Fallout at the New York times over Bret Stephens’s criticism of the 1619 Project

The other day Bret Stephens wrote an op-ed at the New York Times in which he bucked one of the paper’s proudest achievements: the 1619 Project, designed to be at once journalism, history, and a curriculum for secondary schools.  Stephens was unsparing in his criticism, saying that the Project has “failed” and has given critics of the newspaper a “gift”. I applauded him for his bravery, and predicted his demise at the paper.

Thinking about it, though, I realize that the paper would be extremely foolish to let Stephens go, for that would cause a huge public outcry. He’s an established conservative columnist, and if he got released for doing what he should have done—criticizing a project that, although run by his employer, had become a public issue—the paper would be accused even more than it is already for being biased and one-sided. I expect Stephen will stay.

Now I don’t agree with most things that Stephens writes, but I did agree with this. I also don’t agree with most things that Glenn Greenwald writes, either, but his criticisms of the paper, just published in The Intercept (click on first screenshot below), are on the mark. But they’re largely outmoded now, as they’re based on a tweet issued by the New York Times’s own union of employees, the New York Times Guild. And that tweet has now been retracted.  Yet I’ll maintain that his criticisms still have force, even if they were directed against a moving target.

The union issued this tweet on Saturday that was critical of the paper for publishing Stephens’s op-ed, seen as “going after one of it’s [sic] own.” (Note the two misuses of “it’s”, bizarre for a newspaper guild!). Greenwald wrote his piece after he saw this tweet, and oy, was he steamed!

While Greenwald isn’t a fan of the paper or of Stephens (he also has mixed feelings about the 1619 Project), he eloquently defended journalism itself, saying that it’s the duty of newspapers to publish dissenting opinion, and when the story is the paper itself, well, that’s just too bad.  A couple of quotes:

To start with, this is a case of journalists using their union not to demand greater editorial freedom or journalistic independence — something one would reasonably expect from a journalists’ union — but demanding its opposite: that writers at the New York Times be prohibited by management from expressing their views and perspectives about the controversies surrounding the 1619 Project. In other words: they are demanding that their own journalistic colleagues be silenced and censored. What kind of journalists plead with management for greater restrictions on journalistic expression rather than fewer?

Apparently, the answer is New York Times journalists. Indeed, this is not the first time they have publicly implored corporate management to restrict the freedom of expression and editorial freedom of their journalistic colleagues. At the end of July, the Guild issued a series of demands, one of which was that “sensitivity reads should happen at the beginning of the publication process, with compensation for those who do them.”

Here’s the demand for sensitivity readers, now a staple in children’s literature but hardly appropriate for a major newspaper, which, argues Greenwald, should publish stuff that’s occasionally objectionable to everyone, “including culturally hegemonic liberals.” (There are more demands at the link below.)

Here’s one more eloquent statement by Greenwald about why the ungrammatical tweet above was ridiculous:

I’ve long been a harsh critic of Stephens’ (and Weiss’) journalism and opinion writing. But it would never occur to me to take steps to try to silence them. If they were my colleagues and published an article I disliked or expressed views I found pernicious, I certainly would not whine to management that they broke the “rules” and insist that they should not have been allowed to have expressed what they believe.

That’s because I’m a journalist, and I know that journalism can have value only if it fosters divergent views and seeks to expand rather than reduce the freedom of discourse and expression permitted by society and by employers. And whatever one wants to say about Stephens’ career and record of writing — and I’ve had a lot of negative things to say about it — harshly critiquing your own employer’s Pulitzer-winning series, one beloved by powerful media, political and cultural figures, is the type of “challenge to power” that many journalists who do nothing but spout pleasing, popular pieties love to preen as embodying.

There has never been a media outlet where I have worked or where I have been published that did not frequently also publish opinions with which I disagree and articles I dislike, including the one in which I am currently writing. . . .

Well, late yesterday evening, someone thought better of the first tweet, saying it was an “error”. This came out, and Greenwald highlights it an an update to his piece:

Apparently the “mistake” was that someone in the Guild, who also runs its Twitter account, issued the tweet without “internal discussion.” This caused a fracas in the Guild, which issued the apology.

I’d say that this deletion and apology was a good move if I didn’t think it was done only for the “optics,” with the Guild realizing how bad that tweet looked. Although I don’t know for sure, based on the demands the Guild has made previously, and the fact that the NYT and the internal communications of the paper led to a climate so toxic that it forced Bari Weiss to resign, I suspect that many members of the Guild—save for “old school” journalists like Greenwald—agree with the first tweet. And I suspect Stephens has few friends at the paper now.

I really would like to be charitable here, as we shouldn’t assume the worst of those we dislike, but I’m having trouble with that, at least with respect to the Guild. We know from internal communications that those who don’t adhere to the paper’s woke ideology get slammed.

I also have trouble thinking that Jake Silverstein, the editor of the NYT Magazine (which first published the 1619 Project), is completely sincere when he says in the two tweets below that “he welcomes debate” and “stands entirely behind the 1619 Project.” He in fact has rejected criticism and ignored fact checking, and the paper has quietly shelved important claims about the Project without admitting that they did so. It was up to others to note this form of journalistic duplicity. No, the 1619 Project reminds me of a scientist who holds so tenaciously to his theory that he’ll never admit it has flaws, and when some are found he secretly modifies his theory and asserts that it never changed. (In fact, Steve Gould behaved that way with respect to his and Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibrium.)

I’m more charitable about the following letter from the publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, shared by Silverstein. I’ve reprinted Sulzberger’s statement at the bottom. The only thing I’ll beef about here is Sulzberger’s claim that their openness to hear criticism is the clearest sign of confidence in their work. In fact, they are open to publishing criticism by one of their highest-profile columnists, but they’re not open to really listening to criticism, as they’ve swatted away the critics as they’ve weighed in (see here) or even secretly altered the Project in light of criticism—without admitting it. And believe me, it’s not a trivial thing to assert, as the 1619 Project did, that the Revolutionary War was really fought by the colonists as a way to preserve slavery. Arguing about the “founding date” of America is one thing, but distorting the history of the American Revolution is another.

 

h/t: cesar

24 Comments

  1. JB
    Posted October 12, 2020 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    I used to revere the Times as the “paper of record” holding objectivity as a high standard. Sad to see it become a mouthpiece of the far left now.

    Although I’m encouraged to see it publish Stephens’ article, I doubt we’ll see much more criticism like this in its pages.

    • Historian
      Posted October 12, 2020 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      “Although I’m encouraged to see it publish Stephens’ article, I doubt we’ll see much more criticism like this in its pages.”

      This is not the case. In a matter unrelated to the 1619 Project, the paper’s media critic, Ben Smith, has posted an article that excoriates its editors for seemingly willingly refusing to vet the work of one its journalists, Rukmini Callimachi, in regard to her reporting of Mideast terrorism. The article’s headline is “An Arrest in Canada Casts a Shadow on a New York Times Star, and The Times.” Smith concludes his piece by saying “but while some of the coverage has portrayed her as a kind of rogue actor at The Times, my reporting suggests that she was delivering what the senior-most leaders of the news organization asked for, with their support.”

      I do not know if Smith will suffer any repercussions for this article, but unless this article was posted without the paper’s editors knowing its contents, it does say something positive about the Times that it would allow an article be published on its own site by an employee that so damns the editors for its supposed mishandling of an important news story.

    • Posted October 12, 2020 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      “mouthpiece of the far left” is such an absurd statement, you cannot seriously believe it.

      • Richard Sanderson🤴
        Posted October 12, 2020 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

        Regressive (woke) left, rather than far left.

        Given recent events, I don’t think the above is an absurd statement, however.

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted October 12, 2020 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    He who writes controversy will receive controversy. That is a good thing and we hope it continues.

  3. Posted October 12, 2020 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Those are pretty mealy-mouthed statements by Sulzberger. It does not bode well for my hopes that the NYT will return to its once high standards.

  4. Matt Young
    Posted October 12, 2020 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Please excuse me for being catty, but if you were going to be catty, you should not have put a period here “(Note the two misuses of ‘it’s’, bizarre for a newspaper guild!).” after the parenthesis.

    • Posted October 12, 2020 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      Oh for chrissake. Have you ever heard of typos? Two identical mistakes in one short tweet is not a typo.

      • Matt Young
        Posted October 12, 2020 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        I do not mean to be rude, but it was, after all, you, not I who drew attention to punctuation.

        • jezgrove
          Posted October 12, 2020 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

          For some reason I don’t understand, my Kindle insists on inserting spaces before periods / full stops and also on adding full stops after some question marks – annoying and not always easy to spot before it’s too late. And don’t get me started on what it does when I backspace to correct a misspelling…!

  5. Matt Young
    Posted October 12, 2020 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Please excuse me for being catty, but if you were going to be catty, you should not have put the period after the parenthesis here ‘(Note the two misuses of “it’s”, bizarre for a newspaper guild!).’

    • Matt Young
      Posted October 12, 2020 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Sorry, WordPress got confused as to my identity.

  6. Linda Calhoun
    Posted October 12, 2020 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    “…it’s not a trivial thing to assert, as the 1619 Project did, that the Revolutionary War was really fought by the colonists as a way to preserve slavery.”

    Most things have multiple motives, many times as many motives as there are participants. It is altogether possible that some people saw American independence as a way to preserve slavery, but that does not preclude many other motives which may have been present.

    The urge to simplify and reduce hugely complex events may be understandable, but it hardly helps the actual understanding of those events.

    L

    • Historian
      Posted October 12, 2020 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Your comment is well put and important. Not only may different people have different motives in engaging in historical events, but sometimes the motives of people may change based on changing circumstances. It is often a challenge for historians to determine why people did things at particular times. Limited available evidence is one reason for this. As a result, different historians, acting in good faith, may come to very different interpretations as to why events unfolded as they did. And this is why that people (and there seem to be many of them) are very much mistaken if they think that there can be a “true” or “objective” history. “False” history, i.e, assertions about the past that are based on flimsy or no evidence or the clear distortion of it can be easily ferreted out, but what is “true” is quite a different story.

      • Posted October 13, 2020 at 4:51 am | Permalink

        When cognitive science pioneer Eleanor Rosch asked people 1973 to categorize things, they gave occasionally changing answers. The telephone, then encased in wood, was occasionally classified as furniture and sometimes not, and that could also change on when asked again later, suggesting that even categories are not totally stable.

        It looks like people‘s motives and their beliefs are far less stable and consistent than commonly assumed. They are apparently not an entry in a data base, but are conjured up on the fly, and the inputs seem to vary.

  7. Posted October 12, 2020 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    A conundrum: If publishing an editorial by an Arkansas senator made Manhattan staff “unsafe” and warranted a purge, how can the NYT claim that the Stephens editorial does NOT make the staff “unsafe”? If they don’t fire Stephens, is that not an open admission that “safety” claims per Tom Cotton were ludicrous?

    • rickflick
      Posted October 12, 2020 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Good point. We should not be surprised every time such contradictions occur.

  8. Posted October 12, 2020 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I still read the New York Times, but I can no longer defend it.

    GCM

    (h/t: Andrew Sullivan)

  9. Posted October 12, 2020 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    I suspect the NYT is now solidly behind the 1619 Project because of the attention it’s getting. I wonder how many people have signed up for the paper because of it. If its image is a little sullied by the controversy, that’s a small price to pay. The longer the debate goes on, the more they rake in.

  10. Posted October 12, 2020 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I must admit that my only knowledge of the NYT’s 1619 project has been through the posts on WEIT. I am not a subscriber to the NYT and read their articles selectively usually after they are referred to by someone else. I have chosen not to even delve into any of the issues raised by the 1619 project because I am ignorant of any comprehensive and unbiased fact-checking of the issues raised. If someone has come across such I would be interested.

  11. Doug
    Posted October 12, 2020 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    “In fact, Steve Gould behaved that way.” I have never heard this. Can you direct me toward some info on this?

  12. KD33
    Posted October 12, 2020 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Waiting for Silverstein et al to actually discuss Stephen’s arguments. Not holding my breath, though.

  13. Roo
    Posted October 12, 2020 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    In trying to understand why people might refuse to engage criticism I think there is, as with most things, a shadow side and a light side.

    The shadow side is that what one really values is not the truth, even if the truth is what we need in order to understand reality and help other effectively. If some other value takes priority over truth – looking good in the public eye; saving face; consolidating power; keeping the peace, etc., etc. – then that is what one really values, not the actual correctness and therefore helpfulness of what they are putting out there into the world. If that is the case, a scientist who writes an article in that spirit might as well just write “Why I want to look good and have power – a longitudinal study,” because that is the actual truth of what they are saying.

    The more charitable interpretation and ‘light side’, I think, is the idea that group norms themselves represent a sort of bulwark against dishonesty, lies, cons, and just seemingly compelling but ultimately bad information. A complete picture on any given topic takes such a long time to build, and true knowledge has to be tested so extensively, that sticking with ‘the truth of the group’ is a way to avoid being seduced by bad actors or bad information, which certainly can happen. You can have a conman who writes a criticism that is ultimately very wrong and yet has mass appeal, you can have an argument that leads people in the totally wrong direction even though for a time it appears to be rock solid. Tuning out conflicting arguments and sticking with the ‘common sense’ of one’s group norms can protect against this, I think.

    In other words, I think people can have legitimate and truth-oriented reasons for clinging to ‘conventional knowledge’, even if it’s new conventional knowledge. (Although of course that only covers not engaging with criticism, not changing facts about the project behind the scenes. That’s never ok, no matter what the topic is, it’s just bad practice in general.) Which is the case here, I don’t know, and it’s probably impossible to tell. I think it’s human nature to label our critics bad faith interlocutors, clever shysters who will trick vulnerable people and so shouldn’t be given a platform for trickery, etc.; while when viewing people avoiding criticism from the outside, we tend to think they are clearly virtue signaling, power hungry, etc.

  14. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted October 13, 2020 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Greenwald is not immune himself to being called out for failing to act as a journalist. He still, afaik, stands by his slander of Sam Harris when he clearly with malicious intent quote mined a passage from “The End of Faith” to paint Sam as an anti-Muslim bigot. Still, when Greenwald or anyone defends journalistic integrity, it should be acknowledged.


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