I rise today to defend Bret Stephens, the new conservative columnist at The New York Times. Readers who were incensed by his Saturday debut - a semi-skeptical riff on climate change - should hose themselves down.
Frankly, I’ve never understood people who harrumph about canceling their subscriptions after reading one thing they didn’t like. Most newspapers are veritable menus offering a wide range of meals catering to a wide range of tastes. In my years at The Philadelphia Inquirer, whenever a ticked-off conservative phoned me to command that I cancel his subscription, I’d simply say, “Skip my column, keep the subscription.” And one time, when a liberal phoned with the same command (he said his elderly dad was sick in bed because I was too easy that day on George W. Bush), I told him that canceling would be silly because dad might miss the crossword puzzle.
No journalistic outlet will ever please all of the people all of the time. When a sizable number of Times readers - mostly liberals and environmentalists - phoned this weekend to nix their subscriptions after reading Stephens’ inaugural column, they basically embraced the notion that a single opinion piece on climate change cancelled out the acres of space that Times reporters have devoted to detailing the perils of climate change. What a foolish boycott.
Granted, Stephens’ first effort was a tad odd. Freed from his old gig as deputy editorial page editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, hired by The Times to add ideological diversity to the opinion page, Stephens predictably told his new audience stuff they were loath to hear. And he told it weirdly.
He basically argued that, because Hillary Clinton’s campaign guru got his numbers wrong, then perhaps some of the climate change numbers are wrong. He offered a big caveat - “None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences” - but said we still need to guard against “overweening scientism.” He said this without factually disproving any of the science. He also argued “that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power,” but offered no examples.
At one point Stephens wrote, “I can almost hear the heads exploding.” And so they did. But the explodees would be well advised to get some perspective and curb their most intolerant impulses. We’ve got enough of that already. We’re suffering outrage overload. Nobody wants to abide an discomfiting opinion, even if well argued. Stephens’ first column was not particularly well argued, but so what. He’ll do better. And in the meantime, I’m sure the climate change consensus will trump his discordant voice.
Columnists tick people off all the time (I should know), which is fine, because they’re paid to provoke. Sometimes they hit the mark, sometimes they don’t. Nothing new there. Liberal Times readers went nuts in 1973 when the editorial page hired Nixon flak William Safire as a columnist. Safire hit and missed for the next four decades, just like everyone else on the page, and many liberals came to admire his erudite style.
So let Bret Stephens’ voice be heard. Let the marketplace of ideas sort things out. George Will, a veteran syndicated columnist in The Washington Post Writers Group, has been writing skeptically about climate change for years, but ticked-off liberals would be foolish to retaliate by dropping their subscriptions to The Post - which, on any given day, counteracts Will in its news pages.
I know that The Times’ liberal readers are most comfortable with opinions like this: “Making America Great Again was not supposed to be a belly flop into the cloudy pond of Mr. Trump’s psyche.” And opinions like this: “[Trump is] an intemperate, verbally incontinent 70-year-old,” consumed by “paranoia, incompetence and recklessness.” Surely they’d love to see more of that on the opinion page.
Well, guess what: Those words were written by Bret Stephens - just two months ago, in The Journal. In fact, he spent most of 2016 hammering Trump, and getting hammered by Trumpkins in return. He even called Sean Hannity “Fox News’ dumbest anchor,” prompting Hannity to call him “a dumbass.” So let’s give Stephens the leeway to be unpredictable, to indulge his catholic tastes. It’s called free speech.
And as for the knee-jerk cancellation shtick, I’m reminded of a story told by conservative icon William F. Buckley. As editor of the National Review, he opened a letter from a reader who was so angry about an item in the magazine - one tiny item in one issue - that he demanded that Buckley cancel his subscription forthwith. Buckley prompted wrote him back:
“Dear Dr. Morris: Cancel your own goddam subscription!”
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.