Everyone Is Mad at Bret Stephens, So He Must Not Be Doing the Right Thing – Mediaite

Posted By on January 9, 2020

There is a tendency among certain high-minded journalists to believe that when all sides take issue with their work, they must be doing something right. If no one is satisfied, the reasoning goes, then the piece must be onto something. But it often seems as if this logic is employed as a kind of deflection to avoid reckoning, in any meaningful way, with criticism.

Daniel Okrent, the first public editor of the New York Times, addressed this idea in a 2004 column in which he quoted a very wise dictum he had picked up from the papers Jerusalem bureau chief at the time, James Bennet: Just because everyone is mad at you doesnt necessarily mean youre doing the right thing. It was a phrase Okrent somewhat cheekily referred to as Bennets Corollary, writing that most journalists, who play defense even more aggressively than they play offense, should etch [it] into their computer screens.

Its ironic that Bennet, who is now the editorial page editor of the Times, should have coined this phrase. The journalist at the paper to whom it most often applies is Bret Stephens, the conservative pundit whose columns have been drumming up controversy ever since he defected from the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and began working at the Times three years ago. Bennet brought him on.

The most recent column of Stephens to make the masses mad on all sides was The Secrets of Jewish Genius, his now-infamous December 27 piece in which he cited and linked to a paper that takes a genetically-minded look at the Ashkenazi intellect. One of the studys authors, Henry Harpending, is a known racist. The column caused such a stir that the Times was forced to append a lengthy editors note atop it, removing any reference to the study. Mr. Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors views, the Times wrote unconvincingly, but it was a mistake to cite it uncritically.

The bigger mistake, though, was letting the piece get published at all. On Friday, Bennet told Politicos Michael Calderone that Stephens piece was fact-checked and edited, an embarrassing admission given that a proper edit would have caught Stephens reference to the specious study.

Stephens has been infuriating readers since he began at the Times. His first column for the paper, published in April of 2017, cast doubt on climate science while making a somewhat confusing argument in favor of what sounded like epistemological modesty, which is typically David Brooks domain. Stephens also misquoted a number from the 2014 Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and was forced to issue a correction. A bad start, though not a disqualifying one.

Still, at what point does provocation veer into lazy thinking? Stephens appears to have answered that question with his Jewish genius column whose overall boringness seems to have been overshadowed by the fact that he relied on a racist study.

Maybe the reason Stephens keeps writing bad columns is that he is bad at taking criticism. When a journalist told Stephens he was dumb in an email last year albeit not the most elevated critique Stephens responded with a long, condescending note in which he bragged about having chaired two Pulitzer juries. When David Karpf, an associate professor at George Washington University, jokingly compared Stephens to a bedbug on Twitter after it had been revealed that the Times offices had bedbugs, Stephens wrote an entire column on the resurgence of Nazi rhetoric. The implication was that Stephens was a victim of anti-Semitism because Karpf was snarking on social media.

Perhaps a more salient question is: How many times will Stephens have to mess up before Bennet cans him? Stephens work is, to my mind, proof of Bennets corollary that when everyone disagrees with you, it might be because they are right.

Bennet brought Stephens on, it seems, because he wanted to imbue the opinion pages with a diversity of thought a noble goal. Hes a beautiful writer who ranges across politics, international affairs, culture and business, Bennet wrote when he hired Stephens, and, for The Times, he will bring a new perspective to bear on the news.

But Stephens perspective may have run its course. When he abandoned the Journal because of his anti-Trump views, he was leaving a world that until the most recent election cycle was a comfortable one for him and his neoconservative compatriots. A world in which his views werent challenged. Probably the most controversial column he published shortly before bidding adieu to the Journal was the one in which he declared that Hillary Clinton was the best hope for whats left of a serious conservative movement in America. That would hardly have been a risqu idea at the Times, which endorsed Clinton, though some of Stephens other views might seem somewhat alien.

And now that he is at the Times, he has had the chance to expose his views to new audiences, though he hasnt viewed the experience in a reciprocal manner. He isnt learning from his mistakes. After Stephens found out about Karpfs bedbug tweet, he emailed Karpf to complain, ccing Karpfs boss, in an apparent effort to land his critic in trouble. Then he deleted his Twitter account when the backlash on social media became too much for him to bear. After he wrote his Jewish genius column, a proper thing for Stephens to do would have been to throw a mea culpa somewhere into his next piece, acknowledging his indiscretion and moving on. Instead, he ignored it which is his prerogative, but readers shouldnt have to put up with it.

Bennet did not respond to an email asking whether he believed his dictum applies to Stephens. Okrent, for his part, told Mediaite in an email that he doesnt think it should extend to the columnists work largely because its an opinion column, he wrote, and Bennets Corollary was applied to controversial news coverage.

It may be time for Bennets adage to expand its scope.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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Everyone Is Mad at Bret Stephens, So He Must Not Be Doing the Right Thing - Mediaite

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