With Bret Stephens Hire, New York Times Fills Long-Empty Pro-Israel Void on Columnist Roster
The New York Times is moving to bolster its faltering credibility among pro-Israel readers by hiring an outspoken Zionist and former editor of the Jerusalem Post, Bret Stephens, as an op-ed columnist.
Stephens — who had been with the Wall Street Journal since 1998, serving as a foreign affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor — will fill a gap that had been left empty on the Times op-ed page since the retirement of William Safire in 2005. (For a period, from 1987 to 1999, the Times had two outspokenly pro-Israel op-ed columnists, in Safire and A.M. Rosenthal.)
“He will bring a new perspective to bear on the news,” the Times editorial page editor, James Bennet, said in announcing the hire, promising, “you can expect other additions to our lineup in coming months as we continue to broaden the range of Times debate about consequential questions.”
Since the deaths of both Safire and Rosenthal, the Times has left Israel-related op-ed columnizing to Roger Cohen, who is outspoken about his Jewish background but also sharply critical of Israel’s policies. Cohen’s articles also do not appear regularly in print in the United States. Nicholas Kristof, a non-Jewish Times columnist, also sometimes writes critically about Israel, while David Brooks will occasionally write on Jewish topics, but has not frequently touched on the Jewish state. Longtime Times columnist Thomas Friedman can be centrist or unpredictable, and is another voice who sometimes tackles the Middle East, where he previously served as a Times reporter.
Stephens, who made his journalistic debut in an article for Commentary, then a publication of the American Jewish Committee, has been a popular guest speaker on the after-dinner and conference circuit of American Jewish organizations, including the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
His voice will be a welcome addition and corrective to the Times tilt against Israel, though careful readers and observers of Stephens know that he can be as harsh as anyone in publicly criticizing Israel’s government if he disagrees with its policy decisions. Even so, anyone who thinks the Times hiring of him was motivated primarily by a desire to respond to the paper’s pro-Israel critics might want to think again.
For one, the Times made the announcement on the second day of Passover, a time when many observant Jews weren’t at their computers or cellphones to learn the news.
Second, Stephens has in recent months been famous less for his foreign-policy commentary and more for his role as one of the most severe and acidic critics of Donald Trump. In that dimension, rather than providing “a new perspective” for Times readers that will “broaden the range of Times debate,” Mr. Stephens will provide more of the same, reinforcing the conventional wisdom on a page that is already a bastion of anti-Trump resistance. As David Brooks summed it up in a recent Times column that was in keeping with the tone of some recent Stephens commentary: “With most administrations you can agree sometimes and disagree other times. But this one is a danger to the party and the nation in its existential nature. And so sooner or later all will have to choose what side they are on, and live forever after with the choice.”
Stephens’ wife, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, is a New York Times music critic.
Finally, one point that has gone mostly unobserved is that Stephens is not only a former resident of Israel, but grew up in Mexico and is knowledgeable about that country. Given that Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim’s financial ownership stake in the New York Times is now significantly larger than that of the Ochs-Sulzberger family, perhaps more consequential than the Times adding a Zionist columnist is that it has, at long-last, added a Mexican-American one.
More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.