If the New York Times Wanted Ideological Diversity, Why Not Hire a Socialist?

To the Times, Bret Stephens’ racism and climate denial are more acceptable than leftism.

Adam Johnson May 1, 2017

Bret Stephens’ hiring highlights the radical asymmetry at work when considering what is and isn’t a fringe opinion. (Photo by Veni/Flickr)

This arti­cle first appeared at Fair​.org

Stephens holds a number of fringe right-wing opinions, namely his consistent climate change denial, anti-Arab racism, anti-black racism, advocacy of torture and insistence that the campus rape epidemic is an "imaginary enemy."

The New York Times is the most influ­en­tial news­pa­per in the Eng­lish-lan­guage world, not just because of its reach and lead­er­ship sta­tus with­in the indus­try, but because it defines the bound­aries of accept­able debate. Being in the New York Times is a legit­imiz­ing event, one that cements ideas as not fringe, oth­er,” or in the realm of the dread­ed, career-end­ing con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry.” So it under­stand­ably upset many lib­er­als when the Times decid­ed to bestow upon hard-right Wall Street Jour­nal deputy edi­to­r­i­al page edi­tor Bret Stephens the ulti­mate stamp of Accept­able Opin­ion approval by afford­ing him a reg­u­lar op-ed col­umn in the Times.

It’s not just that Stephens is yet anoth­er white man, like nine of the oth­er 12 cur­rent colum­nists. As Hamil­ton Nolan thor­ough­ly doc­u­ment­ed over at Fusion (4÷14÷17), Stephens holds a num­ber of fringe right-wing opin­ions, name­ly his con­sis­tent cli­mate change denial, anti-Arab racism, anti-black racism, advo­ca­cy of tor­ture and insis­tence that the cam­pus rape epi­dem­ic is an imag­i­nary enemy.” 

Stephens has referred to anti­semitism as the dis­ease of the Arab mind,” insist­ed Pales­tini­ans have a blood fetish” and blood lust,” said Black Lives Mat­ter was a lie” based on the myth of vic­tim­iza­tion,” labeled insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism anoth­er imag­i­nary ene­my,” called cli­mate change hys­te­ria” and a reli­gion with­out God,” and, in a piece sub­tly head­lined I Am Not Sor­ry the CIA Water­board­ed,” con­tend­ed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in fact water­board­ed him­self” by not being truth­ful with his captors.”

As oth­ers have not­ed (The Out­line, 4/18/17; Think Progress, 4/13/17), these are all far-right posi­tions that would be usu­al­ly be con­sid­ered out­side the Accept­able Main­stream. What is less com­ment­ed upon is how Stephens’ hir­ing high­lights the rad­i­cal asym­me­try at work when con­sid­er­ing what is and isn’t a fringe opin­ion. When one goes to the far right — name­ly the neo­con right, which puts a pre­mi­um on anti-Arab and anti-black racism, and fetishizes Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism above all else — there doesn’t seem to be a line that can’t be crossed. 

This is in stark con­trast to the oth­er end on the spec­trum, where any­thing slight­ly to the left of Hillary Clin­ton is nonex­is­tent in the staff opin­ion sec­tion at the New York Times. All of the lib­er­al or pro-Demo­c­ra­t­ic Times colum­nists dur­ing the 2016 pri­ma­ry, for exam­ple, were behind Clin­ton or, at the very least, not behind Sanders or his broad­er pol­i­cy aims. 

The Times’ Paul Krug­man, a promi­nent lib­er­al, was square­ly in the tank for Clin­ton, call­ing (4/25/16) the for­mer sec­re­tary of State the most knowl­edge­able, well-informed can­di­date in this elec­tion,” and com­plain­ing (4/8/16) that Mr. Sanders is start­ing to sound like his worst fol­low­ers. … Absence of sub­stance beyond the slo­gans seems to be true of his posi­tions across the board.”

Every seri­ous pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy expert on either health­care or finan­cial reform who has weighed in on the pri­ma­ry seems to lean Hillary,” Krug­man false­ly claimed (1/26/17).

Oth­er Times colum­nists sim­i­lar­ly ruled Sanders out: We’re not social­ists,” Thomas Fried­man (2/17/16) explained dis­mis­sive­ly. Charles Blow (4/27/16) set­tled on Clin­ton on prag­mat­ic grounds, writing:

The ideals are not in dis­pute. What’s in dis­pute is whether our ideals can be rea­son­ably accom­plished by a sin­gle admin­is­tra­tion or a gen­er­a­tion. Some­times you have to cut deals to reach ideals. That’s politics.

Gail Collins (5/12/16) argued that Democ­rats should let Hillary Clin­ton have the nom­i­na­tion,” despite Sanders’ inspir­ing vision of change,” because only she had the com­pe­tence to run the coun­try from Day 1.”

All per­fect­ly fine posi­tions, such that they are — and Krug­man, Blow and Collins like­ly arrived at their stances in total good faith — but the fact that their luke­warm embrace of Clin­ton rep­re­sents the far reach­es of accept­able left opin­ion is telling.

Despite the fact that only 26 per­cent of Amer­i­cans sup­port the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship trade deal, and its increas­ing unpop­u­lar­i­ty among unions and activists, the best the Times could muster was self-described soft oppo­nent” Krug­man (3/11/16), whose oppo­si­tion was hyper-qual­i­fied and marked by accu­sa­tions that Sanders demagogu[es] the issue”.

Again, on the issue of sin­gle-pay­er health­care — a posi­tion sup­port­ed by a plu­ral­i­ty of Amer­i­cans and a major­i­ty of Democ­rats — the only Times colum­nist to nom­i­nal­ly sup­port the cause, Paul Krug­man, spent weeks dur­ing the pri­ma­ry explain­ing why it wasn’t fea­si­ble (“it’s just not going to hap­pen any­time soon”) and should be tabled until some unknown time in the future.

Oth­er lib­er­al colum­nists, like Blow, Nick Kristof, Gail Collins and Roger Cohen, were either silent on the issue of sin­gle-pay­er health­care or sim­i­lar­ly dis­missed it as unre­al­is­tic (“almost cer­tain­ly an unat­tain­able goal,” Cohen insist­ed—11/4/16). Strange­ly, the most con­ser­v­a­tive of the lib­er­al colum­nists, Thomas Fried­man, endorsed the idea in an off­hand thought exper­i­ment last year (1/6/16), but as with Krug­man, sin­gle-pay­er is rel­e­gat­ed to a nor­ma­tive, the­o­ret­i­cal goal, while those push­ing it — name­ly Sanders — are dis­missed as fringe day-dream­ers promis­ing the Moon. 

The point is not that any par­tic­u­lar colum­nist is under any left­ist oblig­a­tion to like Sanders, or all of his pol­i­cy goals — it’s that the lack of a sin­gle colum­nist sup­port­ing a can­di­date whose plat­form would be down-the-mid­dle in most Euro­pean and Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries shows how far to the right the Over­ton win­dow is in the most influ­en­tial news­pa­per in the world. Ideas like sin­gle-pay­er health­care and free col­lege are dis­missed as pie-in-the-sky fan­tasies, while cli­mate denial, anti-Arab big­otry and anti-woman vit­ri­ol are, accord­ing to Times edi­tors (Huff­in­g­ton Post, 4/14/17), bring­ing a new per­spec­tive to bear” that fur­ther widens” the vibrant diver­si­ty of opin­ions” the paper presents.

Adam H. John­son is a media ana­lyst for Fair­ness and Accu­ra­cy in Report­ing and co-host of the Cita­tions Need­ed podcast.
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