The New York Times finds itself mired in controversy after newly-minted op-ed columnist Bret Stephens devoted his first piece to preaching a “teach the controversy” approach to climate change. The piece has been pilloried by journalists inside the paper and out, the Times is crouched in damage control mode, and some readers say they will terminate their subscriptions because they believe the paper is siding with climate deniers.
The Times is responsible for this backlash. After President Donald Trump’s election, the paper sold new subscribers on providing vigorous resistance to the “alternative facts” that fueled his rise. Now, it's publishing them.
The paper’s subscription growth soared after the election, with new Times customers explaining on social media they wanted to support a bulwark against the new president. The paper fueled that narrative in pursuit of more subscriptions, creating an advertising campaign that depicted the Times as an opponent to Trumpian “alternative facts.” The paper’s CEO and executive editor claimed in earnings calls and cable news interviews that the president’s attacks on the outlet had backfired and generated more readers.
But when you market your paper as an antidote to a worldview that is unmoored from reality, your subscribers will actually expect you to follow through. When you fail to fulfill your promise, those readers will take their money elsewhere.
Flash forward to Friday, when Stephens -- whose hiring drew criticism for, among other things, his past columns calling global warming a “sick-souled religion” whose adherents share the methods of “closet Stalinists” -- authored his first piece for the paper.
In keeping with his past work, Stephens used an “alternative fact” contradicting the paper’s own reporting to compare those who believe action should be taken to halt the consequences of climate change to Cold War-era Polish authoritarians. His “teach the controversy” salvo argued that “ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism” around climate change because “history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.”
The column was accompanied by a note from Times editorial page editor James Bennet, who praised Stephens and wrote that “we should have the humility to recognize we may not be right about everything and the courage to test our own assumptions and arguments.”
Stephens’ piece provoked a fierce backlash from embarrassed Times journalists, reporters outside the paper, climate scientists, and angry subscribers, some of whom said they were taking steps to cancel their subscriptions.
Then came the backlash-to-the-backlash, with Bennet issuing a statement defending the column as a necessary part of the Times “promoting the free exchange of ideas,” executive editor Dean Baquet standing by Stephens during an interview on CNN, and several prominent Times journalists lashing out at readers for the “liberal embarrassment” of criticizing the paper and wanting to cancel subscriptions over Stephens.
I’m a third-generation Times reader who finds the paper’s reporting on any number of topics essential, including their excellent news coverage of climate change. I won’t be dropping the paper in light of Stephens’ hiring and first column -- my expectations for the paper’s columnists are astonishingly low after two decades of reading Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman. But I understand where those faltering subscribers are coming from, and the Times’ response to its progressive critics is silly and insulting.
Contra Bennet, the paper is not providing some sort of unique value to news consumers by publishing an op-ed columnist whose writing on climate change defies the facts published in the paper’s news section. If that’s what readers want, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and George Will’s columns in The Washington Post are readily available.
It stands to reason that some Times subscribers signed up precisely because they were looking for something different -- for what the Times itself was promising in its advertising, a paper where “alternative facts” were unwelcome.
Good journalism is an essential part of a democratic system. But newspapers are a commodity in a capitalist economy -- the Times will run you more than $900 a year for seven-day-a-week home delivery -- and if customers aren’t happy with the product, they won’t stick around. They’ll find another source for news, Times political reporters will get to look down their noses at the hippies who don’t want what they’re selling, and people like me will still be reading the paper for what it does well. It’s a win-win-win!
The problem for the Times, of course, is that the faltering financial model for print journalism means that the paper desperately needs to keep its subscription numbers rising, or it’ll be in a financial crunch that will lead to more layoffs. Which is why it tried to juice its subscription numbers by selling itself to liberals as a force against “alternative facts” in the first place.
UPDATE: After Baquet, Bennet, and Stephens all publicly defended the piece, the Times has now added a correction to Stephens' first column. Stephens had falsely claimed that the evidence shows “modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the Northern Hemisphere.” The updated column corrects that statement to accurately note that the figure represents the global change, but leaves all Stephens' conclusions (originally based in part on a falsehood) intact. The correction reads:
An earlier version of this article misstated the area that warmed by 0.85 degrees Celsius as noted in the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel report. It was the globally averaged combined land and ocean surface, not only the Northern Hemisphere.
As Think Progress' Joe Romm has noted, a 0.85-degree warming globally is a substantially bigger deal than the same increase would be in the Northern Hemisphere alone:
The 0.85°C is not “modest.” It is roughly the same as the entire variation the Earth experienced during the several thousand years of stable climate that enabled the development of modern civilization, global agriculture, and a world that could sustain a vast population
So Stephens got his facts wrong, in a way that undermines his argument, but even after the correction sees no need to alter his conclusions. What an embarrassment for the paper.