Recently, The New York Times has sparked a fierce debate amongst journalists and readers by hiring rape apologist, climate change denier, racist, and Islamophobe Bret Stephens, supposedly in order to bring a conservative voice to the Times‘ (already right-leaning) op-ed page. The argument further exploded after the Times published Stephens’ first column, which was entirely dedicated to climate change denial. Stephens’ claims were immediately debunked by journalists and scientists alike, but that did not stop defenders of Stephens from claiming that critics were trying to insulate themselves in a “liberal bubble” and silence conservative voices.
I wrote earlier about how hiring conservative writers to create a supposed ideological diversity is not the diversity the overwhelmingly white, cisgender, heterosexual male New York Times needs, but now that the Times has been forced to justify publishing Stephens’ absurd first column, there is much more to dig into.
But let’s back up a bit. Why, exactly, did the Times feel the need to hire a man who denies the existence of climate change and the rape epidemic, attacks Muslims, Arabs, and black Americans, and calls hunger in America an “imaginary enem[y]”? It goes back to the media’s ridiculous post-mortem on the results of the 2016 presidential election.
Following Donald Trump’s Electoral College victory, the (white) liberal media had an existential crisis about how shocked it was at the results. (Reminder: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.) Rather than take responsibility for their undying, cynical obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails that not only sunk her popularity, but also massively overshadowed legitimate policy coverage, the media blamed its own (white) liberal bias and decided that it needed to diversify – not in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, status, or education, but in ideology. The media diagnosed its problem as liberal bias, meaning that it needed to balance itself out with more conservative voices. (Interestingly, despite propagating the myth that Trump’s Electoral College victory was rooted primarily in the “white working class” vote, the media has still declined to bring in poor voices, thus staying in its elite bubble.)
This logic, one that refuses to actually take responsibility for the irresponsible coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails, led to the Times bringing Wall Street Journal writer Bret Stephens onto its op-ed team. As The New Republic‘s Sarah Jones explained, this reasoning really makes no sense given the current ideological leanings of the Times‘ op-ed section:
It runs from the standard right-wing propaganda of Stephens, to the centrist bromides of David Brooks, to a moderate liberalism that cheers Trump’s bombs on Syria and boos student protesters at Middlebury, to the howling wasteland that is Thomas Friedman’s column, where he screams gibberish at a merciless sky. (His last contribution to public discourse was a blow-by-blow description of playing golf in Dubai with a yogi. Truly, we are blessed.) When she is not describing her intolerance for weed chocolate, Maureen Dowd is commending Donald Trump for being the true dove in the presidential race. Frank Bruni, meanwhile, does whatever it is that Frank Bruni does.
The op-ed page is unbearably white—spare a thought for Charles Blow—and predominantly male. There is space for Ross Douthat to casually wonder if there’s a case to be made for a bigot like Marine Le Pen, but none whatever for a bona fide socialist, even though America’s most popular politician is a democratic socialist. Stephens isn’t even a particularly cogent or striking conservative—he’s bog-standard neoconservative material. His hire can’t even be defended as an attempt to understand the populist insurgence upsetting the Republican Party.
But ultimately, this goes even deeper than the (white) liberal media’s post-election self-critique. There is a deep-seated belief in the media that the voices of “both sides” must always be heard if news is to truly be fair and balanced. While well-intentioned, this belief is absolute nonsense, especially in our current political climate. Simply put, not all opinions are equal, and sometimes one side is simply wrong and not worth giving a platform. Senior Deakin University philosophy lecturer Patrick Stokes covered this issue all the way back in 2012 in a Conversation piece:
The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.
Stokes used the example of the anti-vaxxer movement. In this case, one side is simply wrong. Vaccines do not cause childhood diseases. That’s a fact. But the media has felt the need to portray “both sides” of the story, forcing actual scientists to defend themselves against anti-vaccine activists whose entire cause is based on lies. By elevating both voices and acting as if anti-vaxxers need to be heard out, the media, whether intentionally or not, validates anti-vaxxers and implies that their “opinions” are just as important as actual facts.
But this is not limited to the vaccine debate. The “both sides” approach to news is applied to every topic, from transgender equality to police brutality to climate change, and so on, and so on. But in case after case, “both sides” are not equally valid, and the voice of one side is not worth elevating whatsoever.
“Both sides” are not equally valid when one believes that we should keep symbols of slavery while the other knows we should not. “Both sides” are not equally valid when one believes that transgender women are fake while the other knows that they are real. “Both sides” are not equally valid when one defends police brutality while the other condemns it. “Both sides” are not equally valid when one side denies scientific facts while the other accepts them. “Both sides” are not equally valid when the extremists of one side advocate for the extermination of the Jews, the deportation of black and brown immigrants, and the criminalization of queerness while extremists of the other side advocate for universal healthcare, the expansion of the social safety net, and democratic socialism. In all of these cases and many more, one side’s beliefs are rooted in ignorance and bigotry. When that’s the case, both sides do not deserve equal platforms.
While “both sides” journalism is always intellectually dishonest, it is outright dangerous when it comes to discussions of marginalized folks in the United States. Validating the opinions of anti-transgender bigots isn’t being “fair and balanced”; it’s dehumanizing and demeaning trans folks and elevating rhetoric that leads to anti-trans violence. When 11 trans people have already been murdered in the United States in 2017, the stakes are quite high. The media should not be allowing the perpetuation of bigoted myths – such as the ones that trans women are sexual predators or that Black Lives Matter is inherently anti-police – by giving a platform to bigots. By uncritically giving a platform to bigots and forcing marginalized folks to debate their oppressors on live television, or in a Heineken ad, as if marginalized identities and bigotry are equally valid, the supposedly “liberal” media is actively participating in the oppression of marginalized folks.
That isn’t to say that bigots can’t have their bigoted beliefs. They can think and say whatever they want. But it is by no means the responsibility of the media to give a megaphone to those voices. Rather, the media should give a voice to the marginalized folks it has excluded for all of American history. That’s not censorship. It’s simply choosing to do the right thing. Bigots can still say whatever they want, just not on your platform. And if it means creating a “liberal bubble,” then so be it. However, I’d like to hope that respecting, accepting, and embracing marginalized identities is a universal value, not just a liberal one.
This also isn’t to say that the left is perfect and the right is downright evil. Modern American politics are much more complex than a simple liberal-conservative spectrum, especially in our post-election political society. Liberal transphobia and racism are alive and well in 2017, and the Democratic Party is a hot mess regarding its approach to abortion rights. But as The New Republic‘s Brian Beutler wrote following polling results about Trump’s Syria attack:
Negative partisanship—the observable effect that antipathy to the other party has on public opinion—seems, like everything else in U.S. politics, to be asymmetric between the parties. Republicans are the key drivers of it.
Reflexive even-handedness the analytical foundation of countless news stories, and nearly all punditry, but it wasn’t derived from dispassionate observation of political reality. Rather, it was contrived to burnish the mainstream media claim to political neutrality, and the neutrality of parent companies. But its effect was to leave implacable conservative critics of mainstream culture totally dissatisfied, and has failed every other consumer in the market for accurate, unskewed news and on-the-level commentary. It should have been put to rest long ago, and can’t die soon enough.
This brings us back to Bret Stephens, and why a venerable publication like the Times, which post-election proudly touted itself as a purveyor of truth in a vast sea of fake news, would hire a man who so blatantly rejects reality in order to justify his conservative views.
The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple reached out to the Times for an interview about Stephens’ first column. Times editor James Bennet declined, but gave Wemple this response:
Wemple wrote in his analysis of the response:
In anticipation of future clashes with social media, Bennet would be well-advised to keep that statement in his top drawer, or perhaps a Microsoft Word file. Because it deserves the title “Editorial Page Editor’s Boilerplate Kumbaya Response to Public Outrage.” It could apply to a controversial op-ed on abortion, on gun control, on climate change, on a criminal-justice report, whatever. That’s because it doesn’t grapple with any of the substantive issues raised about the column itself.
When it comes down to it, there’s no real justification for publishing Stephens’ column. If news outlets are going to share falsehoods, it should only be in the context of debunking them. Letting a column like Stephens’ stand on its own, unchallenged, was a mistake, and a mistake it seems that the Times is eager to repeat.
In the first three months after the election, the Times gained hundreds of thousands of subscribers through its “truth” campaign, more than it added in all of 2015. “The truth is more important now than ever,” the Times proudly proclaimed.
Unfortunately, it’s clear that the Times‘ dedication to “truth” has been overridden by the the mainstream media’s overwhelming obsession with representing “both sides.” The Times and other respected news outlets have loudly touted themselves as the cure for the epidemic of “fake news.” But “real news” cannot be the solution when it so fervently feels the need to prop up bigotry and lies. It looks like “real news” is the real “fake news” in Trump’s America.