Bret Stephens’ Debut Column in the NYT Created Controversy. Was That the Point?

When the Times announced his hire, critics denounced his position on climate change, which is exactly what he chose to write about

Headshot of Corinne Grinapol

Going by stated intent, the reason behind the increasingly controversial decision by The New York Times to hire Bret Stephens as a columnist was to “broaden the range of Times debate about consequential questions,” as editorial page editor James Bennet described it in a memo about the hire.

And while we can’t profess to divine the Times’ true motivations beyond what the paper itself claims, going by what has transpired since a mobile New York Times notification was pushed out on Friday about Stephens’ first column–on climate change–it appears to us like it was designed to boost outrage metrics, not reasoned debate. This column, on the very topic that drove criticism of Stephens’ hire in the first place, has inspired a social media debate that has last through the entire weekend, 1555 comments so far, a response to the criticism/defense of the column from Bennet and digital and television coverage which included New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet defending Stephens on Reliable Sources.

A sampling of criticism:

Joe Romm, founding editor of the Climate Progress blog, rips apart Stephens’ column so thoroughly it was hard to choose just one passage to highlight, but here it it:

The basic argument of Stephens’ piece is an intellectually dishonest comparison between polling, which is not scientifically rigorous, with climatology, which is. It is truly stunning that the NY Times editorial page editors let Stephens make such an argument in his very first piece.

Stephens argues that because the Clinton campaign was overconfident about its voter polling, we can’t trust basic climate physics. It’s like your doctor diagnosing your persistent cough as early-stage emphysema caused by your two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, saying the overwhelming consensus of medical science is that you should quit smoking so it won’t get worse — and your reply is, “but, doc, everybody thought Hillary Clinton was going to win.”

The Times’ defense has been couched in general terms around the now fashionable idea of exposing people, specifically liberals, in this case, to ideas that challenge their own assumptions. “Didn’t we learn from this past election that our goal should be to understand different views?” is how Baquet posed the question on Reliable Sources.

In the general sense, we can answer Baquet affirmatively. But not all views merit that kind of consideration. Here’s is the easiest example to point to: Holocaust denial.

Bennet defended Stephens’ column to Erik Wemple in similar fashion [emphasis ours]:

If all of our columnists and all of our contributors and all of our editorials agreed all of the time, we wouldn’t be promoting the free exchange of ideas, and we wouldn’t be serving our readers very well.

The crux of the matter here is whether the questions Bret’s raising and the positions he’s taking are outside the bounds of reasonable discussion. I don’t think a fair reading of his column remotely supports that conclusion — quite the opposite, actually. He’s capturing and contributing to a vitally important debate, and engaging that debate directly helps each of us clarify what we think. We’re already getting some spirited and constructive responses, and I’m looking forward to reflecting those views in our pages, too.

The way the the Times itself framed that debate in its push notification was: “In his debut as a Times Op-Ed columnist, Bret Stephens says reasonable people can be skeptical about the dangers of climate change.”

Is Bennet saying that we should engage in a debate about whether the damage from climate change is real?

We’ll let the New York Times editorial board circa March 2017 weigh in:

[Trump’s executive order undoing President Obama’s actions on addressing climate change] was dismaying also because it repudiated the rock-solid scientific consensus that without swift action the consequences of climate change — rising seas, more devastating droughts, widespread species extinction — are likely to get steadily worse. It was dismaying because it reaffirmed the administration’s support for older, dirtier energy sources when all the economic momentum and new investment lies with newer, cleaner forms of energy. It was dismaying because it flew in the face of widespread public support for environmental protection — including the pleas of the executives of hundreds of major American corporations who fear that without energy innovation their costs will rise and their competitive edge over foreign companies will be lost.

Perhaps most important, Mr. Trump’s ignorance has stripped America of its hard-won role as a global leader on climate issues.

Is the idea brought up in Stephens’ column really something the Times believes is worthy of debate, or is this all about courting controversy for clicks and coverage? Now that is something worth debating.