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“Free Speech” Is Not A Defense For Hiring a Redundant Bullshit Artist

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BretStephens

Where David Roberts’s critique of the Times’s decision to hire Bret Stephens is concerned I strongly recommend Reading the Whole Thing. The bottom line:

In all these examples, a similar theme emerges: Stephens just doesn’t seem to have thought much about climate change. He’s enacting the rote conservative ritual of groping around for some reason, any reason, to a) justify inaction and b) blame liberals, in the process saying false things and making terrible arguments.

Editorial page editor James Bennet said this to public editor Liz Spayd:

The crux of the question is whether [Stephens’] work belongs inside our boundaries for intelligent debate, and I have no doubt that it does. I have no doubt he crosses our bar for intellectual honesty and fairness.

Let’s ponder this a moment. The question is not whether Stephens has said false and misleading things about climate change in the past. If you believe the work of NYT reporters, then yes, he has. His latest column indicates that his rethinking on the subject remains inch-deep.

The question is whether it matters — whether dismissing climate change as a “mass hysteria phenomenon” is, or ought to be, disqualifying, below any reasonable “bar for intellectual honesty and fairness.”

The line separating what’s inside and outside the bounds of reasonable debate is not fixed. We draw it together, through our decisions and actions. We push and pull on it all the time.

When a trusted institution deems a particular perspective within the bounds of reasonable debate, it carries a certain imprimatur, a signal to elites and readers alike. The same is true when those institutions exclude certain perspectives. Institutions are, whether they like to acknowledge it or not, referees in this game. They make calls about what’s in and out of bounds.

Bennet does not endorse (or even address) anything Stephens says on climate, only waves his hands, as he did to Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, that Stephens is “capturing and contributing to a vitally important debate.”

Through hiring and defending Stephens, he is signaling that bullshitting about climate change is not disqualifying from a position at the NYT. It is within acceptable mainstream bullshitting limits. Even if you dismiss climate change as a totalitarian delusion for years, as long as you’re willing to publicly acknowledge the most rudimentary science, the rest is fair game.

Make no mistake: This isn’t new. Bullshitting about climate change has never carried much censure in US media. The Washington Post ran some George Will bullshit on climate just a couple weeks ago.

This has long been the norm. Bennet just reaffirmed it.

Still, he shouldn’t have.

Amazingly, the Times is actually trotting out “free speech” defenses of the hire. To state the obvious, the Times gives a forum to a very small number of people. And even in this narrow frame it doesn’t represent a particularly broad spectrum; there isn’t a socialist or an anti-interventionist conservative, for example. There isn’t a strong voice for feminist issues. And Stephens makes three highly unrepresentative anti-Trump conservative Republicans. Every hire the Times makes a choice about what voices merit representation and what don’t. The retreat to specious “free speech” justifications is an excellent indication that perspectives Stephens brings are not valuable. The climate denialism should in itself be disqualifying, and even that aside he’s a standard-issue propagandist.

Like Roberts, I myself do not plan on cancelling my online subscription or to stop buying the paper edition on Sundays. But people who have cancelled their subscriptions aren’t suppressing free speech — they’re entitled to their judgment about whether on net the Times provides value to them. Hiring someone to witlessly troll your readers (and then, of course, to whine and demand a safe space when they take the bait) is an odd business model, and you can’t really complain when some paying customers decide they’ve had enough.

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