Opinion | The New York Times Surrendered to an Outrage Mob. Journalism Will Suffer For It. – POLITICO

Posted By on May 15, 2020

Nonetheless, the column incited a furious and ad hominem response. Detractors discovered that one of the authors of the paper Stephens had cited went on to express racist views, and falsely claimed that Stephens himself had advanced ideas that were genetic (he did not), racist (he made no remarks about any race) and eugenicist (alluding to the discredited political movement to improve the human species by selective breeding, which was not remotely related to anything Stephens wrote).

It would have been appropriate for the New York Times to acknowledge the controversy, to publish one or more replies, and to allow Stephens and his critics to clarify the issues. Instead, the editors deleted parts of the columnnot because anything in it had been shown to be factually incorrect but because it had become controversial.

Worse, the explanation for the deletions in the Editors Note was not accurate about the edits the paper made after publication. The editors did not just remove reference to the study. They expurgated the articles original subtitle (which explicitly stated Its not about having higher IQs), two mentions of Jewish IQs, and a list of statistics about Jewish accomplishment: During the 20th century, [Ashkenazi Jews] made up about 3 percent of the U.S. population but won 27 percent of the U.S. Nobel science prizes and 25 percent of the ACM Turing awards. They account for more than half of world chess champions. These statistics about Jewish accomplishments were quoted directly from the study, but they originated in other studies. So, even if the Times editors wanted to disavow the paper Stephens referenced, the newspaper could have replaced the passage with quotes from the original sources.

The Times handling of this column sets three pernicious precedents for American journalism.

First, while we cannot know what drove the editors decision, the outward appearance is that they surrendered to an outrage mob, in the process giving an imprimatur of legitimacy to the false and ad hominem attacks against Stephens. The Editors Note explains that Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors views, and that it was not his intent to leave an impression with many readers that [he] was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. The combination of the explanation and the post-publication revision implied that such an impression was reasonable. It was not.

Unless the Times reverses course, we can expect to see more such mobs, more retractions, and also preemptive rejections from editors fearful of having to make such retractions. Newspapers risk forfeiting decisions to air controversial or unorthodox ideas to outrage mobs, which are driven by the passions of their most ideological police rather than the health of the intellectual commons.

Second, the Times redacted a published essay based on concerns about retroactive moral pollution, not about accuracy. While it is true that an author of the paper Stephens mentioned, the late anthropologist Henry Harpending, made some deplorable racist remarks, that does not mean that every point in every paper he ever coauthored must be deemed radioactive. Facts and arguments must be evaluated on their content. Will the Times and other newspapers now monitor the speech of scientists and scholars and censor articles that cite any of them who, years later, say something offensive? Will it crowdsource that job to Twitter and then redact its online editions whenever anyone quoted in the Times is later canceled?

Third, for the Times to disappear passages of a published article into an inaccessible memory hole is an Orwellian act that, thanks to the newspapers actions, might now be seen as acceptable journalistic practice. It is all the worse when the editors published account of what they deleted is itself inaccurate. This does a disservice to readers, historians and journalists, who are left unable to determine for themselves what the controversy was about, and to Stephens, who is left unable to defend himself against readers worst suspicions.

We strongly oppose racism, anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry. And we believe that the best means of combating them is the open exchange of ideas. The Times retroactive censoring of passages of a published article appears to endorse a different view. And in doing so, it hands ammunition to the cynics and obfuscators who claim that every news source is merely an organ for its political coalition.

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Opinion | The New York Times Surrendered to an Outrage Mob. Journalism Will Suffer For It. - POLITICO

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