Bret Stephens sounds both shaken and stirred—although hardly in need of smelling salts.
“You know what surprised me? To see journalists at news organizations use appalling language,” the brand new, 43-year-old New York Times columnist told The Daily Beast about the outraged response to his first op-ed column.
“I guess I’m getting to the age where obscenity bothers me a little more than it did ten years ago. I’m at the stage of my life where it’s ‘you know kids these days!’…There was a woman at Gizmodo who just unleashed at me, and I’m like ‘Wow—is there not a filter in your mind when you represent a news organization?’”
Reacting to Stephens’s column—in which the right-leaning, Never Trump ex-Wall Street Journal pundit called for more skepticism, or at least less arrogant certitude, regarding the severity of climate change, the role of human activity, and what should be done about it—a tweeter named @CrochetJanet (whose avatar is a puppy snuggling with a kitten) demanded: “When is the Times going to get rid of you?”
That prompted Stephens to respond: “After 20 months of being harangued by bullying Trump supporters, I’m reminded that the nasty left is no different. Perhaps worse.”
To which Gizmodo reporter Libby Watson, who covers tech policy for the gadget-oriented web site, tweeted: “bret if you think that tweet was ‘nasty’ i have some news for you: you're a shithead. a crybaby lil fuckin weenie. a massive twat too.”
“Yeah, I swore at him,” Watson acknowledged in an interview. “I’m British, so I swear a lot.”
Stephens, for his part, claims he is trying hard to break his addiction to Twitter and follow the advice of his wife, Times music critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, and the youngest of their three children, Katya, to go cold turkey.
“My seven-year-old daughter is real opinionated and basically issued a diktat that Twitter was becoming a vortex—and so I took that under advisement,” Stephens confided.
Did Katya Stephens actually say “vortex”?
“I forget her expression,” Katya’s dad answered, “but it was some kind of preternaturally wise remark for a seven-year-old girl. ‘Stop staring at the damn screen and taking umbrage at everything that is being said.’ That’s probably the first lesson I’m learning in my new role—to pay much less attention to social media than I have before, because otherwise I don’t know how much there will be left in the balance of my emotional checking account to deal with normal life.”
Stephens, however, can’t quite envision himself not tweeting taunts at Sean Hannity, who took the bait last August—calling the editorialist an “asshole” and a “dumbass with his head up his ass”—when Stephens dubbed him “Fox News’ dumbest anchor” for his Trump-friendly broadsides against members of the Republican establishment.
“I might make an exception for Hannity,” Stephens said. “He has such a delightful way of replying.”
Stephens, who as the Journal’s deputy editorial page editor won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, pretty much predicted the trouble that quickly ensued after his maiden Times column was posted online last Friday and published in Saturday’s print editions.
“By now I can almost hear the heads exploding,” he wrote in the midst of an essay that likened the apostles of what he dismissed as “overweening scientism” to the hubris of Hillary Clinton and her campaign strategists who embraced polling data and algorithms, while discounting the real-world impact of Donald Trump’s “deplorables,” in order to reassure themselves of the inevitability of victory.
Heads certainly did explode.
Several of his new colleagues at the Times publicly and privately expressed alarm at what outside detractors have characterized as Stephens’s well-established penchant for climate change denial.
Typical critique: a sarcastic Facebook post by Politico writer Timothy Noah: “Meet the new enemy: ‘overweening scientism.’ This is climate denial with a masters from LSE”—a reference to the hyper-educated Stephens’s graduate degree from the London School of Economics.
Meanwhile, dozens of livid readers canceled their subscriptions (about six percent of the cancelers specifically cited Stephens as their reason, according to a Times spokesperson).
When the new hire was announced in April, prominent German climatologist Stefan Rahmstorf wrote an open letter to Times executive editor Dean Baquet: “The Times argued that ‘millions agree with Stephens,’…It made me wonder what’s next—when are you hiring a columnist claiming the sun and the stars revolve around the Earth, because millions agree with that?”
On CNN’s media-centric Sunday show, Reliable Sources, Baquet—noting that Stephens, as an opinion-monger, doesn’t work for him—defended the columnist: “Have we gotten to the point as a country where when someone has a well-written, cogent position that people disagree with, they want to ball up the paper and throw it away? I think that’s a mistake. I think we should hear what Bret has to say.”
Meanwhile, editorial page editor James Bennet, who has known Stephens since both were stationed in Israel more than a decade ago (Bennet as Jerusalem bureau chief for the Times, and Stephens as editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post), said he recruited his new columnist as part of his quest for ideological diversity. (Stephens joins regular Times pundits David Brooks and Ross Douthat as one of the paper’s branded conservatives.)
“I don’t think people are giving Bret the credit he deserves for the intellectual courage that he showed,” Bennet told The Daily Beast, referring to how Stephens, during the 2016 campaign, relentlessly pressed the case against Donald Trump in the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper’s right-leaning opinion pages. “He’s a principled person and a serious person…I was looking for a strong conservative voice, and Bret was the best person out there.”
Noting that the Times’s readership, much like its editorial page, is demonstrably more liberal than the Journal’s, Stephens quipped: “I’ve gone from addressing readers who hated me for my Never Trump views to addressing readers who hate me for all my other views.”
Stephens expects to file two columns a week—one for the Saturday print edition and one on Thursday for the Times web site.
“I never like to write my columns until it’s close to the deadlines,” he said. “Otherwise the story gets ahead of you and you just kind of lose your relevance. Columns are like pancakes or fast food. You’ve got to serve it hot and eat it quick, or else it’s badly made and indigestible.”
Stephens said his global warming/Hillary Clinton argument was a sincere effort to persuade readers who might disagree with his conclusions that there is legitimate discussion to be had about the tradeoffs between acting on scientific data and modeling and enacting government policy; it was not, repeat not, an attempt to discredit the reality of climate change.
“I acknowledge the reality of it, and the potential severity of its consequences,” Stephens aid. “I am also trying to help, not hurt, the cause of global warming advocates. They’re not helping themselves by treating people who aren’t yet onboard as deplorables.”
Dismissing and insulting one’s adversaries, Stephen said, “is giving them an opening through intellectual laziness.”
He added: “I think it was very destructive for anti-Trump Republicans in the last election—people like me perhaps—not to have made a clear case and reminded fellow Republicans why free trade is good, why the Republican party should be the pro-immigration party, why ‘America First’ is a terrible idea, why religious freedom for Muslims is as essential as the freedom to worship for Christians and other denominations. Because we hadn’t re-examined these fundamental concepts, we were ill-equipped to deal with a demagogue.”
As for his irritable introduction to readers of the Times, “Look, I’d rather have gotten the overreaction I did than to have no reaction at all,” Stephens said.
By way of explaining this attitude, Stephens is fond of a priest-minister-rabbi joke set in the wilds of Alaska, where, for reasons too baroque to elaborate, each clergymen has his heart set on preaching to a grizzly bear.
First, the priest walks off into the woods and returns hours later with a few scratches and bruises, reporting that he met a grizzly and sprinkled holy water on the beast, who miraculously was tamed and happy to spend an afternoon talking about the Lord. Then it’s the minister’s turn; he comes back slightly the worse for wear, having baptized his grizzly in a nearby lake before engaging in their friendly theological discussion.
Finally, the rabbi sets off. He doesn’t return. Days pass. In due course, a search party is mustered, and they find the rabbi prostrate, unconscious, horribly injured with flesh wounds and broken bones. He is airlifted to a hospital, and the priest and minister rush to his bedside. When the rabbi comes to, they ask him what happened.
“Maybe,” the rabbi muses, “it wasn’t the best idea to have started with circumcision.”
Stephens remarked: “I feel like I started with circumcision. On the other hand, it’s my inclination and my personality to move that way. Don’t be surprised to find another column from me that will have people tearing their hair out.”