There was, for example, the “bedbugs” flap in August, wherein Stephens challenged a college professor’s joke about him on Twitter. The professor then posted the angry letter Stephens wrote to his boss, leading to an explosion of news coverage about Stephens’s thin-skinned reaction. There was also Stephens’s first column for the Times in 2017, which questioned some of the science behind climate change. That one went over so well that Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. wrote a personal appeal to readers who canceled their subscriptions.
The latest Stephens storm involves a column the Times published Friday in which he lauded a long tradition of Jewish contributions to the arts, sciences and ideas. Citing Albert Einstein, Benjamin Disraeli and Franz Kafka, among others, Stephens asked, “How is it that a people who never amounted even to one-third of 1 percent of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most pathbreaking ideas and innovations?”
The column might have been little more than a nice Hanukkah gift except for one thing: To bolster his argument about “the secrets of Jewish genius” (as the headline put it), Stephens, who is Jewish, cited and linked to a 2005 study that argued in favor of a genetic hypothesis for the allegedly superior intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews (those who settled in central and Eastern Europe). The study was co-authored by Henry Harpending, a far-right ideologue and advocate of discredited ideas about racial superiority. Harpending has been labeled a white nationalist by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
An overwhelmingly negative reaction to the column built on social media over the weekend, prompting the Times to affix an editor’s note to it Sunday.
“After publication Mr. Stephens and his editors learned that one of the paper’s authors, who died in 2016, promoted racist views,” the note read. “Mr. Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views, but it was a mistake to cite it uncritically. The effect was to leave an impression with many readers that Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. That was not his intent. . . . We have removed reference to the study from the column.”
Adding such extensive notes in post-publication editing is rare, especially in opinion columns.
Stephens did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Times editorial-page editor James Bennet.
Stephens joined the Times in 2017 from the Wall Street Journal, where he won the Pulitzer for commentary in 2013 “for his incisive columns on American foreign policy and domestic politics, often enlivened by a contrarian twist,” as his Pulitzer citation put it.
He is a conservative writer, but he has often criticized President Trump and feuded with his supporters, including Fox News host Sean Hannity, whom Stephens criticized as a conspiracy-monger in a 2017 column. Hannity, in turn, went after Stephens for quitting Twitter after the columnist received an avalanche of criticism from Trump supporters over the “bedbugs” episode earlier this year.
Dave Karpf, the George Washington University media and public affairs professor who drew Stephens’s ire for comparing Stephens to bedbugs, said Stephens’s latest column was “lazy” on several levels. The notion that Jews have special intelligence was itself “saccharine” and could be easily misinterpreted in dangerous ways, he said. But Karpf said Stephens’s research appears to have consisted of little more than a Google search that turned up a document co-authored by a white supremacist, a fact that neither Stephens nor his editors were aware of.
“I have to imagine anyone else would get fired for this,” Karpf said, adding, “If they fired Bret Stephens, it might open a slot for a conservative who would do a better job and try harder than he does.”