In December, New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet met with a group of Times employees to answer questions about his much-questioned opinion section. At the time, A.G. Sulzberger, now publisher of the Times, was conducting a tour of the company he was about to inherit, meeting with employees from different corners of the newspaper. The Q&A session with Bennet was apparently convened in a similar spirit of transparency and goodwill. But according to some Times staffers who were present, little clarity was offered by Bennet and even less goodwill was spread. One person who was there, still angry more than two months later, called Bennet’s answers “equivocal bullshit.”
In the meeting, a recording of which was recently viewed and transcribed by HuffPost, Bennet talked extensively about some of the choices he’d made since his hiring in 2016, the problems he’d encountered, the criticism he’d received both internally and externally, and his successes and failures.
It was as frank an explication as Bennet has given of how he conceives of the opinion section. Slaloming between contradictions, Bennet laid out an ideology of no ideology. The editorial page is beholden to no priors (except when it is). It proudly forswears the idea of right answers (except when it doesn’t). It is humanist and ecumenical but also of the belief, for instance, that some kinds of ethnic cleansing are worthy of debate.
“The world needs this from us right now,” Bennet told the dozen or so New York Times staffers in the room. “I don’t mean to sound pious, but it really is true that this is a crude and dangerously polarized time... And to simply assert that we know what the right answers are is not good for the democracy.”
Some answers, though, are evidently so “right” in Bennet’s view that they can simply be asserted. “I mean, I think we are pro-capitalism,” he said later in the meeting. “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.”
Bennet’s ideology of no ideology admits to a few other caveats. In the meeting, he talked about how some issues are “settled law” and thus beyond debate, citing the evils of Nazism and the science of climate change. He also talked about which views are too “poisonous” to be given an airing in his pages, such as Richard Spencer’s white nationalism. But even then, perhaps uneasy with the idea of a value-neutral editorial page having any values at all, Bennet wobbled:
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... 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.
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? If Spencer’s ethnic cleansing program scored favorably in the next Gallup poll, would he then be worthy of op-ed space in The New York Times?
“We’ve published Vladimir Putin,” Bennet said. “Should we not allow Vladimir Putin into our pages? It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say that that would be doing a service to our readers. But as you can see, I mean, I struggle to articulate what those boundaries are.”
In an effort to elaborate on how he understands those boundaries, Bennet brought up an op-ed published about a year ago in which an Israeli settler called for Palestinian apartheid:
We had a big argument over a piece by a settler. And you know, pick your issue. For some people it’s climate change, for some people it’s trans rights, for others it’s a two-state solution and the fate of the Palestinians. In this case, it was the settler saying, look, the two-state solution is dead and [it’s] time to face reality, and here’s some alternative paths for what the future would look like. And we had a real debate about whether this piece was crossing a line, because was it denying personhood to the Palestinians? Was it an act of, kind of, hate speech in a sense?
I felt strongly that we should publish the piece and we did, as did others. Because this particular viewpoint is hugely consequential. It actually is creating reality on the ground. To pretend that somehow we would be — either to think that we were legitimating that point of view by having it in our pages or to tell ourselves that we were somehow changing the reality by not allowing it into our pages seems to me to be deluded a little bit. And our readers need to hear it, like, unmediated, I think. They need to confront these arguments. And we published that piece, and we faced that.
To be clear, the “reality” that the column described, and that Bennet decided his audience needed to confront, is that “the presence of these Arab residents alone does not warrant a new country,” in the writer’s words. “Arabs can live in Israel, as other minorities do, with personal rights, not national rights.” One of the “alternative paths” offered was “an exchange of populations with Arab countries,” in which “Palestinians in Judea and Samaria would be offered generous compensation to emigrate voluntarily.”
The opinion section in general is a case study in how essentially liberal institutions are undermined by the tools of their own liberalism. Illiberalism seeps into the hollows created by seemingly high-minded values about debate and the marketplace of ideas. The settled science about climate gets quickly unsettled by a columnist like Bret Stephens, a Bennet hire, who smuggles climate denialism onto the page by couching it in progressive-sounding language about debate, certainty and ecumenicism.
The specter of Stephens hovered at the edges of the December meeting, even when he wasn’t being discussed directly. In an earlier meeting between Sulzberger and the same group of Times staffers (video of which was also viewed by HuffPost), someone asked about Stephens’ handling of climate change: “So when Bret Stephens is writing a column and there’s information in there about climate change, how does the editorial section handle that?” Sulzberger emphasized the need for columnists, who aren’t heavily edited, to “have everything buttoned up,” though he allowed that “we are not an organization that [has] fact-checkers.”
In the meeting with Bennet, an employee asked how he makes sure his writers aren’t misrepresenting facts. Bennet replied:
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. And that’s where we’re really, you know, are instilling rules of the road and kind of values for how we approach argumentation and hiring for people. And you know, the first-order value is intellectual honesty. And that means — and God knows we don’t succeed at this every day — but the goal is, you’re supposed to take on the hard arguments on the other side, not the easy arguments. Not the straw men, but the actual substantive, kind of toughest arguments and acknowledge when the other side has a point.
Bennet was unstinting in his praise of Stephens: “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.”
This is one way of looking at Stephens’ work. Reading him might lead you to a different conclusion. After Stephens wrote his notorious April 2017 column in which he questioned established climate science in his sidelong way, he was forced to correct the only line containing any reference to actual science three days later.
And he was just getting started. The first quarter of Stephens’ Feb. 9 defense of Woody Allen consisted of his retelling an entirely unrelated story for no apparent reason other than to remind us that someone was wrong one time. He wrote that “if Allen is in fact a pedophile, he appears to have acted on his evil fantasies exactly once,” as if that were a mitigating factor. (“Compare that to Larry Nassar’s 265 identified victims,” Stephens wrote.) He adduced to his argument a court ruling that actually undermined his framing of the case as a matter of a grownup’s childhood memories.
In October, Stephens wrote about a reckoning that existed only because countless women had risked their livelihoods to expose a serial predator and alleged rapist, saying, “Of all of the dismaying and disgusting details of the Harvey Weinstein saga, none is more depressing than this: It has so few heroes.”
The criticism of Stephens hasn’t just come from outsiders. On Saturday, one of The New York Times’ star reporters, Mike Isaac, tweeted the following:
Isaac’s tweet has since been deleted. It’s not clear whether he deleted the tweet of his own volition or whether he was asked to do so by his editors. We do know, however, that Times opinion columnists enjoy a special set of privileges ― like speaking their minds on Twitter ― not extended to the general newsroom staff.
In any case, none of Stephens’ infelicities really matter if writing and thinking are valued primarily as exercises in provocation rather than persuasion. In the December meeting, Bennet described columnists as “people who are paid to have very, very strong convictions, and to believe that they’re right.” This creates what he called the “real moral hazards in the opinion environment in which we want to, say, we want to convene lots of voices from lots of point of view.”
In Bennet’s view, editorials — the unsigned pieces attributed to the Times editorial board as a whole — offer an antidote to morally or factually ambiguous pieces published on the opposite page. While the rest of the section is enacting a spirited performance of epistemological inquiry, the editorials get to carry the tablets down the mountain.
I would worry and personally be concerned about saying we’re indifferent to what the right answer is, right? We don’t just want to let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand schools of thought contend, and we’ll just provide the platform... What the editorials allow us to do, is to say on matters of real consequence, where for one reason or another, this institution has felt a kind of historic connection, the Times is going to come down.
There are right answers, sometimes, at least on matters of “real consequence.” This helps explain at least one recent bizarre move from the op-ed page. On Feb. 12, two days before the massacre in Parkland, Florida, Bennet’s section ran a piece titled “Background Checks Are Not the Answer to Gun Violence.” The author was John Lott, a man famous for distorting data to push the pro-gun agenda from which he makes his money. This would certainly seem like an astounding oversight from the paper of record.
On Feb. 17, however, a Times editorial included this paragraph: “In a speech last month, [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions said undocumented immigrants are far more likely than American citizens to commit crimes, a claim he found in a paper by John Lott, the disreputable economist best known for misusing statistics to suit his own ideological ends. In this case, it appears Mr. Lott misread his own data, which came from Arizona and in fact showed the opposite of what he claimed: Undocumented immigrants commit fewer crimes than citizens, as the vast majority of research on the topic has found.” (Links were present in the original text.)
This was, apparently, one of those matters of real consequence on which Bennet felt it was the Times’ duty to take a stance. And who better than the editorial page of The New York Times to counter the disinformation put out by the op-ed page of The New York Times.
If Bennet held his December meeting in an effort to win favor with staffers, it seems to have backfired, according to some people in the room.
“People were not satisfied with his answers,” one staffer who attended the meeting told HuffPost in a text message, “since his answers were equivocal bullshit that didn’t really address that the opinion section abuses fact and elevates white male conservative voices under the guise of ‘diversity of thought.’ And that he admits to making mistakes without any concern or even acknowledgement of what the consequences of those ‘mistakes’ actually are.”
As for what those consequences might be, the employee cited “erosion of trust in the rest of what the NYT does, people coming to conclusions based on incorrect facts and then never seeing the correction (if there is one), and choosing to pay money and give a platform to these white dudes instead of marginalized voices who wouldn’t otherwise get their story told (and marginalizing them even more by publishing their bad takes).” A Vanity Fair piece published on Monday quoted a senior newsroom figure who said, “The newsroom feels embarrassed.”
In a statement to HuffPost, a New York Times spokesperson said: “We prioritize communicating with our employees and providing open forums for them to hear updates and offer comments. Leaders throughout the organization, including James, have been doing that on a regular basis. We’re a large company and we don’t expect every employee to agree with every decision we make.”
Two months or so after this meeting, the scrutiny on Bennet’s op-ed page has only heightened. Staff editor Bari Weiss, also a Bennet hire, infuriated a number of newsroom-side staffers when she wrote a tweet referring to American-born Olympic ice skater Mirai Nagasu as an immigrant, only to double down when called out on it, delete the original tweet and lie about what she’d actually said. Around the same time, Bennet announced the hiring of a new columnist, Quinn Norton, only to fire her roughly seven hours later after Twitter users discovered she’d previously boasted about her friendships with neo-Nazis.
But none of this is at odds with the vision of the section as laid out in the meeting by Bennet. Provocations were made; liberal readers were riled. The world was just getting what it needed.
Clarification: Language has been amended to reflect that A.G. Sulzberger and Bennet’s meetings were with New York Times Company staff outside of the newsroom. This article also has been updated to include a more complete quote from Stephens’ column on Allen.