable including former chair Steve Bannon (although his influence over the president appears to be waning).
Despite positioning itself as a bulwark against Trump's creeping authoritarianism, the Grey Lady has proven unable to resist this rightward lurch. Earlier this month, Editorial Page editor James Bennett announced the paper had poached conservative Trump critic Bret Stephens from the pages of the Wall Street Journal. "He's a beautiful writer who ranges across politics, international affairs, culture and business," Bennett said in a statement. "For The Times, he will bring a new perspective to bear on the news."
The move was swiftly condemned by a wide range of left-leaning media outlets. Fusion's Hamilton Nolan offered an itemized list of some of Stephens' most reactionary positions. At ThinkProgress, Joe Romm took aim at his climate skepticism, questioning whether the New York Times would ever consider hiring a Holocaust denier. The Intercept's Zaid Jilani, a former AlterNet contributor, ripped the Times for employing a transparent Islamophobe at a time when "Arab American and Muslim American civic society faces unprecedented demonization from a presidential administration." Over at The Outline, Leah Finnegan wondered why a publication that already has "two to three white male conservatives depending on if David Brooks has taken any allergy medication that day" felt compelled to add yet another.
New York Times' public editor Liz Spayd responded in characteristically baffling fashion, applauding the paper's refusal to conform to a "liberal orthodoxy of thought" despite the editorial page's glaring lack of diversity and her apparent concerns about Stephens' body of work. "After reading many of his past columns I, too, am wary about some of his more inflammatory language on climate change, Muslims, even campus rape," she wrote last week. "Are we to consider his more intemperate phrases 'rhetorical flourishes,' or does he really mean them?"
It seems to safe to say that readers have their answer. In a Q&A with Vox's Jeff Stein published Wednesday, Stephens defended some of his more inflammatory columns over the years, and further validated his and the New York Times' most vocal critics. Here are just a few of the lowlights from their conversation.
On campus sexual assault
[I take] issue with the claim that there is an epidemic based on statistics that, when looked at carefully, seem to have a very slim basis in reality. So what you’re transforming is horrendous, deplorable incidents into an epidemic — and that’s not altogether supported by reliable data...I think there’s a dishonesty in these statistics, because you’re picking a misleading figure — you’re choosing, for instance, to characterize all unwanted touching as sexual assault, which clearly it isn’t. There are a variety of gradations between an unwanted kiss and a rape.
On climate change
A guy I know just had a baby and he’s a big global warming, climate change activist. If he thinks in 20 years we’ll be heading toward unsustainable climates and there will be tens of millions of people being displaced, presumably including himself, at the most apocalyptic level, then presumably he wouldn’t be having children...I’m saying let’s be careful with our terms, and genuinely truthful, and not necessarily alarmist. When we offer misleading statements in service of what appears to be a higher virtue, or higher goal, we run the risk of making very bad policy choices.
On the phrase 'the disease of the Arab mind'
I used it as an occasion to talk about anti-Semitism in the Arab world. By any measure, the Arab world is the most anti-Semitic part in the world. If you want to talk about denialism, the failure of many people — including, I’m afraid, many of those in my profession — to point out the ubiquity of anti-Semitism in Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, you name it, both state-sponsored and private, is a real form of denialism...The whole thing struck me as a made-up controversy, which in an attempt to indict me as a racist — which I most certainly am not — wound up eliding and evading the rather important subject I was trying to address, which is the extraordinarily prevalent anti-Semitism throughout the Arab world.
On Black Lives Matter
I think Black Lives Matter has some really thuggish elements in it. Look — at the risk of being incredibly politically incorrect, but I guess that’s my job — I think that all lives matter. Not least black lives. Do I think police chiefs, many of which are African-American or Hispanic, wake up and say, 'Let’s systemically oppress African-American communities?' No, I don’t. Are there instances in which that happens? I’m sure there are. But anecdote is not data. And that’s an issue. And you also have an issue where a lot of criminality tragically occurs in African-American communities. And police go to where criminality occurs.
Stein astutely compares New York Times columnists to Supreme Court justices; both hold their positions for years and even decades, shaping the national conversation if not the country's political will. If that's the case, then the New York Times has appointed its own Neil Gorsuch, a right-wing ideologue whose views are neither new nor diverse, but excruciatingly familiar. “There’s no question a lot of our readers do not want us to provide stories that show we’re open,” executive editor Dean Baquet told Spayd of the hire. “But what they want is not journalistic.” Neither is legitimizing specious climate or social science. That the New York Times feels compelled to elevate a conservative white man at a time when conservative white men hold all the levers of power is all the more confounding.