Democracy Dies in Darkness

Erik Wemple | Opinion

New York Times editor pens weak, vague response to critics of Bret Stephens's op-ed on climate change

April 30, 2017 at 4:49 PM

Ice from the northern wall of the Perito Moreno glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, on Nov. 29, 2015, in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The Erik Wemple Blog has been bugging the New York Times all weekend for an interview with James Bennet, the editorial page editor responsible for launching a new op-ed column by former Wall Street Journal writer Bret Stephens. On Friday, Bennet's new hire published "Climate of Complete Certainty," a dreadfully argued piece contending that … well, the point is buried in false starts, bogus reasoning and imprecise writing.

May it suffice to say, however, that the many, many people who care passionately for the planet found it an exercise in climate-change denialism, even though Stephens argues that it's a real, documented thing. "Perhaps if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it," wrote Stephens in his concluding sentence.

As this blog noted on Friday, speaking of climate change as a future problem shortchanges the entire issue. It's already inundating people, as the New York Times itself has reported on the other side of its news-opinion firewall.

"Climate of Complete Certainty" triggered a number of questions that this blog wanted to pose to Bennet, including:

Looks as if answers to those inquiries will have to wait. In response to our interview requests, the New York Times passed along this statement from Bennet:

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.

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.

Despite blase tracts such as Stephens's, polling has shown that people are worrying about climate change, critical context for the movement on social media of people saying they've ended their subscriptions over the Stephens column. The newspaper will have to publish many more baffling and irresponsible pieces before the Erik Wemple Blog would consider doing likewise.


Erik Wemple, The Washington Post's media critic, focuses on the cable-news industry. Before joining The Post, he ran a short-lived and much publicized local online news operation, and for eight years served as editor of Washington City Paper.

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