The outrage flooded social media in a swift, decisive avalanche Friday afternoon. Moments after The New York Times published an opinion piece by its newest conservative columnist, Bret Stephens, response from the paper’s liberal-majority audience bordered on hysteria.
The quick backstory if you missed it: The Other Times (as our former publisher Troy Gustavson referred to it in his columns) hired Mr. Stephens, the former Wall Street Journal editorial page editor and 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winner, last month in what appeared to be an effort to appease its conservative audience. Mr. Stephens was a regular panelist on the “Journal Editorial Report” that aired on Fox News. He had been an outspoken critic of President Obama’s foreign policy. But he was also someone who had been in the anti-Trump field during the 2016 election and, at least in that regard, on the side of liberals.
The Times faced criticism for hiring Mr. Stephens before he even wrote a word, based largely on the belief that the columnist is a “climate science denier.”
Mr. Stephens wasted no time diving into that topic in his debut column, “Climate of Complete Certainty,” which ran online Friday and in print Saturday. In the column, he wrote: “Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong.” His argument, if I’m understanding it correctly, is that by using the worst-case scenarios in every case, climate change advocates run the risk of crying wolf to portions of the population who don’t yet seem concerned about our planet’s rapid demise. A reasonable reader might also read it and take away his point as being: climate change is tricky and unpredictable, so let’s just not worry about it for a while.
On Twitter, responses to the first tweet linking to the story were predictable in their outrage:
“Do we REALLY know Santa Claus isn’t real? Can I have a job now?” —@CheapyD
“Shame on you for giving this lazy dishonesty a veneer of legitimacy. This undercuts the hard work of actual journalists with @nytclimate.” —@bmcushing
“The only certainty is uncertainty. For instance, I have a NYT subscription currently. Will I tomorrow? Who can know.” —@wmcauliffe
The merits of the column can be debated. The opening, a comparison to Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign, drew particular ire from readers. The campaign, he wrote, felt with near 100 percent certainty that it would win the election. Until it didn’t.
Does that translate exactly into skepticism about the dangers of climate change? Seems shaky.
The backlash quickly took a turn one might expect from right-wing readers who disagree with a newspaper: canceling subscriptions. Almost immediately, readers on Twitter began posting that they were, or already had, canceled their subscription to the paper.
As a journalist, the more I thought about it over the weekend, the more my blood boiled, to the point that I began to forget about the original reason for outrage. Canceling a newspaper subscription over one article — let alone an article in the opinion section — strikes me as an overly harsh response. It’s like a husband or wife jumping right to divorce as the only solution following an argument. Forget about a mediator.
It’s the exact kind of thing liberals would mock right-wingers for when they canceled newspaper subscriptions based on endorsements for Clinton instead of Trump. Even at our paper, it wasn’t uncommon for people to boast on social media about canceling their subscriptions because we endorsed Clinton. Most of those people never actually paid for our paper anyway and read our content for free online. Our circulation department reported two lost subscriptions in the election aftermath.
I highly doubt all the people who claimed this week to have canceled their subscriptions will no longer consume New York Times content. They will. If we all stopped reading every publication at the moment we found something to disagree with, we’ll be left with only our own thoughts swirling in our head.
In this day of shrinking newsrooms, it’s more important than ever to support journalism, whether it be a little community paper like ours or a prominent global enterprise like The Other Times. Few, if any, newsrooms have the resources to report on as many critical topics as the Times, including climate change.
Canceling a subscription does nothing to help those efforts. If anything, it only comes across as petty.
The author is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].