On Tuesday morning, HuffPost published a leaked transcript of a Q&A that New York Times Opinion Page Editor James Bennet held with the paper’s employees in December. It’s perhaps the clearest distillation yet of what Bennet actually thinks.
Bennet and his section have caused what seems like a full-fledged meltdown at the Times in recent weeks after a series of missteps—including staffer Bari Weiss’ indulging in the lovingly mild racism of calling people immigrants who aren’t immigrants, and the paper’s decision to hire a writer with public ties to white supremacists. “The newsroom feels embarrassed,” a senior employee told Vanity Fair. Bennet scrambled to hold a series of town halls to try to manage the response.
But while the issues may have bubbled over in recent days, the leaked transcript from December shows that the problems at the Times editorial page have been brewing for months and Bennet has only himself to blame. Here are (some) of the most telling quotes.
On Bret Stephens:
I feel the same way about Bret’s work for us. I know that there was a lot of — and I experienced it — a lot of criticism and concern about him. And you guys may disagree or there may be people who do, but I just think he’s an exceptional writer and thinker. I don’t agree with him a lot of the time. But I like to read him, so.
Stephens, who has become one of Bennet’s most controversial hires, was a climate change skeptic long before he got hired at the Times. Among other sordid claims, he called the campus rape epidemic “an imaginary enemy.” Since arriving at the Times, he has opined that Woody Allen should not be condemned for allegedly molesting Dylan Farrow because, if he did it, he only did it once. Truly exceptional thinking there. Most of the time, he is just very boring.
And particularly with opinion journalism, these are people who are paid to have very, very strong convictions, and to believe that they’re right.
And then you want to put them together and say, “OK now we want to treat each other civilly and be good colleagues.” And that can be a difficult thing. But again, people are, I think — and, Tyson, correct me if I’m wrong — they’re making it work. We’ve had some explosions, but culturally it’s real, it’s actually a challenge internally. And if you ask me what I’m proud of, I’m proud of the way people have — I was not proud of some of the moments along the way. But in general, I think people handled that with the grace and dignity we would expect from people at The New York Times.
Here’s Stephens publicly calling his Times colleagues whose critical internal conversations about Weiss were leaked to HuffPost “offense addicts” who aren’t “gracious or smart.”
On saying the quiet part loud:
Most of our readers [inaudible] are liberal. I think if we show we take conservatives seriously and we take ideas seriously there, we get a lot more moderates paying attention to what The New York Times has to say. I think we lose the moderates completely if we just show that we think the conservatives are just, that there’s no point in even engaging their ideas or to debate with them.
It’s long been assumed that Bennet has front-loaded his op-ed section with conservatives to balance out the supposed “liberal” bent of the paper. But one Erik Prince does not equal one Bernie Sanders (a real example Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger used to show the section’s balance). That we now know that Bennet literally thinks in these terms probably explains his strategy more than anything else.
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.
No surprises here.
You know we do, I mean at a very basic level, we fact-check our work. So, there is a kind of layer there of having a — but the harder question is representation of fact.
On how he doesn’t know how to find non-white, non-male, non-bad columnists:
What a columnist is is a trusted voice in your ear that helps you process, kind of, the world in real time, right? Through a particular lens. And there are a number of lenses we’re missing right now, I think. And a lot of those are, it’s gender and it’s identity, you know, as well as ideology.
So where am I looking? I’m asking, I’m asking you guys. You know, send me names, please. You know, if there are people that you’re reading that you think belong in The New York Times.
On the “Richard Spencer test”:
We talk a lot about the Richard Spencer test, you know: Would we publish Richard Spencer in the pages of The New York Times? The answer to that is no — oh, well, the piece we’d publish from him is “Why I Got Everything Wrong, by Richard Spencer,” if he was owning up to it. I mean, as you could imagine, there’s conditions. But the reasons we wouldn’t right now are largely because the guy is — he represents a particularly poisonous point of view. And that isn’t having those kinds of consequences. You know, it’s not a, it’s not a giant movement.
As HuffPost’s Ashley Feinberg points out, “is it the poisonous point of view that disqualifies Spencer, or is it the supposedly narrow scope of his white nationalism and its lack of consequences?”
On his very good large adult sons, conservatives:
I give our conservatives, in general, particular credit because they have to live this every day in a way liberals don’t, because they’re working in an environment where they are constantly having to grapple [with] people with very, very different points of view. It really is in the hiring, of picking people that have these different [inaudible].
I have reached out to Bennet and the Times for comment and will update this post if I hear back.