Opinion | New York Times, fire Bret Stephens

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Observer Dispatch/TNS

New York Times Opinions columnist Bret Stephens.

By Leah Mensch, Opinions Editor

First Bret Stephens was just a New York Times Opinions columnist. Then he was the bedbug, and subsequently the weird guy who went on an online rant and deleted his Twitter account. Now, he just seems to persistently be the center of controversy.

The Times published a column Stephens wrote on Dec. 27 titled “The Secrets of Jewish Genius,” and faced fierce scrutiny after readers discovered he sourced a eugenicist and white nationalist in his argument’s research. Stephens, who is a conservative columnist, is not only known for his questionable values, but also notorious for responding aggressively to negative feedback. This is far from the first Stephens column that has made readers angry — think back to Stephens’ stance on the ongoing free speech debate or his first column for the Times back in 2017 that questioned the science behind climate change.

I like the New York Times, and I trust the publication as a news source. The paper has been my own primary news source for the past four or five years. Though it’s had its fair share of bad judgment calls and controversial issues — like the anti-Semetic Benjamin Netanyahu cartoon last spring — I, like many, have been forgiving. I respect the opinions of other conservative columnists — like David Brooks and Ross Douthat — even though I often disagree with their arguments. But Stephens is different. On multiple occasions, Stephens has proven himself racist and explosive towards other people. This is bad journalism. The New York Times needs to step up and fire him.

In a column published in June 2019, Stephens cultivated outrage amongst readers. In his piece, he criticized the Democratic party, calling it “a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in ‘them’ instead of ‘us.’”

“They speak Spanish,” Stephens wrote. “We don’t. They are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. We are. They broke the rules to get into this country. We didn’t. They pay few or no taxes. We already pay most of those taxes. They willingly got themselves into debt. We’re asked to write it off. They don’t pay the premiums for private health insurance. We’re supposed to give up ours in exchange for some V.A.-type nightmare. They didn’t start enterprises that create employment and drive innovation. We’re expected to join the candidates in demonizing the job-creators, breaking up their businesses and taxing them to the hilt.”

It wasn’t the argument itself that outraged readers. Rather, it was Stephens’ categorization of Americans and outsiders, as if to suggest that refugees and non-American people are inferior to Americans because of the language they speak, because, as Stephens seems to suggest, they provide nothing for us. Scholar Reza Azlan wrote that Stephens jumped “out of the white nationalist closet” with his use of “they are not us” language. 

 

The fact that the Times didn’t question his rhetoric prior to the publication of his column is the most disconcerting. Stephens’ argument could have been published in a less hostile way, but it wasn’t. And this is the problem. His rhetoric continues to display ignorance, and the publication doesn’t seem to be making much of an effort to fix that.

The Times later published an editor’s note at the top of Stephens’ column about Jewish genius — which cited a study directed by white nationalist Henry Harpending. Responding to public outrage with an editor’s note is rare, especially for the opinions section.

“Mr. Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views, but it was a mistake to cite it uncritically,” the note reads. “The effect was to leave an impression with many readers that Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. That was not his intent … We have removed reference to the study from the column.”

Whether or not it’s true that Stephens and his editors were unaware of the fact that they used a white nationalist and eugenics as a source, the error shows lazy research on the part of the editors and Stephens himself. A singular Google search of Harpending shows he was labeled a white nationalist by the Southern Law Poverty Center in 2015. This was an easy mistake to catch.

In addition to his questionable rhetoric and values, Bret Stephens is explosive and aggressive, notoriously toward people who disagree with him. When a New York Times editor tweeted that there were bedbugs in the office this past August, George Washington University professor David Karpf responded with a joke on Twitter.

“The bedbugs are a metaphor,” Karpf wrote. “The bedbugs are Bret Stephens.”

Angry about the tweet, Stephens emailed Karpf and carbon copied the provost of the professor’s department in the email.

“Someone just pointed out a tweet you wrote about me, calling me a ‘bedbug,’” Stephens wrote in the email, which Karpf later posted on Twitter. “I’m often amazed about the things supposedly decent people are prepared to say about other people — people they’ve never met — on Twitter. I think you’ve set a new standard.”

Stephens invited Karpf to come over to his house, to meet Stephens’ family and insult them all to the columnist’s face.

Though Stephens denies it, Karpf said he posted the email on Twitter because he felt Stephens was using his position of power by cc’ing the university’s provost in order to get Karpf fired. Either way, Stephens’ erratic behavior was both inappropriate and uncalled for. Stephens is a professional journalist and an opinions columnist. Inevitably, the writing of any columnist is going to anger someone. If it doesn’t, then the columnist likely isn’t doing their job well.

It is also true that firing Stephens would allow space for a columnist who has conservative economic opinions like Stephens, but can express them more appropriately. Karpf weighed in on the most recent Stephens controversy following his sourcing of Harpending.

“I have to imagine anyone else would get fired for this,” Karpf said. “If they fired Bret Stephens, it might open a slot for a conservative who would do a better job and try harder than he does.”

Just because Stephens won a Pulitzer Prize doesn’t mean that the New York Times should tolerate his lazy research and erratic behavior. It would be one thing if this was his first offense, but Stephens has a long history of racially controversial takes and hateful rhetoric.

Out of respect for its readers — and the ethics of journalism — the New York Times needs to fire him. His behavior can’t be excused with an editor’s note anymore.

Leah writes primarily about mental health, books, essays and the spices of the world. Write to Leah at [email protected]

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