The publisher of the New York Times, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., does not seem to grasp exactly why so many readers canceled their subscriptions after the paper hired Bret Stephens. Stephens, a columnist with a record of denying and misrepresenting the science behind climate change, then proceeded to publish two separate columns, and an online post, repeating those views.
In a personal note to readers who specifically mentioned Stephens as a reason behind their decision to cancel their subscription, Sulzberger defended the decision and Stephens. “We feel very fortunate to have a principled, independent-minded conservative writer like Bret Stephens join our team,” he wrote.
Sulzberger offers no response to the many scientists, columnists, and readers who were critical of the error-riddled and misleading columns the Times published. At the same time, his tone-deaf letter insists that “some points of view are not welcome” in the Times, including those “denying basic truths about our world.”
It’s not clear how it is either principled or independent-minded of Stephens to repeat long-debunked right-wing myths, to compare climate scientists to Stalinists and anti-Semites, and, as recently as November 2015, to call concern over climate change “hysteria,” and to label global warming and campus rape statistics “imaginary enemies.”
But let’s set aside how extreme Stephens was before the Times hired him. Let’s even set aside how extremely inappropriate the hire was given how the Times has been running a major ad campaign positioning the paper as the antidote to alternative facts in the Trump era.
Most of the scientists and others I know who canceled their subscriptions did so after the Times published Stephens’ nonsense on their own pages, even after promising to fact check him.
That first piece created an uproar. In it Stephens asserts he accepts climate science, but then makes numerous inaccurate and misleading statements that make clear he doesn’t. But even if he’s no longer technically a climate change “denier,” then, as Vox puts it, he is still a “climate change bullshitter.”
In response, dozens of the world’s leading climate experts signed an open letter to the Times slamming the article’s many “inaccurate and misleading statements about the science of climate change” calling them “alternative facts” and “disinformation.”
Sulzberger’s letter, which went out Friday, May 12, begins, “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. I wanted to provide a bit more context.”
Yet, as noted, the reason went far beyond merely the Times’ hiring of Stephens to include their decision to publish his columns without so much as a fact-check, despite promises to apply the “same standards for fairness and accuracy” to opinion pieces that the paper did to news stories.
As Susan Joy Hassol, a leading climate change communicator and expert, wrote back to Sulzberger (in a note she shared with ThinkProgress): “You clearly missed my point.”
The problem with Bret Stephens is not that he is conservative, but that he is uninformed about the subjects he wrote about in his first NY Times columns, and is misleading your readers. I am surprised that you are not distinguishing between facts and opinions.
Hassol points to the “numerous errors and misleading statements” refuted by top scientists in an open letter and to the “uninformed and misleading” second column, debunked here.
As an aside, Stephens also did an online Q&A with readers that is full of alternative facts and disinformation.
Sulzberger touts the fact that the Times’ op-ed page “also recently included Bill McKibben, a founder of the climate advocacy platform 350.org, warning that, ‘President Trump’s environmental onslaught will have immediate, dangerous effects’.” But they didn’t make McKibben a columnist.
Hassol implored Sulzberger in her response: “I hope you will read the refutations of his columns linked to above and please try again to understand the real reason I cancelled my subscription.”
She, and many others, would love to resubscribe, if and when the Times publishes extensive corrections to Stephens’ pieces and makes a real “commitment to carefully fact check any future columns.”