The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

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)
Placeholder while article actions load

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.

Follow Erik Wemple's opinionsFollow

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:

  • Please condense the argument that Stephens makes in the piece.
  • The column began with a contention that the Hillary Clinton campaign screwed up its quantitative approach to campaign projections, and then used that experience as a springboard to launch into the possibility that climate science may also have such infirmities. Are you really establishing some equivalence between voter analysis and climate science?
  • Why does the column fixate on the possible future impact of climate change when your own newspaper has documented current impact?
  • Your columnist laments that advocates have stretched the boundaries of climate-change science in pushing for their agenda. 1) Examples? 2) On what public policy issue does this not hold true?
  • Your columnist makes this very erudite observation: “Ordinary citizens … know — as all environmentalists should — that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.” Could we have some such examples?

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.