The ongoing dilemma that is Times columnist Bret Stephens


Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

The holiday season and the arrival of a new year are often cause for reflection and soul-searching. Whether any of the senior management at the New York Times spent the holidays engaged in this kind of activity is unknown, but many critics have made it abundantly clear that they would like them to, if only to explain why the newspaper allows op-ed columnist Bret Stephens to write the things he does. As most people were winding down their work week and preparing to turn out the lights on 2019, Stephens chose to lob a hand grenade into the Twitter-sphere with a column entitled The Secrets of Jewish Genius. In it, the Times columnist posed — and then tried to answer — the question of why there have been so many noteworthy Jewish scientists and leading thinkers like Einstein. As he put it: “How is it that a people who never amounted even to one-third of 1 percent of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most pathbreaking ideas and innovations?”

In the end, Stephens comes to the conclusion that Jewish genius “operates differently” from the intelligence displayed by others. It is, he says, “prone to question the premise and rethink the concept; to ask why (or why not?) as often as how; to see the absurd in the mundane and the sublime in the absurd. These differences, according to Stephens, stem from cultural factors, as well as a focus on questioning authority. But those ideas weren’t what triggered a multi-day backlash against Stephens or the Times (although many argued they were also wrong-headed). What drove the wave of criticism was that in the course of making this argument, Stephens cited a paper he said supported the theory that Ashkenazi Jews (i.e., those with a primarily European background) have higher IQs than the average population. Within hours of the column being posted, multiple people had pointed out that one of the co-authors of the paper had expressed racist views and had ties to white supremacist organizations, and that the journal the paper was published in was formerly known as Eugenics Review.

On Sunday the 30th, two days after the column originally appeared, the Twitter account for the Times opinion section announced that the piece had “been edited to remove a reference to a paper widely disputed as advancing a racist hypothesis.” The column was also updated with a long editor’s note (at the top of the piece, rather than at the bottom, as some notes often are), which pointed out that the reference to the paper had been removed and why. The note went on to say that “Mr. Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views, but it was a mistake to cite it uncritically” and admitted that the effect of doing so was to “leave an impression with many readers that Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior [but] that was not his intent. The column was also edited to remove all references to Ashkenazi Jews, something that was a central part of Stephens’ argument in the original column, but these removals weren’t mentioned in the editor’s note.

For some, including Slate writer Ashley Feinberg and Judd Legum, who writes the progressive newsletter Popular Information, the paper’s explanation was weak at best. As Feinberg pointed out using a screenshot, Stephens originally wrote: “The common answer is that Jews are, or tend to be, smart. When it comes to Ashkenazi Jews, it’s true.” As a number of people argued, if the phrase “it’s true,” followed by a reference to the study, doesn’t amount to an endorsement of a paper’s findings, it’s hard to think of what would. As debate about the column continued, it widened to include the editorial judgment of Times op-ed editor James Bennet (something that has been questioned before, both externally and internally). As Vice editor Tim Marchman put it: “There’s a level on which this is trivial, but also one on which the most important media operation in the United States publishing grotesque things and then not accounting for their handling of them even in brutally humiliating editors’ notes is not trivial at all.” BuzzFeed media editor and correction expert Craig Silverman said the note sounded like Times editors “making excuses and covering for Stephens.”

Several Times contributors also criticized the paper’s decision to run the column, including author and Times‘ magazine writer Jody Rosen, who said: “Speaking as both an Ashkenazi Jew and a NYT contributor, I don’t think eugenicists should be op-ed columnists.” Former CNN anchor and talk-show host Soledad O’Brien wondered why more Times staffers and contributors weren’t speaking up: “I think it’s interesting how there are so few people at (or affiliated with) the New York Times who said anything about Bret Stevens column publicly,” she wrote. “I mean, at some point isn’t there a line where you say—“yeah, the eugenics thing. I gotta stand up and say something”? New York magazine and HuffPost contributor Yashar Ali echoed this sentiment, saying: “I get why reporters at the NYT (or any news org) aren’t going to publicly criticize their colleagues for a bad tweet or a story… but the Bret Stephens thing is terrible and should require his NYT colleagues to speak up.”

Here’s more on Bret Stephens and his column:

  • Don’t Boycott, Shame: Calls to boycott the Times because of the column miss the mark, writes Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. “A fake boycott of the Times would be meaningless at best, counterproductive at worst,” Vaidhyanathan argues. The only reasonable and potentially effective response, he says, is to “push at what the leaders of the Times care about as much as their revenue: their reputation for seriousness and responsibility. Shaming the Times works better than threatening the Times.
  • Tapped Out of Ideas: Politico media writer Jack Shafer argued that Stephen’s column was a result not of some ideological bias but of a desire to make his column more interesting and controversial, in order to draw in more readers. “The columnist’s duty has always been to stimulate and infuriate his readers, thereby opening their minds to new vistas. But in the Internet era, that’s not always how it turns out. Readers are already overstimulated and showboating moves like Stephens’—grabbing the third-rail of race-science without first donning insulated gloves—can end in disaster.”
  • Palace Intrigue: Indulging in the kind of Kremlinology specific to the goings on at the Times, some saw hints of a broader strategy in James Bennet’s support of writers like Stephens (as they did in the decision to anchor a major reporting effort on privacy in the Opinion section rather than news): Namely, a desire to impress publisher Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, and thus to gain his favor when it comes to choosing a successor for current executive editor Dean Baquet, who is expected to retire soon. Bennet’s main competition, according to some Times-watchers, is Metro editor Cliff Levy, although managing editor Joe Kahn is also said to be in the mix.

Other notable stories:

  • New York Times economics and business reporter Ben Casselman posted a Twitter thread looking at the diversity (or lack thereof) in the sources he has quoted in his stories. Casselman said that one of his goals for the year was to be more aware of the diversity of sources he was using in his reporting, and so he tracked every source for the year and provided some statistics on how he did. “This is the first year I’ve tracked this systematically, so I can’t compare to prior years,” he said. “But I suspect the act of tracking this led to more diversity in my source list, which was part of the goal.”
  • In its first transparency report, the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok claims that it has had zero takedown requests from the Chinese government, according to a report from The Verge. “The video sharing app, owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, claims it did not receive a single takedown request from Communist Party of China in the first half of 2019,” the Verge story says. In September, a report from The Washington Post suggested that TikTok was censoring content related to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, likely to appease the Chinese government. TikTok denied the allegations, but US legislators have asked for a probe of the national security implications of the company’s business anyway.
  • The BBC is hoping to help improve the representation of women within student journalism by sharing its own methodology relating to on-air gender balance, according to a report from the Press Gazette. The 50:50 Project involves teams from within the BBC recording their own statistics on gender balance and the proportion of women appearing in their radio, TV and online programming. Seven higher education institutions have agreed to partner with the project and use its methodology in their journalism courses so that students keep track of the gender balance in their reporting.
  • An editor of the University of Massachusetts student newspaper in Boston can’t be held liable for reporting false information from police blotter, according to a decision by the Supreme Judicial Court. Justice Barbara Lenk wrote that the reporting was covered by the “fair report privilege,” which protects the right of the press to report on anything said during a judicial proceeding or through an official action. “Once police undertake an official response to a complaint, both that response and the allegations that gave rise to it fall within the fair report privilege,” Lenk said.
  • Mehdi Hasan of The Intercept writes about a Face the Nation interview that host Margaret Brennan did with Ivanka Trump: “For much of the interview, the “Face The Nation” host treated Ivanka not as a senior White House adviser and one of the president’s closest confidantes, but as a cross between a “first daughter” invited onto the show to offer insights into her dad’s feelings and a political pundit invited onto the show to offer random observations on the impeachment process,” Hasan wrote.
  • Nicole Hannah Jones, the architect of the 1619 Project on race at The New York Times, wrote a thread on Twitter about her struggles to find a way to write about race during her career in journalism: “In 2009, I nearly left journalism. I was punished for wanting to write about race. My pitches were shut down and I could not get a story on the front page of my regional newspaper,” Jones wrote. “Newsrooms were bleeding staff so I had nowhere to go. I felt had to quit or lose my sanity.”
  • University of Penn professor Sarah Jackson says that despite a lot of the negativity about the influence that Twitter has on culture, a lot of good has come from it. “Twitter is now better known as a home for unforgiving criticism, stripped of the politeness that can soften real-life interactions,” Jackson wrote. “Despite it all, the way we use Twitter made this decade better. As we enter 2020, powerful individuals and societal problems can no longer avoid public scrutiny. Many people who lacked public platforms 10 years ago — the young and members of marginalized groups in particular — are speaking up, insisting on being heard.”
  • Journalist Heather Bryant, who runs a collaborative journalism project called Project Facet, writes in her 2020 forecast for the Nieman Lab that some kinds of journalism may need to be jettisoned. “As we continue to grapple with the questions of how to make journalism sustainable, we must also grapple with what kind of journalism should be sustained,” she says. “Is it the institutions, many of which are legacy newsrooms with storied histories and shamefully incremental movement in the diversity of their teams and a myopic view of their proximity to and enabling of power structures invested in the status quo?”
  • In an interview with First Draft, investigative journalist and crowdsourced journalism pioneer Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat argues that people are still failing to come to grips with the reality of how disinformation works. “The public continues to fail to engage with how disinformation is being spread. It’s quite frustrating,” he said. “We often operate under the assumption that state actors are pushing all of this disinformation, but that’s not the case. It originates from networks of websites and individuals that have been developing this kind of ‘alt-media conspiracy land’ online presence. This narrative [of state actors] is often pushed, while I continue to see a failure from organisations to engage with this topic and even understand the issue at its most basic level.”

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