The role of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That latter tasks includes — or should include — afflicting the comfortable assumptions of its readers. In particular, an opinion section should challenge readers to think and rethink — not merely serve to reaffirm their preexisting convictions.
So I write today in an unusual position for someone who helps shape The Washington Post’s opinion offerings: in defense of the New York Times’ newest columnist, Bret Stephens. More broadly, I write in defense of the principle that the best way an editorial section can serve its readers is to provide them with a mixed diet of provocative, intelligent opinion, spanning the ideological spectrum.
In case you’ve missed it, L’affaire Stephens involves his previous work as a columnist and deputy editorial page editor at the Wall Street Journal. In that role, Stephens not only pocketed a Pulitzer Prize but also angered liberals by, among other things, questioning “the mass hysteria phenomenon known as global warming” (2008), terming the “campus rape epidemic” an “imaginary enemy” (2015), and describing anti-Semitism as “the disease of the Arab mind” (2016).
So the Times’ selection of Stephens sparked a protest campaign, complete with a petition drive calling for his unhiring (on the basis of his climate denialism) and a wave of subscription cancellations. Stephens, demonstrating the pugnacity required of a good columnist, responded with a debut column titled “Climate of Complete Certainty.” Stephens used the Hillary Clinton campaign’s tragically misguided reliance on data analytics as a jumping-off point to warn against “certitude about our climate future.”
Not that you could tell it from the volcanic response, but Stephens acknowledged that “modest” warming of the planet “is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming,” which seems more restrained than his previous statements and puts him in far different category than Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and other climate denialists. Still, Stephens argued, “much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.”
For the record, I believe Stephens dramatically understated the risk of climate change and therefore used a faulty analogy to the Clinton campaign. When it comes to climate change, the risk of failing to react and prepare greatly outweighs the risk that dire predictions might prove wrong.
But I think that Stephens offers a valuable addition to the Times’ columnist lineup. He will, no doubt, anger Times readers on this and other topics — but also push them to consider and, perhaps, to question their assumptions. As Times editorial page editor James Bennet told the Huffington Post, “to pretend like the views of a thinker like Bret, and the millions of people who agree with him on a range of issues, should simply be ignored, that they’re outside the bounds of reasonable debate, is a really dangerous form of delusion.”
Indeed, my criticism of Stephens’s hiring wouldn’t be that he’s too conservative, or wrong on particular issues — it’s that bringing in a third anti-Trump conservative doesn’t add enough diversity.
One comment columnists often hear from readers is: “You put into words just what I was thinking.” That’s nice, but even more gratifying is this: “I disagree with you, but you made me think.” Or, even more rarely, “You changed my mind.”
Donald Trump’s election has posed a challenge for op-ed editors. Some 40 percent of voters supported him. Yet nearly all of our regular columnists — conservatives as well as liberal — oppose him. How, then, to reflect that diversity of opinion? How to help readers who disagree with or even despise Trump understand the concerns of his supporters?
Failing to do so not only presents a misleading snapshot of the national mood, it neglects our responsibility. The best opinion section is one that offers an ideological brawl, not an intellectual cocoon.