Bret Stephens Should Be Fired From the NYT

Racism isn’t owed a platform, and Bret Stephens should lose his.

The New York Times opinion section has historically had a knack for ruffling feathers, but a recent column by Bret Stephens broke every conceivable measure of provocation known to mankind–the write-up beds as its intellectual backbone literature written by a white nationalist, in which the theory is made that being an Ashkenazi Jew predisposes oneself to a measure of superior intelligence.

It’s not the first time that Stephens’ ideas derived themselves from shoddy academic knowledge, or at best an erroneous interpretation of it–late August, he accrued himself the reputation of being called a “bedbug” for calling out Georgetown University professor Dave Karpf, only to follow it up with a hastily-drawn likening to anti-semitism which has since been proven to be quite bogus. What’s special about this Stephens column is that it makes the point explicitly to put forward an interpretation of race science that is incredibly harmful to Jews, forcing many to come out in indignance and call for Stephens’ removal from the New York Times as the baseline for a sound reprimand.

The issue with the Stephens column isn’t solely that it was published by the paper of record, or even that it was signed off on by multiple editors before it reached print–it’s that it perpetuates this myth that every opinion is owed a platform, and likewise, it sees as a counterbalance to incredible efforts like the recent 1619 Project to push forth an idea that is fundamentally antithetical to the paper’s purported ideals. It feels like playing a broken record at this point, but Bret Stephens isn’t owed a platform by mere virtue of having a voice–whatever good the New York Times does through its usual slate of reporting, it’s hard to not make the case that so much of it is offset by the damaging fray of whatever David Brooks, Bari Weiss and Stephens himself are up to lately.

2019 was a year of noticeable shed for the media. Around 7,800 employees were laid off, and yet, influential figures like Bret Stephens retain the right to do harm when many are chomping at the bits to have their break in media and instead use it to speak truth to power, not reinforce drivel of old.

It is a foregone conclusion at this point that the average Medium writer has more interesting things to say than New York Times’ own roster of troll columnists, but because we live in the faint recreation of a meritocracy, we’re constantly deluding ourselves into thinking that Stephens’ ilk must’ve gotten where they are through sheer power of intellectual fortitude. That illusion is starting to slowly lose its allure as more people are awakened to the paradoxical nature of meritocratic hiring standards, but it still seemingly isn’t enough for old media to maybe consider that a pen in the wrong hands can do a great deal of damage.

The notion that the New York Times has to house vaguely right-wing ideas along left-wing ones isn’t entirely new. As is documented, this was the result of a concerted push by movement conservatism to posit the lack of dissenting voices in a liberal consensus as contrary to the principles of good journalism, thus creating this new class of writing where the merits of the idea don’t matter as much as the existence of a counterbalance to it.

This is further exacerbated by the fuzzy line the NYT draws between what is “opinion” and “reporting”, creating a false dichotomy between two categories of writing that rely both on subjectivity despite the stark dividing editorial line between them. For the New York Times — and frankly a good portion of the media — an opinion is ultimately defined by the amount of presence that a writer’s ideological framework has. If it skews liberal or conservative, it is thus considered an “opinion”. What that fails to account for however, is that so much of news is already imbued with personal bias, that divorcing it from the subjectivity of the writer is only one step removed from basically claiming that it would be an immutable empirical truth, lest the paper had made its amends with publishing falsehood. A piece of writing will always be colored by the writer’s own worldview, and it’s why the distinction between what Bret Stephens, and a staff writer of the NYT otherwise pens is pointless because ultimately, the two are consumed from the same subjectivity-aware context that most media readers have already grown accustomed to.

Recode’s Kara Swisher — also a regular contributor to the NYT — made the point that the outlet would’ve most definitely been better served by the presence of a more intelligent conservative writer who’d at least know to avoid eugenics as a necessary prerequisite. That these ideas are given reach isn’t surprising, but it’s the caliber of the news outlet on which they are broadcast that is utterly baffling–the message of Bret Stephens’ column is life-threatening to many, and it’s borderline unethical that the NYT ever let it see the light of day.

As justice continues to be sought, there have been reports that Stephens has engaged his usual brand of complaining to people’s bosses — including the NYT’s own staff — about criticisms made with regards to his recent column. If a repeat of the story from late August in many ways, this one sets an even more dangerous precedent–the paper of record will print racist statements, regardless of how crude the evidence behind them is. In that way, there’s little differentiation between them and what an outlet like Breitbart does, despite how far removed the two are from each other editorially.

This incident if anything, is concrete proof that you don’t need much to further muck the reputation of media into the dirt, no matter how well-intentioned the sum of your newsroom is. In the meanwhile however, the New York Times can earn themselves back a bit of good will if they do away with Stephens altogether, but color me surprised if that ever actually happens.

Update: A new version of the article is now live with an editor’s note that doesn’t acknowledge the main critique. The criticism thus still stands.