Janine Jackson: With Native American, labor and children’s groups prominent, tens of thousands, perhaps 200,000 people gathered in the nation’s capital April 29 for the People’s Climate March, re-identified this year as being about climate, jobs and justice. The DC demo, part of some 350 solidarity events around the world, was reported, accurately, as overwhelmingly peaceful, with demographically diverse crowds and creative signs.
But respectful coverage still missed the point: Huge numbers of all sorts of people are being driven to the streets out of fear. Not an abstract fear of fantastical planetary destruction, but also not only fear of the already occurring effects of human-caused environmental disruption, effects being borne first by people poorly positioned to advocate for themselves on the political stage.
It’s also a fear that when we urgently need to marshal forces to meet the crisis and heal the harms disruption brings, we’re instead actually going backwards — due, certainly, to the alternative fact pollution of Donald Trump et al., but, sadly, not to that alone. The New York Times, of late vigorously branding itself as a reality check, a bastion of rationality in a post-truth world, outraged and genuinely surprised many by choosing the present moment to give a regular column to former Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens.
Jim Naureckas is editor of FAIR’s newsletter Extra!, and of our website FAIR.org. He’s here to talk about the New York Times decision. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jim Naureckas.
Jim Naureckas: Thanks for having me on again.
Well, there seems to be a kind of pretense that writers get hired to see what they’ll do, so we should wait and see. But outlets like the New York Times aren’t throwing a seed to see what might grow, you know. They hire writers based on what those writers have done. So what do we know about what Bret Stephens has done?
Bret Stephens does have a record at the Wall Street Journal, and you can see what kind of writer he is. He’s the kind of writer who publishes articles like “Global Warming as Mass Neurosis” and “Palestine: The Psychotic Stage,” and he’s published defenses of torture. This is the kind of writer he is.
And the New York Times is insisting that we need to broaden the range of debate, so we can have climate denial and anti-Arab racism and torture advocacy as part of our news diet. And I really want to ask, Why? Why do we want to have someone denying that the greatest calamity facing the planet, that it is happening? Why do we want to have people who talk about the “disease of the Arab mind” as their explanation for Mideast conflict? Why is this helping the discussion? What are we adding to our intellectual diet by reading these views on the New York Times op-ed page?
You’re talking about racism and pro-torture advocacy, and for a lot of people, that has actually been off the page, and all the focus has been about climate. And so it’s interesting that his very first piece was about climate, and the one fact that it had, they had to add a correction to it. But the direction you’re taking it — I mean, the fact that they had to correct the one fact in his first column kind of tells you really that it’s not about facts for them, that the facts are kind of secondary.
And Susan Matthews at Slate had a piece about how his piece wasn’t really about facts; it was really kind of classic denialism in saying, “Aren’t we all uncertain, isn’t everything uncertain? You know, people thought Hillary Clinton would win the election, and they were wrong.” And that that’s much more insidious, and it’s much more Timesian. You know — classy people find nuance in everything.
You can tell by reading that column he does not know anything about the climate, he does not care anything about the climate. What he cares about is antagonizing liberals. And he did this very effectively at the Wall Street Journal, and got applause from his readers there. Now his role is slightly different. He was mocking the idea of global warming when he was at the Wall Street Journal, and saying that people who believed in global warming were immersed in a cult, and confidently predicted that in a hundred years temperatures would be the same as they are now. Now he’s at the New York Times and he is, you know, “I’m very thoughtful and I’m thinking that we’re too certain about things, and we should be less certain.”
And he throws out this fact as an example of the kind of thing that we all agree on about climate, and he garbles it completely. It’s the one fact in the column, and he flubs it. He describes the global temperature rise as the Northern Hemisphere temperature rise. And now he claims, oh, yeah, well, there is some contribution that humans are giving to global temperature rise, but we really can’t say for sure how much or what we should do about it or — the effect is the same, let’s not do anything.
But now he’s got a more Timesian approach to it.
I find it so galling, because part of what he’s saying, and part of what defenders from the Times editorial page are saying on Twitter and elsewhere is, oh, people who are critical of Stephens don’t want to have a conversation. Now, of course it’s galling on the first level of, no, we don’t want to have a conversation about slavery, either; we think some things are done and we want to move on. And here, too, there’s so much conversation to be had about how the world would respond to climate change. There’s so much to talk about.
We have to retrofit an economy, we have to — you know, there’s a whole lot to talk about. It’s not that people don’t want to have a conversation.
The actual debate in science that’s going on about global warming is how bad the effects will be. There are reasons to think that there are multiplier effects in the climate that will make the temperature rise much worse, and the effects that humanity will have to endure are much greater. That is the actual debate that serious people are having about the serious disaster that is affecting the world.
And the New York Times would rather be able to say, “Well, we have the people who say global warming is quite serious and we should do something about it some day, and we also have the people who say it’s not so serious and we don’t need to do anything about it right now.” And that’s the debate that they want to have, because that is the debate that you can have at your cocktail party, and everyone will feel pretty comfortable about that debate.
And Liz Spayd, the ombud, had talked earlier about a lack of diversity, she talked about being blinded by the whiteness of the New York Times newsroom. Now she’s defending the Stephens hire in the name of diversity, and this idea of, well, it doesn’t matter that we’re adding another white man to an overwhelmingly white male opinion page, because his marginality is ideological and so, you know, how dare you liberals not recognize that?
The idea that you are increasing the ideological diversity of the New York Times by adding Bret Stephens — there are three Republican white men who don’t like Donald Trump on the New York Times op-ed page. That’s a quarter of the columnists. It’s really a pretty small sliver of the American population. There aren’t that many Republican white men who don’t like Donald Trump out there, but they’re well-represented on the New York Times op-ed page.
If you wanted to actually increase the ideological diversity of the New York Times op-ed page, you could add people that are to the left of Hillary Clinton, which is the pale beyond which you must not go in political debate in the New York Times. You do not have any people who are strong advocates for single-payer, you do not have people who are saying that there should be reparations for slavery. These are the kinds of issues that are just too far out there for the New York Times to take on, but we’ll add another #nevertrumper from the GOP instead.
And I think people are right to wonder what it may mean. As we’ve been saying, the focus has been overwhelmingly on Bret Stephens’ climate change denial, but the fact that he’s a racist is very meaningful. Because you have to wonder: If the Times thinks it’s okay to entertain the idea that climate change is in some way uncertain, how do we then rely on them to report with proper emphasis on the hardships and the dislocations that millions of people around the world are already experiencing — and women and people of color are on the frontline of that — because those are the marginalized people that Bret Stephens has made clear that he doesn’t care about.
He had a column at the Wall Street Journal headlined, “Haiti, Sudan, Cote d’ivoire: Who Cares?” — three black countries, and the point of it is that we really shouldn’t pretend we care about these countries, and we should just give up on them. He did say “colonialism may be the best thing that could happen to at least some countries in the postcolonial world,” because of the “depravity of the locals.” This is the way the alt-right talks. He’s not far from that neck of the ideological woods. And who cares about the people who will be first affected by global warming, as well.
We’re going to be, of course, doing more on this at FAIR, because we’re talking about ideological diversity, which is what the Times has focused on, but of course there’s straight-up diversity. You know, the idea that Bret Stephens can be introduced as another white man and that that doesn’t matter, because somehow he’s representing an undervoiced perspective. And that allows the Times to set aside questions of race and gender and, of course, they say, as they always do, they’re going to get to that, they’re getting to that. But there’s something very basic going on here about who gets to speak.
The New York Times wants to have a very circumscribed discussion, where you have people representing the liberal establishment, the pro business — that has to be the left edge of debate. And you need people like Bret Stephens to be the people that the Paul Krugmans and the Thomas Friedmans will argue against. And as long as that’s the only argument that we can have, then the wealthy people who own the New York Times will never see their wealth threatened. They can rest assured that there’s no danger of redistribution of wealth, which is what really the New York Times, much more than climate change, that is what they are really worried about there.
Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR’s newsletter Extra! and of our website FAIR.org. Thank you, Jim Naureckas, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.