New York Times Editors Falsely Blame Bret Stephens for ‘Mistake’ in Column on Jewish Genius
The New York Times has published an “Editors’ Note,” inaccurately accusing the newspaper’s own star columnist, Bret Stephens, of committing a “mistake” by “uncritically” citing a study that Stephens actually did criticize.
The 170-word note from the unidentified plural “editors” reads in full:
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.
The Times editors write that the Stephens column had the effect of leaving “many readers” with the “impression” that he was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. Yet the real “mistake” here was not by Stephens but by those readers.
Plenty of these outraged readers almost certainly never read the whole column, which is behind the Times paywall, but they did read tweets about it or misleading summaries published in other places. Those who did read the full column must have missed or failed to understand the sentences in which Stephens wrote, “the ‘Jews are smart’ explanation obscures more than it illuminates. Aside from the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher I.Q.s, there is the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose.”
To say that something obscures more than it illuminates is a criticism. So it is not accurate to say that Stephens was uncritical of the study. Maybe the Stephens critics are themselves so low-I.Q., as a result of either genetics or environment, that they don’t understand the words “obscure” or “illuminate.” Or maybe their attention spans are so short that they couldn’t sustain the concentration needed to get from the paragraph where Stephens linked to an MIT version of the intelligence study to the sentence just a bit father down in the column where he said that approach obscures more than it illuminates.
Stephens himself has written eloquently and frequently about the threat to freedom of speech posed by what he has called “the siege of the perpetually enraged part of our audience.” Stephens has observed, accurately, that “journalism can only be as good as its audience. Intelligent coverage requires intelligent readers, viewers and listeners” and also that “[w]e cannot expect columnists to be provocative if readers cancel their subscriptions the moment they feel ‘triggered’ by an opinion they dislike.”
The “editors’ note” and the rewriting of the Stephens column post-publication are examples of the Times spinelessly surrendering to the perpetually-enraged faction of its readers. They also are a demonstration that, alas, the Times readership isn’t intelligent enough for Stephens’ column.
Moreover, even if Stephens had made a mistake, which he didn’t, the job of a good editor in these situations where a columnist writes a bad column is not to undercut the columnist or hang the columnist out to dry by publishing a sanitized version of the column, but to defend the columnist. Let me repeat that, because it apparently isn’t clear to the editors at the Times: the job of the editor is to defend the columnist. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare — a genuine factual error that needs correction, a truly egregious ethical lapse. Stephens’ column doesn’t approach that.
Every columnist who writes a weekly column lands a dud once in a while (trust me, I know from experience). The good columns aren’t the ones that editors need to stand up for. It’s the bad ones where editors of true character defend the columnist, at least in public. That’s not defensive, circle-the-wagons behavior, it’s just good newspaper editing of the sort practiced by the late, great Robert L. Bartley of The Wall Street Journal, under whom Stephens learned some of his journalistic craft.
Bartley wasn’t a Jewish genius of the sort the Stephens column discussed but he was a gentile genius. It’s that sort of editing that makes columnists want to work for those sorts of editors, and that encourages the risk-taking that is an essential ingredient to good column writing. If an editor wants to edit or kill a crummy column, the time to do it is before the column is published, not afterward.
The “editors’ note” is also a double standard. The Times has published far more egregious columns than Stephens’ latest without appending editors’ notes or publishing bowdlerized revisions of those other ones. A Times opinion columnist named Michelle Alexander, for example, published a column cheering as an example of “moral clarity” the United Methodist Church pension fund’s boycott of the five largest Israeli banks. That’s not a columnist being misunderstood for quoting and then disagreeing with a paper by someone who wants to boycott Israeli banks; that’s an actual Times columnist herself endorsing a boycott of Israeli banks. No Times “editors’ note” or revised and redacted version of that column.
And the Times has published eight op-ed pieces by Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of the terror-sponsoring, Holocaust-denying, political-prisoner executing, Jew-killing, woman-oppressing government of Iran. No “editors’ note” has yet described Zarif as promoting views that go beyond the limits of what is acceptable on the Times op-ed page.
When the Times hire of Stephens was announced back in 2017, I wrote that he would fill the slot left open by A.M. Rosenthal and William Safire and that “his voice will be a welcome addition and corrective to the Times tilt against Israel.” I may have overstated the degree of “welcome” by generalizing from my own views rather than by accurately assessing the Times audience. For a certain segment of the Times’ readership, and even apparently some Times editors, alas, one openly pro-Jewish, pro-Israel regular Times columnist is one too many.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.