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Fair and Balanced Opinion at the New York Times

Photo by Matthew Hutchinson | Public Domain

“Democratic Socialism is awful as a slogan and catastrophic as a policy. And “social democracy”—a term that better fits the beliefs of ordinary liberals who want, say, Medicare for all—is a politically dying force. Democrats who aren’t yet sick of all their losing should feel free to embrace them both.”

~Bret Stephens, “Democratic Socialism is Dem Doom,” New York Times op-ed, 7/7/19

So much for my false hopes for a progressive renaissance. Bret Stephens, the Great Gray Lady’s newest white male conservative columnist hath spoken. He came on board a little over a year ago, straightaway from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. When he was hired, NYT Editorial Page Editor James Bennet gushed “Bret, who won the 2013 Pulitzer prize for commentary, brings to the job profound intellectual depth, honesty and bravery – the qualities our audience expects from a Times columnist. 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.”

So now, out of a dozen regular Times columnists there are three white male Republican opinionators who don’t like Trump. I guess it’s up to Bret Stephens, Ross Douhat, and David Brooks to change the hearts and minds of the 7 out of 10 Republicanswho do like him. Be my guest.

Newsroom staffers objected to Bennet’s conservative thumb on the opinion scale and in a tense and unproductive meeting last December was asked why no progressive columnists. In a tape of the meeting obtained by HuffPost, he admitted “there wasn’t really an advocate for the Bernie Sanders view of the world formally in our pages,” but went right on to say, “And we’ve had fewer voices to the right for quite some time. Now, of all of this work, it’s that last thing I mentioned that’s getting the most attention and the most concern, and the most blowback” (emphasis mine).

Most of that blowback, you can bet, comes from investors, advertisers, tycoons, government media minders, and right-wing pressure groups. I doubt Bennet cares about what people to the left of Hillary Clinton think of his columnists’ political opinions, but he probably cares a lot about what elites would think if columnists actually advocated for single-payer healthcare or breaking up big banks. After all, he asserted, “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. But The New York Times is very concerned with fairness.” Nobody bothered to pipe up with, “Umm, if capitalism is so wonderful, why is income inequality going through the roof?”

Bennet told staffers “how much more exciting it’s going to be when we represent a wider range. 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.”

That’s right, an exceptional thinker who cherry-picks and distorts facts, cheers on American bellicosity, and stirs up animosity toward Arabs, women, and minorities.

And when a staffer asked what he had been doing to find voices on the Sanders end of the spectrum, Bennet’s discursive non-answer boiled down to “I’m not talking about ideology necessarily. I’m talking about identity, as well.” Cultural inclusiveness is all well and good, but his version seems not to feature leftists. “So where am I looking?” he asked the group. “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.” Just make sure they’re neoliberal enough, he might well have added.

One need not surmise that the opinion editor is hostile to anti-establishmentarians. A case in point is the tech columnist who, earlier this year, was fired before she could jot a word. Quinn Norton, a tech journalist with deep hacker roots, got the axe after being convicted by PC trolls of using offensive language and associating with the hacker clan Anonymous and a prominent neo-Nazi. Katie Herzog explains in the Seattle blog Slog:

“In the hours after the announcement [of Norton’s hiring], Twitter users dug up old tweets by Norton, including some that used the term “fag” (Quinn identifies as queer) and one particularly damning retweet that used the n-word (Norton calls it “a nine-year-old retweet in support of Obama”). This, in addition to Norton’s public friendship with Andrew Auernheimer (known online as “weev”), who runs the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer, was enough for the Times to sever their ties.

‘Despite our review of Quinn Norton’s work and our conversations with her previous employers, this was new information to us,’ said James Bennet, the editorial page editor of the Times, in a statement. ‘Based on it, we’ve decided to go our separate ways.’ Twitter, in this case, had won.”

Meanwhile, Bret Stephens is on a roll. Since joining NYT, he’s been hired as an on-air contributor to NBC News and MSNBC, joining the illustrious ranks of conservative radio talker Hugh Hewitt, former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren, grumpy columnist George Will, and former George W. Bush spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace at the so-called liberal media outlet. (FAIR , 6/30/17). No rest for the wicked.

The best thing one can say about Stephens is that he was a #NeverTrump-er, as were Mitt Romney, John McCain, and a whole bunch of rock-ribbed neocons. After Trump’s election he repeated called the Don mentally ill and unfit to govern. That, however, didn’t stop him from endorsing the madman’s belligerent brinksmanship in Iran and cheering on John Bolton’s crusade to disrupt the UN, while chiding Trump for backing away from American hegemony.

The NYT Public Editor (a post since abolished) Liz Spayd offered little apology for stacking the op-ed deck, echoing Bennet’s assertion that a controversial conservative voice was needed to balance ultra-neoliberals Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman:

“Now, as the 100-day mark of the Trump administration approaches, it’s time to ask: Is The Times following through on its promise to put an outstretched hand toward Red America? And, just as crucially, are readers ready for it?”

Her magnanimous inclusiveness continued:

“A day of reckoning along that path came earlier this month, when editorial page editor James Bennet did his part to broaden reader horizons by naming conservative Bret Stephens to the prestigious — and mostly liberal — roster of Times columnists.

“Stephens’s coronation produced a fiery revolt among readers and left-leaning critics. They rummaged through his columns for proof that he is a climate change denier, a bigot or maybe a misogynist. More complaints came into the public editor’s office than at any time since the election, with many readers threatening to cancel their subscriptions. (I’m told relatively few actually have.) Inside the building, some of Stephens’s future colleagues posted his “greatest hits” on a bulletin board.”

“It’s hard,” Spayd laments, “to tease apart objections to Stephens’s work from objections to hiring any conservative at all … After reading many of his past columns I, too, am wary about some of his more inflammatory language on climate change, Muslims, even campus rape. Are we to consider his more intemperate phrases ‘rhetorical flourishes,’ or does he really mean them? I also can’t help but notice that, with his hiring, yet another white male joins the Opinion pages. That’s not exactly a diversity of views.”

Bully for you, Liz! Put your foot down! Was that kind of outspokenness why they axed your position?

Apparently, Stephens’ “rhetorical flourishes” are no more bothersome to Spayd than “shithole countries” or “little rocket man.” Let the guy express himself, all you whiney liberals. After all, when he calls Palestinians paranoiacs who have “blood lust” and suffer from the “disease of the Arab mind,” i.e. anti-Semitism (a European import in any case), that’s just his personal opinion reverberating around the globe. (PS—Before joining WSJ, Stephens was editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post. How many Palestinians worked that newsroom?)

Not liking Trump while happily accepting the protection of a hegemonic military-industrial-security state that Trump wants to double down on reminds me of politicians who rail against income inequality while pocketing money from investment bankers. Given that seven out of ten Republicans currently approve of Trump (up from half before the election), it’s going to be tough sledding for Stephens to persuade them to agitate for regime change. I’m for regime change too, but from bottom up. Instead of dismissing it, he Timesshould be showing us how to make it happen.

See for yourself, if you can stand it. Bret Stephens’ op-ed opus (including a few estimable positions IMHO) is cataloged here.

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Geoff Dutton is an ex-geek turned writer and editor. He hails from Boston and writes about whatever distortions of reality strike his fancy. Currently, he’s pedaling a novel chronicling the lives and times of members of a cell of terrorists in Europe, completing a collection of essays on high technology delusions, and can be found barking at Progressive Pilgrim Review.

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