The New York Times is the most influential newspaper in the English-language world, not just because of its reach and leadership status within the industry, but because it defines the boundaries of acceptable debate. Being in the New York Times is a legitimizing event, one that cements ideas as not fringe, “other,” or in the realm of the dreaded, career-ending “conspiracy theory.” So it understandably upset many liberals when the Times decided to bestow upon hard-right Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens the ultimate stamp of Acceptable Opinion approval by affording him a regular op-ed column in the Times.
It’s not just that Stephens is yet another white man, like nine of the other 12 current columnists. As Hamilton Nolan thoroughly documented over at Fusion (4/14/17), Stephens holds a number of fringe right-wing opinions, namely his consistent climate change denial, anti-Arab racism, anti-black racism, advocacy of torture and insistence that the campus rape epidemic is an “imaginary enemy.”
Stephens has referred to antisemitism as “the disease of the Arab mind,” insisted Palestinians have a “blood fetish” and “blood lust,” said Black Lives Matter was a “lie” based on the “myth of victimization,” labeled institutionalized racism another “imaginary enemy,” called climate change “hysteria” and a “religion without God,” and, in a piece subtly headlined “I Am Not Sorry the CIA Waterboarded,” contended Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in fact “waterboarded himself” by not being “truthful with his captors.”
As others have noted (The Outline, 4/18/17; Think Progress, 4/13/17), these are all far-right positions that would be usually be considered outside the Acceptable Mainstream. What is less commented upon is how Stephens’ hiring highlights the radical asymmetry at work when considering what is and isn’t a fringe opinion. When one goes to the far right—namely the neocon right, which puts a premium on anti-Arab and anti-black racism, and fetishizes American exceptionalism above all else—there doesn’t seem to be a line that can’t be crossed.
This is in stark contrast to the other end on the spectrum, where anything slightly to the left of Hillary Clinton is nonexistent in the staff opinion section at the New York Times. All of the liberal or pro-Democratic Times columnists during the 2016 primary, for example, were behind Clinton or, at the very least, not behind Sanders or his broader policy aims.
The Times’ Paul Krugman, a prominent liberal, was squarely in the tank for Clinton, calling (4/25/16) the former secretary of State “the most knowledgeable, well-informed candidate in this election,” and complaining (4/8/16) that “Mr. Sanders is starting to sound like his worst followers…. Absence of substance beyond the slogans seems to be true of his positions across the board.”
The ideals are not in dispute. What’s in dispute is whether our ideals can be reasonably accomplished by a single administration or a generation. Sometimes you have to cut deals to reach ideals. That’s politics.
Gail Collins (5/12/16) argued that Democrats should “let Hillary Clinton have the nomination,” despite Sanders’ “inspiring vision of change,” because only she had “the competence to run the country from Day 1.”
All perfectly fine positions, such that they are—and Krugman, Blow and Collins likely arrived at their stances in total good faith—but the fact that their lukewarm embrace of Clinton represents the far reaches of acceptable left opinion is telling.
Despite the fact that only 26 percent of Americans support the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and its increasing unpopularity among unions and activists, the best the Times could muster was self-described “soft opponent” Krugman (3/11/16), whose opposition was hyper-qualified and marked by accusations that Sanders “demagogu[es] the issue”.
Again, on the issue of single-payer healthcare—a position supported by a plurality of Americans and a majority of Democrats—the only Times columnist to nominally support the cause, Paul Krugman, spent weeks during the primary explaining why it wasn’t feasible (“it’s just not going to happen anytime soon”) and should be tabled until some unknown time in the future.
Other liberal columnists, like Blow, Nick Kristof, Gail Collins and Roger Cohen, were either silent on the issue of single-payer healthcare or similarly dismissed it as unrealistic (“almost certainly an unattainable goal,” Cohen insisted—11/4/16). Strangely, the most conservative of the liberal columnists, Thomas Friedman, endorsed the idea in an offhand thought experiment last year (1/6/16), but as with Krugman, single-payer is relegated to a normative, theoretical goal, while those pushing it—namely Sanders—are dismissed as fringe day-dreamers promising the Moon.
The point is not that any particular columnist is under any leftist obligation to like Sanders, or all of his policy goals—it’s that the lack of a single columnist supporting a candidate whose platform would be down-the-middle in most European and Latin American countries shows how far to the right the Overton window is in the most influential newspaper in the world. Ideas like single-payer healthcare and free college are dismissed as pie-in-the-sky fantasies, while climate denial, anti-Arab bigotry and anti-woman vitriol are, according to Times editors (Huffington Post, 4/14/17), bringing a “new perspective to bear” that “further widens” the “vibrant diversity of opinions” the paper presents.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.