Politics & Policy

In Praise of the New York Times Opinion Section. No, Really.

(Reuters photo: Carlo Allegri)
It now displays the kind of open-mindedness that conservatives have been begging for.

No one at National Review has ever been guilty of this failing, of course, but some conservatives do have a tendency to the grumpy, the grouchy, and the grumbly. Some of us hear “Happy Holidays” and mutter darkly, “The war on Christmas has begun.” Some of us see two men holding hands in the produce aisle and think, “Why must they cram their homosexualist agenda down my throat?” Some of us vow never to return to the movies unless and until John Wayne is resurrected. And sometimes when conservatives call for cultural change, such change actually follows and our response . . . is suspicious silence. Surely they don’t mean it, we mumble. Or this won’t last. Or gotta be some kind of trick.

Stretching back across the eons, conservatives have been asking for more consideration at the New York Times, which is still the most influential news outlet in the United States. A year ago, we got it. Most notably in the opinion department, there has been a change of direction over at Gray Ladyland. Where are the huzzahs on the right?

After the 2016 election, the leaders of the Times realized they had been profoundly misguided about the strength of the Donald Trump movement. Typical of its coverage had been headlines like these: “Democrats, Looking Past Mere Victory, Hope to End the Trump Phenomenon” (August 3, 2016) and “To Flip the House, How Big Would a Clinton Victory Margin Need to Be?” (October 24, 2016). Coverage of then-candidate Trump focused almost exclusively on how unappealing he was. To its credit, the Times realized its error. Two days after the election, its executive editor Dean Baquet told the paper’s media columnist Jim Rutenberg, “If I have a mea culpa for journalists and journalism, it’s that we’ve got to do a much better job of being on the road, out in the country, talking to different kinds of people than the people we talk to — especially if you happen to be a New York–based news organization — and remind ourselves that New York is not the real world.”

Expecting the Times to become a completely neutral news outlet is like expecting the Vatican Bookshop to start selling Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. But I’ve been reading the paper for more than 30 years (grumbling for most of that time, often outright harrumphing), and I believe that the last year has marked the first time the paper has showed awareness of its confirmation bias — the bubble problem. James Bennet, the editorial-page editor brought on board in March of 2016, hired a major right-of-center columnist, Bret Stephens, from the Wall Street Journal last April 12. Two days later, he took a significant step further and hired Bari Weiss, an op-ed writer and editor, also from the Journal, with a writ to bring right-leaning thinkers to the paper. To say the least, the Times is not ordinarily in the habit of poaching talent from the leading conservative opinion section in the country. Yet since Weiss’s hire, conservative commentary has flourished in the Times like never before. These days, hardly a week goes by without a column by Naomi Schaefer Riley or Charles Kesler or John Yoo or Benjamin Domenech or Stephen Moore or Yuval Levin. These are great people, not housebroken conservatives who love to curl up in liberal laps, and they’ve all appeared in the Times since the beginning of the year.

There’s still a big hole in the Times’ opinion section: Hardly ever does one encounter a pro-Trump voice, or even a Trump-neutral one, and if the Times hired such a columnist, he or she would instantly become one of the most widely read writers of the hundreds working at the paper. Still, the Times is producing an opinion section that conservatives simply can’t ignore. “We’re taking some chances, recruiting voices that are new to The Times and publishing pieces that press against our traditional boundaries,” Bennet wrote this week in a 1,500-word email to colleagues.

Bennet and Baquet have been much more inclusive about who constitutes a Times-worthy writer, amid considerable incoming. Times readers are center-left gentry progressives; they went to center-left gentry-progressive schools, they live in center-left gentry-progressive neighborhoods, and if a child showed up at any of their kids’ playgrounds wearing a MAGA cap they’d file an FBI hate-crime report in the few seconds before they fainted. Times readers like living in a bubble. They say it in the comments sections of Times stories every day. If they could, they’d put a Plexiglas shield over the entire Upper West Side with a giant sign reading, “No bullies, racists or members of the Federalist Society.”

Although I realize the Times probably wants an attaboy from NR about as much as Elizabeth Warren wants George W. Bush to knock on doors for her, it’s only fair to point out that the opinion department doesn’t deserve the attacks it’s been getting all week after hiring and dumping Quinn Norton as a tech columnist (the editors didn’t know that she had used slurs on Twitter). Also this week, Weiss was widely derided on social media and by colleagues after she celebrated immigrants in a tweet about Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu, who is not an immigrant but the daughter of immigrants. Only in spectacular bad faith is it possible to take offense at such praise, but one Times employee complained, in a private comment that was leaked online, of trauma comparable to that of Japanese Americans forced into internment camps after Pearl Harbor. The actual reason Times fans and employees have a problem with Weiss is, of course, the way she keeps taking a sledgehammer to the bubble, in for instance, her column “Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader,” which inspired a Saturday Night Live skit about mortified liberals.

This is an important concession for a paper that, let’s face it, is #succeeding.

In his email, Bennet displays the kind of open-mindedness conservatives have been begging for from Times editors. He cites the importance of “being willing to challenge our own assumptions,” “being open to counter-arguments even as we advance our own convictions,” and “listening to voices that we may object to and even sometimes find obnoxious, provided they meet the same tests of intellectual honesty, respect for others and openness.” He goes on to call for “taking on the toughest arguments on the other side, not the straw men,” “starting from a presumption of good faith [even among] those we disagree with,” and “having some humility about the possibility that, in the end, the other side might have a point, or more than one.” This is an important concession for a paper that, let’s face it, is #succeeding. Credit where it’s due.

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