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.

The backstory:

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.

FILED UNDER: Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Honestly…the NYT has been so bad, of late, that this episode is as minor as it is egregious.

    5
  2. Modulo Myself says:

    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.”

    Nah, it was just embarrassing to have a guy you pay 200K to be too dumb to realize he was citing a eugenicist in a point/counter-point sort of thing.

    This is the main problem with the IDW-types. It’s not that they are racist. They’re simply idiots. I remember when there was the minor outrage about Joe Rogan and Bernie. Yeah, Rogan would gladly entertain a bunch of racists talking about IQ and how taboo it is, but he also has on Graham Hancock, who challenges ‘orthodox’ history by talking about how aliens built the pyramids. You can blather on about orthodoxies and taboos but you’re still blowing smoke about IQ and aliens.

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  3. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Modulo Myself: I have watched part of exactly one Joe Rogan show. It was about Covid-19. Joe had an epidemiologist, a professor of Public Health, on, and they talked about it. Joe brought up some of the conspiracy theories, and let the professor knock them down, giving reasons, not shaming anybody.

    I thought it was, in fact, the best possible way to rebut many of these conspiracy theories, and it seems to address an audience that academics would have a very hard time addressing on their own.

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  4. Kit says:

    Essentially, the NYT has declared any topic even remotely tangential to race, ethnicity, and IQ taboo.

    I can imagine that upon arriving in Hell we are given the option of either discussing race, ethnicity and IQ, or of discussing abortion.

    4
  5. Modulo Myself says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    Conspiracy theories sound believable to smart laymen. Or some do. Architects and engineers for Truth can prove to the nth degree that WTC 7 had to have been knocked by explosives. These people have built more buildings than me. And yet they’re terribly wrong.

    I’m not sure what service anyone is doing by listening to them and rebutting their theories. Like, are there Truther-curious types who end up not believing that the towers had to have been blown up by thermite? Maybe. But nobody with Pinker’s status is out there talking about both sides of the 9/11 debate, and the Times is paying gormless right-wing hacks to idly cite Loose Change and then be defended for mentioning the taboo.

    They’re not doing that or talking about aliens building pyramids because none of these urgent topics have to do with race.

    2
  6. Teve says:

    I subscribe to the New York Times because journalism is important and I learned with regard to their science reporting many years ago that they are very good at reporting. Their opinion section is marred by multiple people, and that they let Dean Baquet be an editor is a travesty. But just like with produce sometimes you have to take a little bad with the good.

    3
  7. Teve says:

    @Jay L Gischer: Joe Rogan shows range from pretty good to Godawful. They’re very inhomogeneous. If he’s talking to Brian Cox, the show is probably going to be awesome, if he’s talking to Jordan Peterson you’d be best advised to watch anything else.

    4
  8. gVOR08 says:

    Remember the outrage around last October over Hillary saying the Russians were backing Tulsi Gabbard? Turned out the tape showed she’d actually said Republicans, not Russians. NYT quietly changed the news story with no notice that a correction had been made.

    NYT has always been pro elite. And pro corporate, after all, it are one. To that they’ve added their Clinton Rules, which spill over to all Democrats. And I can’t help but suspect the current Sulzberger is trying to cook the books against selling the family interest. The refusal to even acknowledge, much less apologize for, their major role in electing Trump would be consistent with a hidden agenda, say bonus plans based on subscriptions and clicks.

    7
  9. Northerner says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    I remember when there was the minor outrage about Joe Rogan and Bernie. Yeah, Rogan would gladly entertain a bunch of racists talking about IQ and how taboo it is, but he also has on Graham Hancock, who challenges ‘orthodox’ history by talking about how aliens built the pyramids. You can blather on about orthodoxies and taboos but you’re still blowing smoke about IQ and aliens.

    Rogan doesn’t seem to fit into any stereotype well. His show has completely insane guys like Alex Jones and Eddie Bravo (who admittedly knows grappling well), extreme right wingers like Milo Yiannopolus, moderate left wingers like Bernie Sanders (I don’t know if he’s ever had a communist on his show), and a host of very intelligent and respected scientists such as Sean Carroll, Briane Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Roger Penrose.

    Everyone can find someone they like and someone they hate in his lists of guests — which is probably just as well, because the podcasts are too long to listen to completely in non-lockdown times.

    He’s also quite good on MMA, which is why I listened to him in the past. But the main reason I listen to him is because he refuses to be consistent. There’s something entertaining in that.

    Moreover, he’s happy to admit he’s wrong or that he doesn’t know something, which is always refreshing.

    4
  10. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    The issue for the Times is that their “outrage mob” are.. their readers/ consumers or consumers in potential. No business can survive if you don’t listen to consumers. If you have a columnist that requires clarifications and explanations by the editors then you need to go after another columnist. Brett Stephens is not only an awful columnist, it’s an awful columnist behind a paywall.

    And separating Ashkenazi is incredibly problematic too, the whole premise of the column was bad(There are several other examples of ethnic minorities that are over-represented in things like scientific prizes, that’s not restricted to a portion of the Jewish community in the United States of America).

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  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    The reason we can’t talk about IQ and race is because Americans are too poorly educated to understand it. If there’s a 3% difference in IQ between Ashkenazis and say African Americans, does that mean I’m smarter than Neil deGrasse Tyson?

    Suuuure, that’s what it means.

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  12. Kylopod says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    This is the main problem with the IDW-types. It’s not that they are racist. They’re simply idiots.

    Depends who you’re talking about. Stefan Molynieux is essentially a white supremacist in all but name. Sam Harris has gone way down the race-IQ rabbit hole, and while he’s more ignorant about the some of the topics he chooses to discuss than he cares to admit, he’s no idiot.

    Beware of anyone who tells you “But I’m just asking questions!” It’s the most tired line of crackpots who want to cover their ass by pretending they’re not fully embracing the theories they’re flirting with.

    4
  13. Kurtz says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The reason we can’t talk about IQ and race is because Americans are too poorly educated to understand it. If there’s a 3% difference in IQ between Ashkenazis and say African Americans, does that mean I’m smarter than Neil deGrasse Tyson?

    Suuuure, that’s what it means.

    Exactly.

    Education has been reduced to a series of metrics rather than teaching process.

    5
  14. Northerner says:

    @Kylopod:

    Beware of anyone who tells you “But I’m just asking questions!” It’s the most tired line of crackpots who want to cover their ass by pretending they’re not fully embracing the theories they’re flirting with.

    I tend to agree. But then there’s Socrates …

    Depends on the questions I guess. Asking questions which build on previous answers is a time honored form of discourse. Whereas re-asking the same question with different wording is the domain of crackpots.

    2
  15. Kylopod says:

    @Northerner:

    I tend to agree. But then there’s Socrates …

    I didn’t say that actually asking questions is the sign of a crackpot. But that’s not what these people are doing. What they’re doing is saying they’re just asking questions, as a pretext for embracing the lunatic beliefs in full. The open-minded agnosticism is just a posture. It may not be intentionally dishonest; I often sense there’s an element of self-deception involved. But either way, it’s something people say when they’re self-conscious about being viewed as kooks and unwilling to admit (perhaps to themselves) that that’s exactly what they’ve become.

    6
  16. Teve says:

    @gVOR08:

    Remember the outrage around last October over Hillary saying the Russians were backing Tulsi Gabbard? Turned out the tape showed she’d actually said Republicans, not Russians.

    You might want to specify which she you’re talking about. There were two women in the previous sentence.

    1
  17. Teve says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    . If you have a columnist that requires clarifications and explanations by the editors then you need to go after another columnist. Brett Stephens is not only an awful columnist, it’s an awful columnist behind a paywall.

    The new york times first tried a paywall in 2011. If I recall correctly Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman threw a fit because nobody was willing to subscribe to read any of their stuff and so the NYT had to leave the opinion stuff open.

    I would probably pay the New York Times a few extra bucks to hide them, and Stephens, and Brooks, and Doubthat. 😀

    K-Thug is good, and Charles Blow, but newspapers really should do away with having an opinion section. There’s just not 4-5 interesting new opinions in the world every day. The last time David Brooks had an interesting opinion was probably the day after William Buckley declined to make him editor because he was a Jew.

    1
  18. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    If there were a major, positive correlation between “race” and intellectual capacities, you’d expect to see a lack of sophisticated civilizations in regions where these “low IQ” “races” are dominant.

    About the only places on Earth without such civilizations are uninhabitable spots like Antarctica.

    I wouldn’t advise to measure the success or decay of said civilizations, because none comes off well in the long run. Mighty Athens and Sparta were reduced to parts of a Roman province. Rome was subsumed under “barbarian” kingdoms. Eastern Rome (Byzantium) was whittled down to literally nothing over a millennium mostly by Arab kingdoms. The last large, influential Muslim majority state, the Ottoman Empire, was known as “the sick man of Europe,” before it fell from within to Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalist movement.

    And on and on. Civilizations rise, and eventually they fall.

    3
  19. grumpy realist says:

    @Teve: I forget what newspaper it was, but their first attempt at “putting things behind a firewall” was to let everyone read the news stories free and charge for the editorials and opinion articles.

    Turns out that nobody was interested in actually PAYING to read the burblings of their own employees…but quite happy to read the free news articles.

    Oops.

    1
  20. gVOR08 says:

    @Teve:

    The last time David Brooks had an interesting opinion was probably the day after William Buckley declined to make him editor because he was a Jew.

    I think they keep Brooks on because a click is a click. If you click on his column only so you can comment that he’s being predictably stupid again, it’s still a click. He gets a lot of clicks that way.

  21. grumpy realist says:

    @Kathy: The only thing IQ tests measure is how to do “IQ tests” that are written by people in a particular culture and with a particular history.

    Take one of those “high-IQ” individuals and sling him out into the wilds of Africa along with a “low-IQ” Bushman and see who survives….

    (I used to amuse myself coming up with IQ questions that were perfectly logical and which no one in the US with a WASP background was likely to answer. Example: “continue the series 1, 2, 3, 5, 4…” Ans: 4. This series counts the number of strokes in the Chinese characters 1,2,3,4,5,6.)

    4
  22. grumpy realist says:

    P.S. And it seems to me the relationship between Ashkenazi Jews and mental success comes down to the fact that for a long period of history Ashkenazi Jews have hammered, hammered, hammered on study and intellectual achievements. They know damn well you can always flee from a mob with your brain and a history of intellectual achievements, not so likely if you’re trying to carry a crapload of gold and other possessions with you. Heck, a lot of those Ashkenazi Nobel Laureates had fled from the Nazis!

    2
  23. Crusty Dem says:

    @Teve:

    I’m mostly with you but think you have it reversed, they should absolutely have an opinion section, there just should be no regular columnists.. Just articles by actual experts with substantial depth. It’s a fine line between “opinioning” and “bloviating nonsense” and most professional opinion writers are well on the latter side..

    1
  24. Kylopod says:

    Whenever I hear Ashkenazi Jews getting into the race-IQ nonsense (Bret Stephens, Sam Harris, the late Richard Herrnstein), I almost want to tell them, be careful what you wish for. This stuff is much likelier to be used against Jews than for them. One of the most popular tracts in white nationalist circles is Kevin MacDonald’s Culture of Critique series, which is basically a modern pseudoscholarly update of hoary old anti-Semitic tropes using high Ashkenazi-Jewish IQs as its starting point.

    1
  25. Kurtz says:

    @Kathy:

    Many of the reasons civilizations rise and fall have little to do with culture–uncontrollable external circumstances have a way of writing history.

  26. Console says:

    Race and IQ are the ultimate pseudo-intellectual exercise. The reality is that race has no biological basis, and IQ isn’t static. The assumptions you have to make to create racial differences already prejudice the outcome (here we end up parsing jews down to a specific European branch). And the assumptions you have to make about IQ requires ignoring all the things that affect IQ measurement. The flynn effect is still a thing. There’s a reason Bret cited a study that’s over 15 years old. The conclusions never hold up. As time goes on he black white gap closes, IQs rise with GDP, etc etc.
    Race and IQ is a taboo subject for a reason. But that reason is that white supremacy drives the conclusions. Not the reverse.

    2
  27. Northerner says:

    @Console:

    Exactly. People read race into things which are cultural. Its not just IQ. Take sports for instance. Since Jimmy the Greek sports fans have been saying that blacks are the best natural athlete (to which most black professional athletes say that’s true if ‘natural’ means work their butts-off to become good — the current Netflix show on the Bulls, Last Dance, shows that at work).

    And these things become ‘true’ through self-selection. Very few white Americans can play basketball at the NBA level — obviously genetic. Except for the large number of white Europeans who play (and often star) in the NBA. That’s one of the reasons for having affirmative action in universities — if people from under represented groups see some of their members doing something, they no longer believe its impossible.

    IQ does an excellent job of measuring how well you do IQ tests, in the same way say bench press does an excellent job of measuring how well you can do a bench press. And both respond very well to specific training (in the case of IQ tests, coming from the same culture as the test writer is a lifetime of training), so that a trained person is going to ‘naturally’ be better than an untrained person. The difference is that people know that bench is something you train, while too many people think IQ is inherent.

    1
  28. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Teve: I kinda like Douthat. I think that he writes a lot of really bad columns when he tries to troll the left, but I think that he is much more interesting when he is dialoguing with the left instead of playing the Conservative columnist. But I think that there are more people that are not going to read the NYT because of him instead of looking for people like him, I understand.

    The thing with Stephens is that I don’t know anyone that really likes him. And the NYT should listen to their public instead of complaining about cancel culture, lynch mobs or whatever.