“The longest walk in journalism may be the eight or nine blocks between the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times,” Bret Stephens, whom I met a few years ago, told me moments after posting his first opinion piece for the Times. After sixteen years at the Wall Street Journal, including eleven years as a columnist, Stephens is writing for a different audience. At this point in his career, given his commitment to engaging in discourse with people who don’t share his views, getting out of his comfort zone was important to him.
“There’s a problem with ideological, political, and intellectual silos in this country,” he told me. “As columnists, too often we’re preaching to our respective choirs and not to anyone else. I deeply believe that that has to change.”
His first column, Climate of Complete Certainty: How about a reasonable conversation on what to do about our warming planet? asks readers to consider operating with intellectual humility, especially when they are quite sure they are right. “I’m grateful that I’m married to a woman who doesn’t always share my point of view,” he told me. “It reminds me that very intelligent people looking at the same set of facts can come to honorably different conclusions, and there’s more gain in trying to listen & learn from each other than there is in just sulking in our respective corners.”
But not everyone shares his willingness to see other perspectives. When Stephens vocally opposed Donald Trump, the internet backlash was swift and severe. And even before writing his first article for the New York Times, an online petition to have him fired had already gathered more than twenty-five thousand signatures. Luckily, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist has a thick skin. “What has interested me, almost from a sociological perspective, is the ease with which one can start what amounts to a digital mob online,” he told me.
Over the course of his career, and 550 columns, Stephens wrote a small number of columns from which people have recently cherry-picked phrases, and posted what he calls “hilariously incorrect” assessments of his views. (Remember, his first article asks for a conversation about what to do about a warming planet.) The tweetstorm includes posts such as this:
Democracy dies in the darkness. So, too, the climate. Thanks, Times, for spreading fake opinion.
I'm gonna lose my mind. The ideas ppl like @BretStephensNYT espouse are violently hateful & should not be given a platform by @NYTimes.
“Opinion journalism is still journalism, not agitprop,” Stephens insists. “The elision of that distinction and the rise of malevolent propaganda outfits such as Breitbart News is one of the most baleful trends of modern life.” With a hint of sadness, Stephens recalls a French maxim, “les extremes se touchent” (the extremes touch). “People who consider themselves tolerant and open-minded on the political left,” he told me, “are, in their digital behavior, every bit as intolerant as the most caricatured version of a Trump supporter.” He finds this frightening, and potentially dangerous.
When William Safire arrived at the New York Times in 1973, he was met with something of a frosty reception, but had a long career there, nonetheless, and won the respect of people who were his ideological opposites. Stephens is grateful for the welcome he has been given at his new home. “Overwhelmingly, people at the Times have been extraordinarily gracious and lovely, and have embraced me in the most generous way. They really live up to the word, ‘liberal’ — not in the typical, partisan sense, but in the truer sense, as in ‘free and open-minded.’ And I think that’s why I was brought here. To offer something different. To sometimes make readers uncomfortable, or even angry, but at least to make them think. And if that’s what I’m able to do at the Times—not earn the agreement of my readers but at least cause them to reexamine their assumptions—then I’m succeeding. And if I can offer a proverbial stone on which they can sharpen their intellectual blade and strengthen their arguments, then so much the better.”
There may be a silver lining in the tweetstorm. Costa Samaras, a scientist at Carnegie Mellon, responded to the Times piece by tweeting this:
Sincere offer for @BretStephensNYT: there's an entire field of folks who study robust climate policy under @deepuncertainty. Come talk w/ us.
Stephens, who called the offer “gracious and civil,” accepted. ♦
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“Do you ever read any of the books you burn?”
He laughed. “That's against the law!”
“Oh. Of course.”
Views expressed in these columns are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of any organizations with which the author is affiliated.