Following Donald Trump’s election, The New York Times promised its readers that it would aggressively pursue truth and challenge power in the days and months ahead. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and executive editor Dean Baquet wrote an open letter to readers on November 13, vowing to “hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly.”
And readers responded in droves. During the last three months of 2016, the Times added 276,000 digital subscribers — readers who were presumably drawn to the promise of aggressive and adversarial writing that was firmly based in reality.
“The truth is more important now than ever,” the Times proclaimed in an ad during the Oscars in February.
The Times has also strongly committed itself to diversity in its hiring. Times CEO Mark Thompson told hiring managers last year that supervisors who failed to recruit minority candidates would be encouraged to leave or fired.
“Only by having a staff as wide as it is deep, broad in perspective, backgrounds and experiences are we able to capture the multitude of voices of America and the world, with true fidelity,” the company proclaims in its mission statement.
But the Times’s editorial page — which is distinct from the newsroom — apparently has other priorities.
In the paper’s biggest marquee hire since the election, the Times has poached the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens as a regular columnist.
In a statement announcing the hire, Editorial Page Editor James Bennet explained the move in glowing terms.
“He’s a beautiful writer who ranges across politics, international affairs, culture and business, and, for The Times, he will bring a new perspective to bear on the news,” Bennet wrote. He summarized Stephens as a “generous and thoughtful colleague with a deep sense of moral purpose and adventure about our work.”
But Stephens’s voice is hardly new to the media landscape — it echoes the powerful and attacks the powerless, specifically marginalized groups like Arabs and Muslims who have little representation in U.S. media.
And although Stephens has been hailed as an anti-Trump conservative, he and Trump share a very significant belief that defies reality: They both deny the existence of climate change. Stephens used his Wall Street Journal columns to compare climate science to a religion, saying that environmental groups “have been on the receiving end of climate change-related funding, so all of them must believe in the reality (and catastrophic imminence) of global warming just as a priest must believe in the existence of God.”
In April of 2010, he proclaimed that “global warming is dead, nailed into its coffin one devastating disclosure, defection and re-evaluation at a time. Which means that pretty soon we’re going to need another apocalyptic scare to take its place.”
He then mockingly proposed “a readers’ contest to invent the next panic. It must involve something ubiquitous, invisible to the naked eye, and preferably mass-produced. And the solution must require taxes, regulation, and other changes to civilization as we know it.”
And as a white male member of the media elite, he hardly brings diversity to the stable of editorial page columnists. Indeed, several regulars already hold right-wing or center-right views. And although the editorial board consistently espouses liberal positions in the editorial column, the op-ed page by and large has to outsource to publish genuinely left perspectives on most major issues.
The Times editorial page currently does not have a female minority columnist and, despite frequently writing about conflicts in the Middle East, employs no regular Arab American or Muslim American writers.
On the contrary, at a time when Arab American and Muslim American civic society faces unprecedented demonization from a presidential administration, the Times has chosen to hire someone who takes part in it regularly.
For instance, Stephens used Egyptian judo player Islam El Shehaby’s politically-based refusal to shake hands with his Israeli opponent at the Rio Olympics last year as an excuse to launch into a long racist tirade against the state of the Arab world.
“If you want the short answer for why the Arab world is sliding into the abyss, look no further than this little incident,” Stephens wrote. “It did itself in chiefly through its long-abiding and all-consuming hatred of Israel, and of Jews.”
He claimed that “the Arab world’s problems are a problem of the Arab mind, and the name for that problem is anti-Semitism.”
This “Arab mind,” in Stephens’s telling, has few achievements. “Today there is no great university in the Arab world, no serious indigenous scientific base, a stunted literary culture,” he explained — all of which would continue until the Shehabys of the world would embrace their Israeli judo counterparts.
Responding to a wave of violence between Palestinians and Israelis in 2014, Stephens shrugged off the international consensus that occupation and statelessness is the root of the conflict, instead blaming it on “Palestinian blood fetish.” To him, they had “been seized by their present blood lust — a communal psychosis in which plunging knives into the necks of Jewish women, children, soldiers and civilians is seen as a religious and patriotic duty, a moral fulfillment. Despair at the state of the peace process, or the economy? Please. It’s time to stop furnishing Palestinians with the excuses they barely bother making for themselves.”
In January 2017, Stephens wrote that “maybe” Palestinians are entitled to a state, but then ticked off a long list of other peoples, including “Native Hawaiians,” who also lack a state, so “what gives Palestinians the preferential claim?” At least they aren’t being ruled by the Chinese, he argued: “Have they experienced greater violations to their culture than Tibetans? No: Beijing has conducted a systematic policy of repression for 67 years, whereas Palestinians are nothing if not vocal in mosques, universities and the media.”
He has directly helped activists lobby to scuttle diplomacy. In 2015, as Congress was debating the nuclear deal with Iran, he held an off-the-record call with the Christian Zionist group Christians United For Israel, where he advised them on how to lobby members of Congress.
Many Times readers took to social media to decry Stephens’s hiring:
Bret Stephens is a climate change denier and calls concern about climate change 'Stalinism' so glad my NYT sub is now paying his salary LOL https://t.co/kAVrSiOxat
Hey @nytimes, subscription cancelled. No money to support global warming denial. What a tone deaf decision to hire Bret Stephens.