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The New York Times thought it was bringing a fresh voice and some ideological diversity to its influential op-ed pages when it hired conservative columnist Bret Stephens from the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago.
Readers weren’t impressed by Stephens’s debut column, to say the least.
The cancel-my-subscription outrage flowed freely after Stephens challenged the certitude about climate science in his first piece for the newspaper on Friday. While acknowledging that the planet has warmed over the past century and that humans have contributed to it, he wrote, “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.”
Stephens’s timing was impeccable, with his column hitting just as tens of thousands gathered around the nation and in Washington for the Peoples Climate March, in protest of President Donald Trump’s rollback of regulations protecting the environment.
The column had something else for liberals to hate: Stephens’s comparison of the arrogance about climate change to the Clinton campaign’s confidence that its technology and data models would ensure victory in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The piece touched off a switchboard-clogging reaction from Times readers, who began calling the Times to dump their subscriptions. A Times spokeswoman, Danielle Rhoades Ha, wouldn’t provide specific figures but said Saturday, “We are seeing an increase in cancellations … citing the new column, but it still looks like overall cancel numbers will be a low single digit, percentage-wise, for the week.”
It’s unusual for any specific column or news article to lead to mass subscription cancellations. Subscribers tend to cancel primarily because they’re moving, or because they can no longer afford or want to pay for the paper or its digital version.
But Stephens – who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2013 while at the Journal – began drawing fire from Times readers even before he wrote a word for the paper.
The Times’ announcement in mid-April that it hired him triggered an earlier round of subscription cancellations; about 2 percent of those who canceled in the week after the announcement cited his hiring as their reason for doing so, according to Rhoades Ha.
The Times has 3 million print and digital subscribers. It has seen a surge of subscriptions since Trump’s election in November.
In a comment emailed to The Washington Post, Stephens offered this about the controversy he’s generated: “If democracy dies in darkness, as somebody’s been saying, then darkness also is a refusal to entertain and seriously engage opposing points of view. I wrote a column that, at heart, is about the importance of acknowledging our fallibility. None of us is in possession of all of the truth, or all of the facts. None of us is immune from error. That emphatically includes me. Let’s be honest enough to admit it and talk to – not scream at – one another.” (Stephens was referring to The Washington Post’s recently adopted slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”)
Stephens got the backing of his boss, Times editorial page editor James Bennet, who said in a statement, “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.”
As at most mainstream news organizations, the Times opinion and editorial pages are managed separately from its news sections. Columnists, such as Stephens, report to an editor (Bennet) who has no influence over the decisions of the top news editor, and vice versa.
But Times reporters offered their new colleague some support, taking to Twitter to implore readers against canceling their subscriptions.
“You ought to reconsider,” tweeted reporter Trip Gabriel to a new ex-subscriber. “Canceling will hurt the (much more costly) reporting of our climate news desk than it will a lone opinion writer.”
To which veteran Times-man David Sanger replied, “Opinion thrives w/a diversity of views. News pages thrive b/c of dedication to deep, fact-based reporting. Readers benefit from both.”
That also seemed to be the view of Dean Baquet, who oversees the Times’s newsroom.
“Didn’t we learn from this past election that our goal should be to understand different views?” Baquet said on CNN’s media-discussion program, “Reliable Sources,” on Sunday. “Didn’t we learn from this past election that our goal should be to surface true debates about the biggest issues? … Have we gotten to the point as a country when someone has a well-written, cogent position that people disagree with, they want to ball up the paper and throw it away? I think that’s a mistake.”
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