James Bennet has plenty of critics.
The editor of The New York Times Opinion section, after Trump was elected, Bennet did something that incensed many Times readers: He hired conservatives. Perhaps most notably, Bennet brought on Bret Stephens, a former Wall Street Journal columnist who used his first column to excoriate climate change activists and others who treat climate change deniers (a term I suspect Stephens would take issue with) "as imbeciles and deplorables." Now, in his column, Stephens didn't actually say he doesn't believe in climate change. Unlike, say, Donald Trump, Stephens does believe in climate change and in humanity's contribution to it. But, he wrote of climate activists, "The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority weren’t." You might think of him as the Cliff Mass of New York Times: He believes in climate change; he doesn't believe in all climate claims.
This enraged Times readers. So many threatened to boycott the paper that the publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., appealed to readers who canceled their subscriptions to reconsider. “Our customer care team shared with me that your reason for unsubscribing from The New York Times included our decision to hire Bret Stephens as an Opinion columnist," he wrote in an email to angry subscribers. “The Times’s Opinion pages remain an independent and unblinking forum for debate from a wide range of viewpoints among open-minded, informed writers and readers. I don’t think, in these polarizing and partisan times, there’s anything quite like it in American journalism.”
Since then, the times, and The Times, have become even more polarized. Conservative Times columnists like Stephens and Ross Douthat, as well as liberal columnists who do not entirely subscribe to leftist orthodoxy—for instance, Bari Weiss, the author of a widely read and much criticized column about the allegations of sexual misconduct anonymously directed at Aziz Ansari—are regularly hounded on social media as Twitter mobs (often times lead by journalists) come for their heads and call for their jobs. And this isn't just happening at The Times: The Atlantic and Harpers have also faced social media campaigns for featuring unorthodox, and sometimes legitimately troubling, voices in their pages. And Bennet hasn't entirely resisted: In February, he hired and then fired Quinn Norton, a far left anarchist columnist who was widely dragged for some damning old tweets and for refusing to disavow a neo-Nazi friend.
James Bennet discussed the public criticism of his performance, and much more, with his old friend, Politico editor-in-chief James F. Harris, in an interview published Monday. It's a long, wide-ranging conversation, and one that gives some insight into why Bennet has maintained his commitment to at least some diversity of thought in The Times Opinion section (although, as many people have pointed out, none of his Republican columnists actually voted for Trump, the closest thing they have to a Marxist on staff is Paul Krugman, and the Opinion section may be more representative of the American middle than the America that actually exists).
Still, this commitment to ideological diversity has come at some personal cost to Bennet. As much as people complain about Stephens or Weiss or Douthat or anyone else writing for the paper, they blame Bennet for hiring them. An excerpt from the interview:
Harris: Does it bother you when people with whom you would assume you’re fundamentally of like minds and like values are really mad at you?
Bennet: Oh, yeah.
Harris: It does? Or do you just brush it off? “It goes with the territory.” How much does it weigh on you?
Bennet: Look, I don’t like to be called a Nazi, you know? No, yeah, it—
Harris: Who called you that?
Bennet: Actually, I don’t know that I’ve been—I should subtract that. I’ve been told I’ve been called a Nazi; I have not seen it. I shouldn’t say that. That sounds ridiculous. I don’t know that anybody likes to be screamed at. Maybe there are people, but I’m not one of them. And I take it seriously. Like, I take it to heart. Our posture is that we don’t have all the answers. And maybe I’m wrong about what I’m doing, and I have to hear the criticism. So, I take it seriously, and particularly when it comes from colleagues inside of the building. And to the extent that the criticism is constructive—and a lot of it is—it’s going to make us better over time if we hear it and act on it. But the hate—the social media phenomenon where people aren’t actually even reading the piece or engaging with the argument but they’re reacting to the tweet about the tweet about the tweet about the piece—that sort of stuff makes me a little bit crazy. And, you know, I think our only option is you just kind of push through it.
Harris: Yeah. Maybe that’s an argument for not taking it that seriously. “Today’s shitstorm will be replaced by tomorrow’s shitstorm and another the day after that, and it’s folly to really follow it too closely or care very much.”
Bennet: Again, you have to pay attention because there may be some grains of real legitimate criticism or concern in there. But, yeah, it does feel like the outrage machine is chewing its way day by day through one offense or another. And it’s really hard, I find, in this environment to sort out the signal and the noise. What is the important reaction, response, counterargument that we should be hearing? And are those readers, you know, real readers, or are they just people performing for each other on social media? And, again, I don’t want to sound like I’m—you can’t dismiss it. You can’t just say, “Oh, they’re all a bunch of jackasses,” because they’re not. But some of them are jackasses. [Laughs.]
The interview was met with some derision, particularly from the left. In a Splinter* post entitled "Read This Interview With NYT Op-Ed Chief James Bennet to Lose Your Breakfast Instantly," Katherine Krueger wrote, "So here I am, enjoying a perfectly fine morning, when a 5,000-word interview in Politico magazine with James Bennett, the editor of The New York Times’ atrocious editorial page—conducted by his good friend, Politico editor in chief John Harris—has to come and ruin it." Krueger is unimpressed with Bennet's mission, and so is, perhaps predictably, much of Twitter.
But I (also perhaps predictably) feel for the man. Bennet is trying to counter an insidious problem in American culture: We're all so siloed in our own little media bubbles that we don't even know what the other side thinks. This same problem is why most of the left was totally convinced that Donald Trump was unelectable. It was so out of the realm of possibility that that liberals didn't even show up to vote. I have actual friends who did this (too many of them, really): People who didn't particularly like Hillary Clinton but assumed that because Donald Trump is so odious and had so little experience governing that he would never, in a million years, be elected president. And why would anyone think otherwise when the polls we saw and the TV we watched and the friends we spoke to were totally blind to the fact that Donald Trump had a chance? Bennet, to his credit, is trying to correct this. Is he doing a perfect job of it? No, but at least he's trying. The world is full of voices we disagree with, and it's far more dangerous to ignore them than it is to simply keep up. But still, yelling always sounds louder when it's coming from your own side, so while James Bennet has a job that I personally don't envy, it's a job, I think, he's doing right.
*An earlier version of this post identified Splinter as Splitsider. The author regrets the error and has been sentenced to follow Katherine Krueger on Twitter.