Newly minted New York Times columnist Bret Stephens has already prompted criticism inside the newsroom, even though he hasn’t written anything for the paper.
Declan Walsh, the Times’ Cairo bureau chief, on Saturday took issue with Stephens having once described anti-Semitism as the “disease of the Arab mind.”
In that column, Stephens argued that an Egyptian athlete refusing to shake hands with his Israeli counterpart at the Olympics was indicative of the “long-abiding and all-consuming hatred of Israel” in the Arab world.
Stephens probably wouldn’t have caused much controversy, then or now, if he had gone on to argue that anti-Semitism is prevalent, even pervasive, in the Arab world. But he wrote that the Olympics incident demonstrated “the disease of the Arab mind.” Stephens responded to criticism at the time by saying he used the word “mind” as a “figure of speech, not biology.”
But the conservative columnist’s “Arab mind” characterization has been given a second life since he landed the high-profile position at the Times on Wednesday. And Stephens defended that eight-month-old column on Saturday in tweets to Walsh.
“That’s a fair point,” Walsh responded. “Ascribing a pathological condition to an entire race of people is not.”
“Which the column doesn’t do, except in a tendentious reading of it,” Stephens tweeted, adding that “readers can judge for themselves.”
But the Times’ “Interpreter” columnist Max Fisher also expressed concern with the line.
Opinion writers are never going to please everyone. But it’s unusual for Times staffers on the news side to publicly challenge the work of a new hire in the opinion section. And specifically, the two Times staffers’ criticism with Stephens’ writing stemmed not from a political viewpoint, but from whether the language he used to make it was acceptable.
Meanwhile, the most persistent criticism of Stephens outside the Times has been that his views on climate change are outside the realm of responsible discourse.
At the Wall Street Journal, Stephens called global warming a “mass neurosis” and declared it “dead” two years later. He has mocked liberals’ concerns over climate change, which he has dubbed an “imaginary enemy.” On television, he has dismissed the “the so-called ‘consensus science’ of global warming.”
The Times editorial board, by comparison, argued last month that the “rock-solid scientific consensus” on climate change demands “swift action.”
Times editorial page editor James Bennet told The Huffington Post on Friday that Stephens is not a “climate denialist,” as he’s been described by some critics. In a statement to HuffPost, Stephens identified himself as a “climate agnostic.”
“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,” Bennet said.
But Joe Romm, the editor of ThinkProgress’s “Climate Progress” vertical, responded Saturday by saying that certain views should be dismissed, even if they’re shared by millions.
“With that ‘logic,’ the Times could hire as a columnist former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke — or a flat earther or someone who thinks vaccines pose a health hazard,” Romm wrote. “After all, millions agree with them.”