In a long memo to his staff, New York Times editor James Bennet defended his embattled editorial page against its many, many critics, writing that “in our time, we owe our readers an honest struggle over the right paths ahead, not a pretense that we’re in possession of God’s own map.” The New York Times opinion section is not bad, he argued. In fact, it is good.
Bennet has had a difficult week. First, one of his hires, Bari Weiss, sparked outrage when she referred to the California-born Olympic skater Mirai Nagasu as an immigrant. This occasioned a heated internal conversation in which staffers vented about the direction of Bennet’s section, as HuffPost reported. This was the same day that Bennet accidentally employed the proud friend of a neo-Nazi for a total of five hours before being forced to let her go.
Now, it seems, Bennet has decided to provide The New York Times staff with a 1,500-word explanation on why these men and women are not actually upset about the opinion section’s attempts at heterodoxy. Instead, they are scared of being challenged. He also makes sure to remind the staff that he is “picking our contributors with care, looking for people who share Times standards for fairness and intellectual honesty and originality.” People such as John Lott, who Bennet published two days ago and who is one of the most widely discredited gun researchers working today.
He closes by, essentially, begging his newsroom colleagues, the people whose jobs it is to hold major institutions accountable and urge transparency, to please keep any criticism (and subsequent leaks) to themselves.
You can read Bennet’s memo in full below:
To our colleagues:
There’s a thought in Adolph Ochs’s original mission statement for The Times that we don’t talk about so much — “without fear or favor” is the go-to, for good reason — but that I particularly love. It’s in his closing line, about the role of Times Opinion; he says we’re supposed to help “assure the free exercise of a sound conscience.” Please bear down on those words and I think you’ll see what I mean. Could there be a more elegant expression of the thought that we’re supposed to protect the freedom of people to think for themselves, and to help them put that freedom to work?
There’s no reason to hang on to any tradition for its own sake, or to dust off any statement unless it serves our purposes today and helps us look ahead. I think this statement does both, and it helps explain what we’re up to these days here in Opinion.
It’s a commonplace borne out by social science 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.
Surely one of the most basic principles of The New York Times is that we don’t have all the answers. That’s why Times reporters go out into the world, often taking great risks, to try to figure out the truth. It’s not my place to speak for the newsroom, but from where I sit it seems like the authority of The Times is earned every day through the honesty and determination of that struggle — to understand how people think, and what they’re up to, and how the forces at work in our era are reshaping their lives.
This principle applies equally to Times opinion journalism. In Opinion, our collective role is not to tell people what to think. It’s not to simply reflect back to them what they already think. It’s to help them — as best we can — to do what they want to do, which is to think for themselves.
If the newsroom’s fundamental role is to describe the world as it is, ours is to envision how it could be made better. And when it comes to that work, no one — not any of our columnists, who are the best in the business; and not the editorial board, a hive mind of experts; and not any of our outside contributors, who are original thinkers; and also not anyone else on this earth — has all the right answers. We may be right about many of them; we may be partially right about others; and we may be dead wrong on still others. History will have to sort out who had it right in the end. In our time, we owe our readers an honest struggle over the right paths ahead, not a pretense that we’re in possession of God’s own map.
That means being willing to challenge our own assumptions; it means being open to counter-arguments even as we advance our own convictions; it means listening to voices that we may object to and even sometimes find obnoxious, provided they meet the same tests of intellectual honesty, respect for others and openness. It means taking on the toughest arguments on the other side, not the straw men. It means starting from a presumption of good faith, particularly on the part of our colleagues, including those we disagree with. It means having some humility about the possibility that, in the end, the other side might have a point, or more than one.
It means having a far richer array of perspectives — richer in terms not only of ideology but of identity and experience — than we have today. Diversity for us is not just a moral necessity but the only road to fulfilling our purpose of enlarging human understanding.
Inevitably, it also means sometimes falling short and making mistakes. (Remember: we’re not pretending to be right about everything here in Opinion.) We’re taking some chances, recruiting voices that are new to The Times and publishing pieces that press against our traditional boundaries. Sometimes you — or we — might judge, in retrospect, that we’ve made the wrong choice and put a foot over one line or another. I’m very sorry when that happens. I’d be far sorrier if we never tested the limits.
This was the mission for Times Opinion that Adolph Ochs laid out in 1896, declaring that he wanted to “invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.” It was the mission The Times rededicated itself to in 1970, when it launched the Op-Ed page to further “our belief that diverse voices in our society must be given the greatest possible opportunity to be heard.” The editors explicitly wanted the Op-Ed voices to disagree with the editorial line of the paper, to keep it honest. A rich and searching and at times challenging breadth of arguments and ideas is also what society needs from us now, however imperfectly we might realize this vision, day to day, as we strive toward it.
Don’t get me wrong: We’re not just letting a thousand flowers bloom. We are picking our contributors with care, looking for people who share Times standards for fairness and intellectual honesty and originality, who believe in empiricism and the essential equality of all human beings. We are, as ever, editing and fact-checking our work. And we’re not indifferent to the question of who’s right and who’s wrong. As debates ripen or the news demands, The Times editorial board is rendering its best judgment on consequential matters, consistent with the progressive values that have shaped its reasoning for many decades.
What our readers do with any of our arguments is, of course, up to them. Maybe they’ll change their minds; maybe they’ll sharpen their existing views against a surprising and formidable counterargument. But at a minimum this running, noisy debate will help them understand the clash of ideas that’s shaping the world.
A lot of the work we get to do in Opinion is fun: We get to tackle big ideas, write with verve, experiment with new forms and ways of making arguments. But this is also a real struggle we are engaged in. It’s not easy to believe passionately in certain positions and then work with people who see the world very differently.
This is one reason, I think, that departments like ours, and even many newsrooms, have always been at risk of becoming homogeneous in various ways over time. It’s particularly hard now, when an echo chamber in social media grabs hold of one piece we publish and treats it as the whole, rather than one of dozens of opinions we publish in running arguments across a week. It’s particularly hard now because, even as we keep getting attacked from the right, left-wing sites are insistently telling the same story — that we’ve added conservative voices in a rightward frogmarch — while ignoring inconvenient realities like the powerful new voices from the left that have also joined our ranks. It’s hard because some of the critics like to resort to labels without actually contending with the arguments our people make. (The good ones contend and sometimes out-argue us. They’ll make us better.)
It’s hard because this is a work in progress and, as our critics rightly point out, we are still far from realizing our ambitions for a fuller range of voices. We are still far from it.
But we are making progress, not just in the range of our viewpoints, but in the range of our storytelling, the breadth of our subject matter, and the diversity of our team. I want to emphasize: We have a long way to go. But thanks to the fierce intellects and hard work of your colleagues in Opinion we are moving forward. Far more people than ever are reading all of our work. Great journalists want to be part of this project. Great and brave thinkers and doers and survivors and artists want to make their case in The Times because they know they can have their biggest impact here. They know they can be part of a searching argument about how to make the world a better place. That’s an argument that can never end, and it’s our great privilege, in this angry and vengeful time, to have the chance to help give it new vitality.
I’d like to close with an ask of you: Criticize our work privately to each other as you see fit. Please also let me or our other Opinion colleagues know when you think we have, indeed, put a foot over the line. But please also understand that our folks are acting in good faith. Whether you disagree with some of our many viewpoints or not — surely you will — please understand that your colleagues in Opinion are committed to ideals that matter, to fair play, tolerance, pluralism, the free exchange of ideas and intellectual challenge. They, like you, are committed to helping The Times achieve its highest purposes.
We’ll be holding a series of open meetings next week to talk more about our work and we hope you’ll join us.