Four heavy hitters criticize the New York Times for “Orwellian” retroactive censorship

You’ve probably heard of at least several authors of this new Politico piece, which I suspect but don’t know for sure was submitted to (and rejected by) the New York Times after the paper retroactively redacted a column by Bret Stephens on the overrepresentation of Ashkenazi Jews “in intellectual and creative fields”. The article by Paresky et al. is a severe indictment of the Times‘s policies, which now include giving in to an “outrage mob” and changing a column (as well as removing genuine facts), without leaving a record of the changes. Truly, the New York Times under its relatively new management (wokemeister A. G. Sulzberger) is going down the tubes—fast.

You probably know of Jon Haidt and Steve Pinker, whom I’ve written about often, and have likely heard of Nadine Strossen (former head of the ACLU and now a Professor of Law Emerita at New York Law school) and of the first author, Pamela Paresky, who writes for Psychology Today and lectures at my own university. These are not slouches, and they’re rightfully pissed off. The only one I know here is Pinker, but it takes a lot to make him append his name to a piece like this. He musters and dispenses his anger carefully and infrequently.

Click on the screenshot below to read, and to weep at how far the New York Times has fallen. Truly, even the dubious 1619 Project pales before how they treated this column by Bret Stephens.

Here’s the column, which has been changed with the redacted passages completely gone. Instead, there’s a note at the top that says this:

Editors’ Note:

An earlier version of this Bret Stephens column quoted statistics from a 2005 paper that advanced a genetic hypothesis for the basis of intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews. After publication Mr. Stephens and his editors learned that one of the paper’s authors, who died in 2016, promoted racist views. Mr. Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views, but it was a mistake to cite it uncritically. The effect was to leave an impression with many readers that Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. That was not his intent. He went on instead to argue that culture and history are crucial factors in Jewish achievements and that, as he put it, “At its best, the West can honor the principle of racial, religious and ethnic pluralism not as a grudging accommodation to strangers but as an affirmation of its own diverse identity. In that sense, what makes Jews special is that they aren’t. They are representational.” We have removed reference to the study from the column.

Note that the sin of Stephens’s column was not being racist or giving erroneous facts. Rather, he cited a paper “uncritically” when one of its authors had make racist statements. And Stephens’s intent—the cultural hypothesis—was apparently already clear in the original paper. The apology here is not from Stephens, but from the paper to those readers outraged that Stephens’s column would cite a paper partly written by an author who said racist things and dared imply that creative and intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews might have a genetic basis. (Saying something like that is, of course, verboten.) And you can’t even check for yourself, for the paper has removed any reference to the study. (The link isn’t in the Paresky et al. article either, but you can find the paper, published in the Journal of Biosocial Science, for free here.)

The original Stephens column cited a peer-reviewed study that advanced the hypothesis that Ashkenazi Jews had a complement of genes that led in part to their high achievement and intelligence. Stephens didn’t accept the genetic explanation, and, in his column, apparently advanced an alternative cultural hypothesis. (I have no dog in this fight and have followed neither the data nor the controversy).

What happened is that social media discovered that one of the authors of the paper had expressed racist views. Stephens neither parroted them nor mentioned that, nor did he even allude to eugenics. But of course that’s not good enough for social media: the fact that one author did express racist views discredits, in the mind of Outrage Culture, not just the original paper, but Stephens’s column as well. Business Insider writes that Stephens’s original column led to canceled subscriptions.

Paresky et al note that the appropriate response of the NYT would have been this:

. . . . 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 column—not because anything in it had been shown to be factually incorrect but because it had become controversial.

But the Times didn’t follow that path—not at all. Instead, they took it upon themselves to change what Stephens wrote. That’s censorship. (Note: the alterations are attributed to the paper’s editors —”we”—not to Stephens.) To continue with Paresky et al.:

Instead, the editors deleted parts of the column—not 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 article’s original subtitle (which explicitly stated “It’s 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 authors wind up listing three “pernicious precedents for American journalism” caused by the Times’s handling of this piece.  Rather than paraphrase them, I’ll just quote from them:

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.

. . .  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”?

And finally:

Third, for the Times to “disappear” passages of a published article into an inaccessible memory hole is an Orwellian act that, thanks to the newspaper’s 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.

In other words, what the paper did makes it look like Stephens somehow transgressed, and thus was given a spanking in words by the editor.

This is all part and parcel not only of the Times‘s increasing wokeness, evidenced in its 1619 Project, in its fairly blatant favoring of pro-Palestinian over pro-Jewish news (remember the long article about the stray bullet, implying that Israeli soldiers murdered a Palestinian medical aid worker?), and now in an unbelievable act of post facto censorship without letting us see what was censored.

The ‘erasing’ or demonization of a person, or in this case a paper, because some of the views expressed by an author were racist, is classical behavior of the Control Left. First it’s Gandhi, then Galton, then Thomas Jefferson, and who will be next? And apparently we also need to remove facts that are indisputable because someone who had racist views expressed them! Should we redact the Declaration of Independence because Jefferson owned slaves?

Well, the Times is already trying to rewrite American history with the 1619 Project, which, unbelievably, got a Pulitzer Prize. Even those who like the Project—and its aims are admirable—should deplore its misrepresentation of fact and of history to accomplish an ideological end. (Sadly, some people, even here, will swallow the means of distortion if the ends are antiracist). But such misrepresentation could also be considered “moral pollution,” for it’s bending the truth—and a paper like the New York Times cannot afford to bend the truth, or, in this case, expunge the truth. That’s truly Orwellian; remember what Winston Smith did for a living?

It’s a pity that four distinguished authors had to correct the paper’s missteps in an article in Politico, rather than in the paper itself.

h/t: Muffy

32 Comments

  1. dd
    Posted May 14, 2020 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    The writer Thomas C. Williams wrote about Ta-Nehisi Coates for the NYTimes and mentioned that Mr. Coates is a “self-made millionaire”. (Which he most likely is several times over given his prize moneys, best sellers, and speaking fees.)

    This upset Mr. Coates who had the NYTimes take out his being a millionaire upon his insistence.

  2. dd
    Posted May 14, 2020 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Question for the house:

    Doesn’t Dr. David Reich, toward the end of his book “Who we are and how we got here”, discuss/imply, that perhaps there is a genetic explanation for some overachievement?

    Subtle how he writes, but I believe it’s there….where he discusses about an “orthodoxy” in genetics…

    If anyone remembers, and would like to comment?

    • rickflick
      Posted May 14, 2020 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      Clearly Reich’s book should be banned. And let’s find out where he lives. 😉

      • Posted May 14, 2020 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        Possibly but there are many who still look for genetic reasons for cultural phenomenon.The young man who invited the writer of the Bell Curve to speak at his woke university was throughly pummeled. Haidt is one of the group who believes any student needs to be able to hear debates between believers whether good or bad.

  3. JezGrove
    Posted May 14, 2020 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    I guess I should be shocked, but sadly I’m not – the NYT is circling the drain, as PCC(E) has pointed out many times before. A very nicely argued piece by Paresky et al., though many of the below-the-line comments at Politico are disappointing.

    Btw, there’s a misspelling of “Paresky” in the first paragraph here.

  4. Posted May 14, 2020 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Whatever happened to the dictum “There’s no such thing as bad publicity”? Surely such Twitter nonsense could serve as fodder for further reporting, discussions, and so on which would increase readership over time. I don’t understand.

  5. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 14, 2020 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    There is not much worse in the journalistic world than the promotion of censorship and a narrow view of free speech.

    • jedijan
      Posted May 14, 2020 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

      That’s exactly my thoughts on the matter. Free speech, freedom of the press, until mob mentality rules over censorship is rather a perverse way of upholding the ideal hey. Only in America!

      Reminds me of the recent photos I saw of people congregating outside religious establishments etc. during the social distancing requirements. From an outsiders perspective no wonder Covid19 infections are so high in the U.S. if that is the behaviour of so many. Doing something for the greater good appears to be low on the totem pole.

      Watch the hate that follows.

      • Jonathan Wallace
        Posted May 15, 2020 at 6:36 am | Permalink

        “Only in America!”

        Unfortunately not.

  6. Patrick Wylie
    Posted May 14, 2020 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne:
    This post prompted me to at long last write to you about a few things on my mind:

    1) First and foremost, thank you for your persistent advocacy of reason, seeking facts and conclusions independent of political and religious ideology. Your book “Fact Versus Faith” is my favorite forthright, unapologetic, and compelling case for the superiority of science over faith.

    2) I appreciate your attention to proper grammar and expressive vocabulary. I regularly learn from your example.

    3) I agree with your criticism of NYT’s editorial bias. Do you think it has “infected” the paper’s news coverage to a significant extent? Generally, I am inclined to view mainstream news coverage as more influenced by sensationalism and financial pressure than “political correctness”. One must, of course, always review news critically. Nevertheless, I think that most mainstream news (e.g., WP, NYT, AP, LAT, Reuters) is an essential source of information, and vastly superior to the dissembling of the White House, Fox News, and Far Left reporting (which I think are far less influential than Fox News). Interestingly, it seems that highly biased news reporting primarily relies on mainstream news sources more than their own investigation. Increasingly, I rely on AP for my news.

    4) I like your guideline of “5-minute time limit to suss out the answer to a question of minimal importance.” It is so damn easy to be captured for hours in the sticky Web! Now I need a time limit for questions of moderate importance! I can wake up an entire day later…

    Again, thank you for fine work. Keep the “faith”! Please feel free to comment, within the 5-minute limit, of course.

    • Posted May 14, 2020 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I think there’s a definite bias, not only in what is covered (a lot more “woke” topics than in previous years), but also in how it is covered, like that Palestinian bullet article that I think was really slanted. And of course their hatred of Trump bleeds into the reporting. So I don’t think they make stuff up, but there is distortion and slanting. But that’s just my view, and others will disagree.

      • Patrick Wylie
        Posted May 14, 2020 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for your response. I’ll check out the “Palestinian bullet article.” “Hatred for Trump” is an interesting case. As a citizen, my hatred of trump is thoroughly justified—he is an extraordinary menace to democratic institutions, national health and safety, simple decency, and objective standards of truth. This feeling and opinion is supported by an extensive set of facts. I simply have no respect for a contrary view in this matter. I have no problem with columnists and editorial boards who share this hatred and advocate for Trump’s removal. Nevertheless, the reporting and investigative operations should strive to stick to the facts as objectively as possible. With that said, though, I reject a definition of impartiality that requires equal representation and assumes both sides are equally valid. They are not. Fortunately, straightforward reporting and analysis of the facts are damning of the trump administration. While I observe misrepresentations in the news, by far these are trivial compared to the general accuracy of the reporting on the substantive issues.

    • dd
      Posted May 14, 2020 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      This is from a very, very long time reader of the NYTimes….who used it as one of the main ways of learning English (my second language.)

      The distinction between the NYTimes and Fox News, let’s say, should be of kind, and arguably, at one point, it was.

      No longer. It’s now of degree. Fox is blatant about its distortions-outright lies, Trump-like. But the NYTimes is far more subtle using the approach of sins of omission and sins of commission. An example:

      In NYC, Brooklyn to be precise, latish in 2019 there were atrocious anti-semitic acts against the Ultra-Orthodox, physical ones. The New York Post covered it well, but the Times was gingerly about it.

      There was lots of video about the attacks. And they were not committed, largely, by white people.

      Very conspicuous to see, week after week, how little to no coverage this received in the Times, despite Brooklyn’s being maybe 5 miles from Times square. And yes, had the attackers been white, it would have been endless coverage, judging from its past history.

      I offer this because it’s something recent that you can google to verify what I say.

      But there is so much more, in fact, it’s now a constant parameter. And, yes, the “1619” project, no mere re-interpretation (history and historians breath and live re-interpretation as a matter of course), is also an example of sins of omission/commission.

      • BJ
        Posted May 14, 2020 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

        Yes, when I’ve mentioned these repeated attacks over the course of well over a year (at least) now, they have no idea what I’m talking about. They’re not reported on in the Times, they’re not reported on on TV, they’re not reported on from mainstream websites. You can bet if it was groups of white people conducting these attacks, it would be national news, breathlessly reported on week after week, with several thousand opinion pieces written about how it’s indicative of the systemic white supremacy at the heart of the USA.

        • BJ
          Posted May 14, 2020 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

          Whoops. I meant to say, “when I mention these attacks to other people”

      • Patrick Wylie
        Posted May 14, 2020 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the example.

      • Adam M.
        Posted May 18, 2020 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        Somebody could make the argument that for some unknown reason that has nothing to do with race, the attacks on Jews are not interesting to the New York Times.

        But you can see the shift even within a single story. If you remember the Jazmine Barnes story – the 7-year-old girl who was tragically shot and killed in a drive-by shooting – the family reported the killer as being a white man. (They even said they could see his blue eyes, despite it being a drive-by shooting in the dark.) The New York Times was very interested in that story. They wrote at least twelve articles about it, and it was all over the mainstream press for weeks. When the killers turned out to be a couple of black men, the story vanished – *poof*. Most outlets, if they made any further update at all, either buried it or somehow failed to mention the actual race of the killers, despite the race of the alleged killer being the primary theme of the many articles written prior…

        There’s definitely a strong slant when it comes to the reporting of anything to do with race in this country.

  7. Posted May 14, 2020 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate that Outraged Mobs can control editors, certainly non partisan and efforts to control editors on all forms of journalism exist in Orwellian fashion. I enjoy this more than woke as it covers all bands of controlling. We live in this world and for years getting friends to read from those whose political ideas may disagree with them did not work. Recent post in NonZero asked those who agreed to criticize George Packer for considering some leaders are similar to the Vichy . Given few are able to recall that period I suppose few would look it up. But Packer an Orwellian fan had truth in the metaphor however anachronistic it may be.

  8. Filippo
    Posted May 14, 2020 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    This kerfuffle prompts me to refresh my understanding of, and to determine if any relevant comparisons can be made with, NY Times v. Sullivan (1964).

    http://www.oyez.org/cases/1963/39

  9. Historian
    Posted May 14, 2020 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I am not going to debate once again the value and accuracy of the 1619 Project since it appears that minds are made up and will not be changed. However, over the past few years I have become increasingly annoyed at the growing use of the expressions “rewrite history” or “revise history” as pejoratives. I think their use reflects a misunderstanding of what historians do. These expressions reflect, often implicitly, that there is some objective understanding of the past and that at one time some mysterious person wrote the history of a particular subject, presumably by compiling a list of facts, and that anyone who compiles different facts or gives them a different interpretation is somehow rewriting history (which is bad). In reality, it is the job of an historian to compile what he/she considers relevant facts to the topic at hand and then analyze and give meaning to the facts. This exercise may result in a different understanding of the topic that previous historians have written on. I believe that most historians attempt to do this in a fair manner. This is why there are sometimes hundreds of books and articles on certain subjects, each of which presents a different slant on the topic, Lincoln being an obvious example.

    People not immersed in studying history may accuse me of nit-picking over the use of words. But, for historians these distinctions are important. The very essence of being an historian is to rewrite and revise the past for the purpose of better understanding it. Thus, for example, if one takes the position that the 1619 Project distorts our understanding of the past by misinterpreting or ignoring relevant facts (intentionally or not) then what that person should be saying is that it is falsifying the past, that is, there is no serious way that the viewpoint can be justified. This would be much more accurate than saying that it is rewriting the past because rewriting and revising the past is exactly what any good historian does.

    • JezGrove
      Posted May 14, 2020 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      I take your point that history is, by its nature, rewritten. In your view, is the NYT guilty of rewriting the past in terms of the December article referred to in this post?

      • JezGrove
        Posted May 14, 2020 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

        Doh! I meant “In your view is the NYT guilty of falsifying the past…” .

    • Robert Bray
      Posted May 16, 2020 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      This essay of yours, Historian, made me think of Charles A. Beard, whose class/economic-based criticism of the Founders and the Constitution was, according to Beard’s critics, rather like the 1619 Project: ridden with ideology and therefore ‘not objective.’ Richard Hofstadter (got this from Wikipedia) called Beard a great historian but wrong. And, of course, Hofstadter’s generation of historians became ‘right’ for a time and then passed on themselves.

      My own predilection in historiography, by the way, is is class-based (though not Marxist), and, ironically, this sort of history is in the U.S. eclipsed by both race and gender.

  10. Jon Gallant
    Posted May 14, 2020 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    In 2005, Laurel Leff published “Buried by the Times”, documenting the NYT practice, in 1939-45, of reporting on WWII in a way that tended to minimize the holocaust. For example: “More shocking even than the chronic burying of articles with the word ‘Jew’ in them is how often that word was rubbed out of articles that specifically dealt with the Jewish condition. It’s almost surreal at times. How could you possibly tell the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising without mentioning Jews? But The Times did, describing how ‘500,000 persons … were herded into less than 7 percent of Warsaw’s buildings,’ and how ‘400,000 persons were deported’ to their deaths at Treblinka.”

    So, in a sense, the latest post-censorship at the NYT is not, uhhh, news. For a long time, the paper has gone to some lengths to avoid ruffling goyish feathers.

    • JezGrove
      Posted May 14, 2020 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Jon that was new to me. Here’s the Wikipedia article for anyone interested: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/buried_by_the_times. I’ve only scanned it quickly, but the links might well be useful for anyone interested.

      • nay
        Posted May 15, 2020 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        Given that Americans were also anti-Semitic (Ship of Fools), perhaps the editors were attempting to increase readers’ identification with the victims by describing them as “people”, rather than Jews/Others/possibly not-quite-human beings. Their identification as Jews could wait for after the war, when historians could clarify the genocide.

        • Filippo
          Posted May 15, 2020 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

          ” . . . perhaps the editors were attempting to increase readers’ identification with the victims by describing them as “people”, rather than Jews/Others/possibly not-quite-human beings.”

          Perhaps. I think that’s being charitable to the NY Times of that time. (I’m reminded of the S.S. St. Louis, bearing Jewish refugees, being turned away from the U.S. in 1939. I can’t say I know the Times’s editorial response then.)

          I happened on this,

          http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2018/04/a-woke-civil-war-is-simmering-at-the-new-york-times

          which seems relevant to the topic at hand (and perhaps was discussed here previously, for all that I can remember). A quote:

          ‘One of the younger, newer Times employees I spoke with boiled down the conflict as follows, with the obvious caveat that there are, of course, “woke” people in the old guard and traditionalists in the younger set. “The olds,” my source said, “feel like the youngs are insufficiently respectful of long-standing journalistic norms, or don’t get that things are the way they are for a reason. The youngs feel like the olds are insufficiently willing to acknowledge the ways in which the world and media landscape have changed, and that our standards and mores should evolve to reflect that.” (Several Times sources emphasized that this dynamic has been around for decades. As Gay Talese once wrote of the 1950s-era Times: “There were philosophical differences dividing older Timesmen who feared that the paper was losing touch with its tradition and younger men who felt trapped by tradition.”)’

          Is caving to social media outrage a reflection of ” . . . the ways in which the world and media landscape have changed . . .” and the Times’s evolving “standards and mores”?

  11. Deodand
    Posted May 14, 2020 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    The Woke tend to believe in inherent racial characteristics, Racism is inherent to the White Race, Greed/Racism is inherent to the Jewish ‘Race’.

    That this is no more valid than claims that Violence is inherent to the Black Race seems to escape them.

  12. eric
    Posted May 14, 2020 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    They expurgated the article’s original subtitle (which explicitly stated “It’s not about having higher IQs”)…

    Oh good lord.
    Are NYT readers now so emotionally unsteady that the mere mention of “IQ” prevents them from understanding a sentence?

    I guess the alt-left logic here runs something like this? “He made a ‘nurture not nature’ argument. Which implies a nature argument is a possibility. Someone might start thinking about that. So we can’t make the comparison.”

  13. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted May 14, 2020 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    I would like to have known the actual statements by Henry Harpending and the context they were made in.
    I most certainly do not take anything the SPLC says at face value as the Wikipedia article on him references.

  14. Posted May 15, 2020 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    By modern standards, Charles Darwin was racist. Maybe we should redact any references anybody has ever made to his papers or books.

    This is a classic ad hominem. The veracity or otherwise of the original paper should be determined by examining the paper and its methods, not by looking at things the authors said later.


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