NY Times reporter asks editor if its columnists are misrepresenting facts

"Equivocal bulls**t": Editor who hired climate denier offers weak defense to staff.

Exterior of New York Times building, May 2008. CREDIT: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images
Exterior of New York Times building, May 2008. CREDIT: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images

New York Times opinion page editor James Bennet has been widely criticized for a series of hires, including columnist Bret Stephens, a longtime climate science denier.

On Tuesday, Columbia Journalism Review wrote about “a crisis in confidence within the newsroom” as a result of Bennet’s miscues. The decision by Bennet and the Times to hire Stephens and then run his opinions apparently without fact checking has received widespread criticism, including from ThinkProgress.

But until now, there has never really been a full explanation of why Bennet kept hiring such controversial columnists. This changed on Tuesday, when HuffPost published the leaked transcript of a meeting Bennet had with Times employees back in December, which was recorded and shared with HuffPost.

As a person who attended the meeting, and is quoted by HuffPost, said, Bennet’s answers are “equivocal bullshit.” I agree. Bennet gives no defensible explanation of why opinion columnists should not be held to the same standards of accuracy as reporters. And he simply has no answer to the question of how he knows columnists “aren’t misrepresenting facts.”

Bennet instead explains that he likes to read Stephens and that Stephens (and other hires) have “values” like “intellectual honesty,” which enable them to self-police their pieces from misrepresentation, straw men, and ad hominems. And that is, unequivocally, B.S.

Bennet’s words are worth examining in detail, not only because of the remarkable influence he has on the national public debate in his current position, but also because he is considered to be a possible candidate for executive editor position for the entire paper.

Bennet explains that some of his choices have been a “sort of proof of concept to me of how much more exciting it’s going to be when we represent a wider range.” He goes on to say of Stephens:

I feel the same way about Bret’s work for us. I know that there was a lot of — and I experienced it — a lot of criticism and concern about him. And you guys may disagree or there may be people who do, but I just think he’s an exceptional writer and thinker. I don’t agree with him a lot of the time. But I like to read him, so… And particularly with opinion journalism, these are people who are paid to have very, very strong convictions, and to believe that they’re right.

It’s clear from the questions that follow (some of which came from the paper’s Slack system for staff chats) that plenty of people did disagree with Bennet and Stephens.

One employee got to the heart of the matter with this question, “How do you make sure that people aren’t misrepresenting facts?”

When you have differing opinions, how do you first of all vet and make sure that facts are right? But maybe even going a step further, how do you make sure that people aren’t misrepresenting facts? Maybe if you could even tie that into how you even think about the voices you invite in, to kind of judge whether they’re really going to take a fair take on [inaudible].

This is the crux of the issue. Should the Times print the stuff from conservative columnists just because they have very strong convictions and believe they’re right? Or does the Times have some responsibility to check the facts and whether they are being represented correctly?

The problem is that the very first column the Times published by Stephens was riddled with errors, misrepresentations, and logical fallacies.

In response to the employee’s question, Bennet offers a tortuous answer:

You know we do, I mean at a very basic level, we fact-check our work. So, there is a kind of layer there of having a — but the harder question is representation of fact. And that’s where we’re really, you know, are instilling rules of the road and kind of values for how we approach argumentation and hiring for people. And you know, the first-order value is intellectual honesty.

Let’s unpack this. First he says that at “a very basic level, we fact-check our work.” Except that sometimes they don’t, particularly for opinion writers.

According to a video “viewed by HuffPost” of an “earlier meeting between Sulzberger [who was about to become the paper’s publisher] and the same group of Times staffers,” someone asked a similar question about how the editorial department handles Stephens when he makes claims about climate change.

Sulzberger said that columnists do need to “have everything buttoned up,” but that they aren’t heavily edited, and, he admitted, “we are not an organization that [has] fact-checkers.”

Then, in December, Politico reported that “The New York Times has added a new, never-before-heard-of position to its D.C. bureau: fact-checker.” But, again, this fact-checker works on the countless breaking news stories, not opinion pieces. The Times itself explained in a January story on this fact-checker that “Peter Baker, The Times’s chief White House correspondent, said that he had never before in his 30-year career come across a full-time newspaper fact-checker. (He added that copy editors do often catch mistakes.)”

The fact that opinion pieces have not been fact checked (beyond standard copy-editing) was clear from Stephens’ first piece. There was only one sentence in which he presented specific scientific claims — and he got them all wrong. As Tuesday’s HuffPost piece put it, in that notorious column in which Stephens “questioned established climate science in his sidelong way, he was forced to correct the only line containing any reference to actual science three days later.”

Bennet essentially admits the Times isn’t seriously fact checking its opinion pieces when he states in his answer to the employee that “the harder question is representation of fact.” Instead, the Times is relying on “instilling rules of the road” and “values” in its opinion writers. In short, the Times is using the honor system.

Now the difference between checking a “fact” and checking the “representation of fact” may seem like “equivocal bullshit” to some, but Bennet offers these two examples:

… the goal is, you’re supposed to take on the hard arguments on the other side, not the easy arguments. Not the straw men, but the actual substantive, kind of toughest arguments and acknowledge when the other side has a point. No ad hominem attacks. There’s a sort of series of things that we expect of our people and we’re hiring, to my mind — the two columnists who have been brought on board since I’ve been here have been Bret and Michelle so far, and both of them totally clear the bar, in my view….

In fact, Stephens does not “clear the bar” on either of these guidelines regarding “no straw men” or “no ad hominem attacks.”

Andy Revkin, the former Times climate reporter and blogger whom Stephens quoted twice in his first piece, slammed Stephens’ piece on Twitter for its use of “straw men” and other flaws.

Stephens has a history of using ad hominems. Barely a year before he was hired by the Times, Stephens wrote a column at the Wall Street Journal entitled Liberalism’s Imaginary Enemies,” previewing the Paris climate talks. Owned by Rupert Murdoch, The Wall Street Journal has been known to publish climate science denial. Stephens worked there as the deputy editorial page editor.

In that column, Stephens called concern over climate change “hysteria” and compared global warming to hunger in America, institutionalized racism, and campus rape statistics  —  all things he said were “imaginary enemies.”

He wrote a similar piece just this month for the Times, titled “Apocalypse Not,” in which he decries “environmental alarmists.” Indeed, on August 31, he wrote a Times column on Hurricane Harvey that was full of nonsense on climate change and ad hominems.

As but one of the more egregious examples of ad hominems, Stephens wrote in that August piece about “the climate lobby’s hyperactive smear machine.” His source was none other than an opinion piece at his former paper, The Wall Street Journal.

So Bennet’s claim that there is any serious fact checking going on of Stephens or fellow columnists is bunk. As is his claim that Stephens passes the test for serious argument that doesn’t include strawmen or ad hominems.

No wonder there’s a “a crisis in confidence within the newsroom.”