New York Times and the Outrage Mob
The newspaper of record radically altered a column and then misrepresented it.
Pamela Paresky, Jonathan Haidt, Nadine Strossen, and Steven Pinker take to POLITICO to denounce the New York Times for cowardice and abandonment of journalistic principles.
On December 27, 2019, the Times published a column by their opinion journalist Bret Stephens, “The Secrets of Jewish Genius,” and the ensuing controversy led to an extraordinary response by the editors.
Stephens took up the question of why Ashkenazi Jews are statistically overrepresented in intellectual and creative fields. This disparity has been documented for many years, such as in the 1995 book Jews and the New American Scene by the eminent sociologists Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab. In his Times column, Stephens cited statistics from a more recent peer-reviewed academic paper, coauthored by an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences. Though the authors of that paper advanced a genetic hypothesis for the overrepresentation, arguing that Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group because of inherited traits, Stephens did not take up that argument. In fact, his essay quickly set it aside and argued that the real roots of Jewish achievement are culturally and historically engendered habits of mind.
Nonetheless, the column incited a furious and ad hominem response. Detractors discovered that one of the authors of the paper Stephens had cited went on to express racist views, and falsely claimed that Stephens himself had advanced ideas that were “genetic” (he did not), “racist” (he made no remarks about any race) and “eugenicist” (alluding to the discredited political movement to improve the human species by selective breeding, which was not remotely related to anything Stephens wrote).
It would have been appropriate for the New York Times to acknowledge the controversy, to publish one or more replies, and to allow Stephens and his critics to clarify the issues. Instead, the editors deleted parts of the column—not because anything in it had been shown to be factually incorrect but because it had become controversial.
Stephens is a bad columnist who has written a lot of bad columns. This wasn’t a particularly bad column, although it’s a tiresome one. “Why are Jews successful?” has been done to death and it’s not a particularly useful setup to a conclusion about the surge in anti-Semitism. And the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is thrown in almost as an aside, It’s a half-assed blog post, not a column worthy of the most prestigious real estate in American journalism.
Regardless, the Times has seen fit to give Stephens a regular column and its editors let this one through. Radically changing it after the fact is problematic, indeed.
And, worse, they did so dishonestly:
Worse, the explanation for the deletions in the Editors’ Note was not accurate about the edits the paper made after publication. The editors did not just remove “reference to the study.” They expurgated the article’s original subtitle (which explicitly stated “It’s not about having higher IQs”), two mentions of Jewish IQs, and a list of statistics about Jewish accomplishment: “During the 20th century, [Ashkenazi Jews] made up about 3 percent of the U.S. population but won 27 percent of the U.S. Nobel science prizes and 25 percent of the ACM Turing awards. They account for more than half of world chess champions.” These statistics about Jewish accomplishments were quoted directly from the study, but they originated in other studies. So, even if the Times editors wanted to disavow the paper Stephens referenced, the newspaper could have replaced the passage with quotes from the original sources.
I agree with Paretsky et. al. about why this is dangerous:
First, while we cannot know what drove the editors’ decision, the outward appearance is that they surrendered to an outrage mob, in the process giving an imprimatur of legitimacy to the false and ad hominem attacks against Stephens. The Editors’ Note explains that Stephens “was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views,” and that it was not his intent to “leave an impression with many readers that [he] was arguing that Jews are genetically superior.” The combination of the explanation and the post-publication revision implied that such an impression was reasonable. It was not.
Unless the Times reverses course, we can expect to see more such mobs, more retractions, and also preemptive rejections from editors fearful of having to make such retractions. Newspapers risk forfeiting decisions to air controversial or unorthodox ideas to outrage mobs, which are driven by the passions of their most ideological police rather than the health of the intellectual commons.
That actually understates the case. Essentially, the NYT has declared any topic even remotely tangential to race, ethnicity, and IQ taboo. It’s worse than a heckler’s veto; the very fear that there might be heckling pre-emptively ends the conversation.
Second, the Times redacted a published essay based on concerns about retroactive moral pollution, not about accuracy. While it is true that an author of the paper Stephens mentioned, the late anthropologist Henry Harpending, made some deplorable racist remarks, that does not mean that every point in every paper he ever coauthored must be deemed radioactive. Facts and arguments must be evaluated on their content. Will the Times and other newspapers now monitor the speech of scientists and scholars and censor articles that cite any of them who, years later, say something offensive? Will it crowdsource that job to Twitter and then redact its online editions whenever anyone quoted in the Times is later “canceled”?
While I agree, I’m somewhat less troubled by this. Yes, arguments ought to stand on their merits and peer-reviewed scholarship is peer-reviewed scholarship regardless of the moral character of the author. If a given figure is sufficiently toxic as to poison the well, it makes sense to cite other sources instead.
Third, for the Times to “disappear” passages of a published article into an inaccessible memory hole is an Orwellian act that, thanks to the newspaper’s actions, might now be seen as acceptable journalistic practice. It is all the worse when the editors’ published account of what they deleted is itself inaccurate. This does a disservice to readers, historians and journalists, who are left unable to determine for themselves what the controversy was about, and to Stephens, who is left unable to defend himself against readers’ worst suspicions.
The New York Times literally brands itself, and has for nearly a century, as America’s newspaper of record. Its stories and columns, once published, should stay published, with appropriate corrections appended.
Oddly, that’s been the ethic of the blogosphere, at least its political wing, since its earliest days. While I’ll correct typos even on years-old posts if I happen to stumble on them, I almost never materially alter the originally-intended meaning. There on many among the 25,943 posts I’ve written here over the past 17-odd years with which I no longer agree. They remain as an archive of the evolution of my thinking.
The exception I’ve allowed myself and would likely allow the Times is a near-real-time deletion of a material error or slander based on an initial misunderstanding, particularly one where its repetition or citation would tend to spread disinformation. But, even there, the issued correction ought to be clear as to what happened rather than elide the truth.
Back in the early days of blogging, when bloggers and the wider journalistic community were constantly obsessing over the nature of blogging, there was a running frustration with a number of outlets, with the Associated Press being the biggest offender, who would constantly update—often deleting previous sentences and paragraphs—stories at a given hyperlink. (Indeed, I think that’s why I started more generously excerpting stories rather than simply summarizing them and offering my own commentary.) But at least that was on developing straight news stories. It would have been unheard of to do that with an opinion piece.