Liz Spayd, the bad New York Times public editor, has taken it upon herself to tackle the paper’s latest public relations crisis: the work of new conservative op-ed columnist Bret Stephens. Surprisingly, the woman best known for such probing inquiries as “Are the sports pages too interesting?” has come up somewhat short in her latest effort.
You will recall that there has been a huge amount of controversy over the decision to hire Stephens—a racist, torture-supporting, climate-denying white man—to join the paper’s already terrible, nearly all-white and all-male columnist roster. People were outraged when editors said this was a move to bring “diversity” to the paper. They were further outraged when Stephens began his Times tenure with one of the choicest bits in his repertoire—a shoddily written, factually incoherent bit of climate denial. Some even canceled their subscriptions, prompting top Times editors to angrily mourn the closing of the liberal mind, the death of civil discourse, and the bygone era where Times readers knew their place and didn’t talk back.
Into this frenzy steps Liz Spayd. What does she have to say about the whole mess? After some throat-clearing paragraphs, she gets to what is, for her, the heart of the matter:
Since his column published last weekend, I’ve been sifting through the rubble, poring over complaints and reaching some readers by phone. The goal wasn’t to resolve the finer points of atmospheric physics, but to get an answer to a simple question: Do you actually want a diversity of views on the Opinion pages, and if so, what’s the matter with Bret Stephens?
Oooh I know the answer to this one! It’s that the Times currently has more people (one) wondering “is fascism really that bad?” writing for its page than the number of women of color it has had as columnists in its entire history (zero). It’s that the Times op-ed page—which has no views to the left of “Hillary Clinton forever” but plenty of space for elitist hacks, third-rate Orientalists, war enthusiasts, and whatever it is that Frank Bruni does—thought hiring a man who lamented “the disease of the Arab mind” and the “thugs” in the Black Lives Matter movement was key to ideological “diversity.” And it’s that Stephen’s very first column was full of easily debunked lies that had to be corrected by the paper.
Spayd, for whatever reason, does not really get into the fact that Stephens just made things up in his debut column, or that the people he cited in his piece publicly rejected his conclusions. She goes back and forth, airing everyone’s views on the controversy. Even Stephens gets to sound off. “I’m not offering my comments as statements of absolute truth,” he tells Spayd, which is at least more accurate than the words that made it into his column.
Finally, Spayd gets to her grand conclusion (emphasis mine):
Readers, on the other hand, face the serious test of whether they can show tolerance for views they don’t like, even those they fear are dangerous. Stephens questioned the models of climate science, but isn’t it possible to take him at face value — to accept that he thinks global warming is at least partially man-made — and see where he takes his argument over time? He may not change opinions in the end, but at the very least he might concede that his stereotype of the contemptuous liberal is overly broad.
I stand among the readers who worry that Stephens is minimizing the serious risk of climate change by referring to the “modest” warming of the earth and likening polling data to sophisticated climate models. But I believe steadfastly that The Times should be giving readers a range of views — not just from conservatives but also populists left and right, women, blacks, Latinos and Asians. All are in short supply.
As for Stephens, I’m taking him at his word, that he has no intention of manufacturing facts and that he will be transparent with his audience about his ideas and intentions. That seems like a good place to start.
There is a lot going on here—except, of course, for an actual firm conclusion from Spayd. That would be too much to ask for, I guess.
Note how Spayd pleads with the readers of the Times to open their arms to Stephens, as if it’s their duty to accept any bullshit that comes from on high in the name of “free speech,” but merely says she will take Stephens at his word that he won’t make things up, even after he already did. And how her call for a “range of views” balances one group—conservatives—against a list that, taken together, makes up about 75% of the entire global population.
Ultimately, the main problem with both Spayd’s approach and the arrogant institutional freakout of the Times at large is one and the same. The really important issue around Stephens’ hiring—the staggering lack of true diversity in the opinion section of the most prestigious paper in America—is relegated to a second tier. Instead, the conversation veers off into a bunch of nonsense about how sad it is that people can’t just let climate denying racists say whatever they feel like without getting mad.