The New York Times’ decision to hire Bret Stephens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal columnist, is part of a larger effort to “further widen” the range of views the paper presents to readers, James Bennet, the paper’s editorial page editor, told The Huffington Post Friday.
Long a conventional conservative columnist, Stephens emerged during the 2016 campaign as liberals’ favorite writer on the right. As other conservatives lined up behind Donald Trump, Stephens wrote blistering columns in the opinion pages of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal lambasting the Republican presidential nominee. He feuded with Fox News host Sean Hannity on Twitter. And unlike some NeverTrumpers, he still hasn’t come around to the president. That won him praise to his left — including from Bennet, who said Stephens “demonstrated his guts,” as some other conservative writers were dropping “their principles to accommodate the radically unorthodox politics of Donald Trump.”
But liberal Times readers who enthusiastically tweeted Stephens’ anti-Trump broadsides may find his other views less palatable. Stephens has dismissed climate change an “imaginary enemy.” He’s referred to the “disease of the Arab mind,” a characterization he defended as a “figure of speech not biology.” And he’s called former President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran worse than appeasing Hitler.
Nearly two-thirds of the Times’ audience is consistently or mostly liberal, and conservatives generally distrust the paper, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center. Just 3 percent of Times consumers are consistently conservative, according to the same study.
Despite its readers’ ideological lean, the Times has a long tradition of hiring conservative op-ed writers such as the late William Safire, a former Nixon speechwriter; and Bill Kristol, the founding editor of The Weekly Standard.
The paper’s current right-leaning columnists, David Brooks and Ross Douthat, are seen as representing a high-brow strain of conservatism, hailing from elite schools and magazines like The Weekly Standard and The Atlantic, respectively. And they share their more liberal colleagues’ rejection of the bomb-throwers in the talk-radio world and unsavory aspects of Trumpian conservatism. Brooks called out Trump’s “bigotry, dishonesty and promise-breaking” in a column just days after the election, and predicted that the president will “probably resign or be impeached within a year.”
Stephens is proud to fit the pattern. “I am proudly conservative,” he tweeted Thursday. “In the tradition of Burke, Lincoln and Irving Kristol, not Coughlin, Buchanan and Donald Trump.” (The late Irving Kristol, the so-called “father of neoconservatism,” was Bill Kristol’s father.)
Kristol praised the new hire: “The Journal’s loss is the Times’s gain,” he wrote in an email.
But talk radio host Mark Levin, the type of conservative media figure who the new Times columnist has argued hurts the Republican Party, didn’t: Stephens “is an intellectual light-weight,” he wrote. “He has no influence or impact of which I am aware.”
On Friday afternoon, the Times announced another Wall Street Journal writer and editor, Bari Weiss, would be joining the opinion section.
In discussing the Times’ expansion, Bennet said there “are many shades of conservatism and many shades of liberalism,” and the Times owes it to readers to “capture a wide range.”
But as far as embracing views far to the left or right, the Times’ full-time opinion writers have never represented a particularly wide range. The paper has never had a Pat Buchanan or Steve Bannon, a strident right-wing populist arguing against free trade, immigration and U.S. intervention abroad. Nor has it played host to a regular columnist from the anti-war left in the vein of Michael Moore, or an anti-capitalist like Naomi Klein.
And several of its left-leaning voices on the op-ed page are often aligned with conservatives on foreign policy. Stephens, like Kristol before him, backed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But so did Tom Friedman. And like Stephens and Kristol, both Friedman and Nick Kristof supported Trump’s decision last week to strike Syria in response to a chemical attack.
Although many progressives may be frustrated by another interventionist voice joining the Times’ opinion writers, it’s Stephens’ views on climate change which have prompted the strongest backlash so far. After Bennet announced the move Wednesday, In These Times and ThinkProgress, the news arm of the liberal Center for American Progress, questioned the decision, branding Stephens a climate science “denier.”
The Times editorial board, however, believes in the “rock-solid scientific consensus” around climate change. And in a March 27 editorial, the paper argued that “without swift action the consequences of climate change — rising seas, more devastating droughts, widespread species extinction — are likely to get steadily worse.” In that column, Times editors twice cited Trump’s “ignorance” for disbelieving in the effects of global climate change, and expressed alarm that the president has surrounded himself with officials “who know or care little about the issue of global warming and its consequences.”
The charge that Stephens is a “climate denialist” is “terribly unfair,” Bennet said. “There’s more than one kind of denial,” he continued. “And to pretend like the views of a thinker like Bret, and the millions of people who agree with him on a range of issues, should simply be ignored, that they’re outside the bounds of reasonable debate, is a really dangerous form of delusion.”
In a statement to The Huffington Post, Stephens described himself as a “climate agnostic.”
“Is the earth warming?” he asked. “That’s what the weight of scientific evidence indicates. Is it at least partially, and probably largely, a result of man-made carbon emissions? Again, that seems to be the case. Am I ‘anti-science’? Hell, no.”
“I say ‘seems’ because the history of science is replete with consensus positions that have evolved ― or crumbled ― under the weight of additional scientific evidence,” he continued. “Our radically changing understanding of cancer and of the ways of curing it is a salient example of what I mean.”
Stephens has gripes with environmental advocates, describing the “near-religious fervor with which the climate-advocacy community seeks to win converts and castigate heretics as morally abominable people.”
“Most of us would like to think of ourselves as open-minded individuals ― so let’s not have heads explode when we encounter views with which we sharply disagree." Bret Stephens
Though Stephens doesn’t appear to see climate change as an urgent issue, he’s joining an organization in which it’s become a priority.
Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet last year called it the biggest issue of the moment for the paper. In its news pages, the Times has labeled those who reject “established science of human-caused climate change” as “denialists.” And the Times recently dubbed climate change “the most important story in the world” when seeking a new section editor.
Of course, Baquet, who runs the newsroom, will not be handling Stephens’ columns. Bennet said the opinion side does “cover things very differently” than the news side, but emphasized that the two operations apply the “same standards for fairness and accuracy.”
Stephens promised in an email to keep an open mind as a Times columnist and to “examine and reexamine my premises and assumptions.” He asked readers and critics to do the same.
“One of the chief attractions of joining The Times’s Opinion section is to participate in a journalistic enterprise that encourages a vibrant diversity of opinion,” he said. “Most of us would like to think of ourselves as open-minded individuals ― so let’s not have heads explode when we encounter views with which we sharply disagree.”
Bennet said that if the Times is “serious about not cocooning ourselves, and our readers are, then we have to hear points of view that sometimes make us uncomfortable.”
This isn’t necessarily a new approach, Bennet said, but stretches throughout the Ochs-Sulzberger family’s 121-year stewardship of the Times. “This is a very old ambition of the paper that I think has particular relevance right now,” he said.
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