Imagine, if you will, that you’ve lucked into a billion dollars—better still, an extra billion dollars. The only string attached to this benefit is that you must conceive of a way to put that billion to some good, society-altering purpose. How would you discharge this duty?
This is the knotty problem posed by “The Giving Pledge,” the hot new thing in plutocrat sin-eating, dreamed up by Berkshire-Hathaway guru Warren Buffett and Microsoft’s First Family, Bill and Melinda Gates. The change agents behind the Giving Pledge have already secured 170 commitments from the top-tenth-of-the-top-one-percent to “dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy,” thus setting “a new standard of generosity among the ultra-wealthy.” Pledging to support a “wide range of causes” is a roster of the world’s elite, from old money to new—Bloombergs and Bransons and Bronfmans, oh my! The recently departed “special adviser on regulation” to the Trump White House, famed “shareholder activist” Carl Icahn, is signed up to direct a share of his largesse toward the creation of charter schools in the mold of the “Icahn Scholars Program at Choate Rosemary Hall,” provided he survives the scandal that drove him from the Trump administration. (Spoiler alert: he will.)
Now imagine that you are David Brooks, the Bobo King of the New York Times op-ed page. All this talk of giving away a cool billion has whet your appetite for creative destruction. But the stolidly do-gooding aspirations of the Pledging Class also put you on guard, as the paper of record’s official conservative culture scold. What wise counsel will you offer these Masters of the Universe?
In the Brooksian mode, you will doubtless offer a subtle dollop of disdain for the billionaire givers’ overall lack of creativity. You’ll note that the old guard’s pledges are too “niche,” and that the promises from young money tend to be “vague and less thoughtful.” (You’ll note that Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert “burn[s] with a special fervor” over the cause of curing neurofibromatosis, because of his son’s affliction, but you won’t dwell on the fact that the pelf he’s giving away came from his once-and-continuing adventures in the subprime mortgage market.)
But this is all mere preface to the big Brooksian idea.
The letters set off my own fantasies. What would I do if I had a billion bucks to use for good? I’d start with the premise that the most important task before us is to reweave the social fabric. People in disorganized neighborhoods need to grow up enmeshed in the loving relationships that will help them rise. The elites need to be reintegrated with their own countrymen.
Only loving relationships transform lives, and such relationships can be formed only in small groups. Thus, I’d use my imaginary billion to seed twenty-five-person collectives around the country.
Yes, that’s right: Brooks proposes to create a community of encounter groups across the country. There would be groups of “poor kids,” and groups of “young adults” facing a “Telos crisis,” and groups of “successful people between thirty-six and forty,” and they would “nurture deep friendships” and engrave “the habits of citizenship” and “master the intellectual virtues” and “possess the spiritual true north that orients a life.” All right, then!
Imagine, if you will, that you’ve lucked into a billion dollars—better still, an extra billion dollars.
Now, imagine that you are David Brooks’s editor, staring at this copy. You know that Brooks’s jaundiced vision of a society that has become irreparably atomized is the river that runs through his work. But if you’ve still got some grey matter left, you probably remember that the original premise of this column was how to give away a billion dollars. Now, no possible calculations can reconcile Brooks’s proposal with the mammoth scale of this cash disbursement. When you consider the basic logistics of the plan, the potential costs of recruitment, some generous stipends for the participants (surely this is not going to be their full-time job?), and routine overhead costs, you can see how this might be a ten, or just possibly, a hundred-million-dollar idea. But where did the rest of the money go? To cloudcuckooland?
And math aside, what sort of terminal policy oafishness posits that any heap of cash can be leveraged into “loving relationships” in a nationwide network of small groups? The very idea contravenes every stolid conservative talking point about the folly-ridden legacies of the New Deal and Great Society, which became bywords of liberal delusion for “throwing money” at this or that social ill. What’s more, the proposal to launch a renewal of affective civic solidarity on the scale of a Google moonshot is a simple, self-contradictory means-and-ends misfire. It’s a bit like seeing Alexis de Tocqueville competing on Dancing with the Stars—or The Apprentice.
All this adds up to the sort of categorical disaster that a good editor and steward of the most important opinion page in American letters should be capable of staving off. Fortunately for Brooks, he doesn’t have such an editor. He has James Bennet, a man whom former Times op-ed veteran Leah Finnegan has described (speaking of reality television) as “the Spencer Pratt of opinion journalism.” “This guy loves to troll, and position his writers as martyrs for their bad opinions,” writes Finnegan. “He also seems kinda bad at the basics of his job (writing and making sure facts are correct).”
So how did it come to this?
The story of Bennet’s ascension to the respectability-assessing post of New York Times editorial page editor is, first and foremost, the story of his return to the Gray Lady. His first tour of duty commenced in 1991, when the Times poached him from the neoliberal policy journal the Washington Monthly. Once he landed in midtown Manhattan, he began a remarkable ascent of the company org chart. His first position of note was serving as the paper’s White House correspondent. But he truly distinguished himself as the Times Jerusalem correspondent, drawing praise for a sharp eye for detail and enviable writerly gifts. Come 2006, Bennet was set to serve as the Times’ man in Beijing. But Fate—or rather David Bradley—intervened, plucking Bennet from his uptending Times career arc and installing him as the new editor-in-chief at The Atlantic.
The Atlantic was then in the midst of wrenching changes, stemming chiefly from Bradley’s decision to move operations from its Boston home of nearly one-hundred-and-fifty years, to Washington, D.C. The announcement of this move instantly created a schism among the staff, many of whom stayed behind. Additionally, the magazine was facing some enormous headwinds. As the New York Times’ Katharine Seelye reported, circulation was down to about 370,000—a significant improvement from its 325,000 low but well off its 2003 heights of 450,000. What’s more, the outlet had become a money-sink, with annual losses ranging from “$4 million to $8 million.” Bradley’s personal fortune was, at the time, the only thing plugging holes in the dike.
In Bennet, Bradley—after an exhaustive search through the CVs of some two-hundred-fifty journalists—found someone he hoped would reverse these dire trends. As Seelye reported, Bradley “said he chose Mr. Bennet because he had ‘lived life near the headlines,’ had excelled at long-form narratives, and had a ‘selfless nature’ that would allow him to work closely with writers and editors.” In accepting the offer, Bennet averred that he was excited for the “chance to help, encourage and preserve the practice of serious, long-form journalism and a chance to work with great writers and editors.”
The hire served as an emphatic reinforcement of the reasoning behind the move from Boston to Washington. The magazine, which had long stood as an avatar of patrician-class “New England-ness” and sturdy Protestant perspectives, had found a new leader who hailed from a slightly different orbit. That Bennet was Boston-born, Yale-bred, with all manner of elite-stops along the way (he attended St. Alban’s prep school as his father served as an aide to Senator Thomas Eagleton), combined with his distinctly non-WASPish Polish-Jewish descent and his reputation-making tour as a foreign correspondent, promised a slight but decisive change of course for the august monthly. But Bradley and his C-suite peers were mostly looking to Bennet to navigate The Atlantic’s full passage into digital relevance, after its century-and-a-half run as a bible of Brahmin consensus.
In carrying out this latter mission, Bennet proved a rousing success, setting the good ship Atlantic on a clear course of digital conquest. True, there were notable missteps, including the magazine’s disastrous sponsored content pact with the Church of Scientology, and the decision in 2008 to feature Britney Spears on the cover. But Bennet’s overall influence on the magazine seemed steady and assured. While there was the occasional lurch into irresponsible war-mongering and Victorian-era gender panic, the magazine maintained its reputation as a launching pad for vital voices and a repository of trusted reporting.
The Minuet of the Thought Leaders
Still, it’s probably worth highlighting the ways in which The Atlantic influenced Bennet, rather than the reverse. Among the myriad changes that Bradley brought to the company during that time, one of the most significant was his decision to wade, waist-deep, into the disruption-hustle of elite idea-mongerers. The magazine’s paywall was abandoned to welcome a new influx of digital trade, and those costs were offset by turning the Aspen Ideas Festival into a new revenue stream.
Looking over his latter-day output at The Atlantic, there are signs that exposure to the Thought Leader mindset and the meritocracy economy’s unique ability to win acclamation for every apple of discord tossed into the discourse had the effect of sozzling Bennet’s worldview. Airy mission statements about “The American Idea,” the requisite plumping of the Michael Bloomberg legacy, a tenth-anniversary celebration of the Clinton family’s favor-trading mill . . . they all carried the former Times reporter’s byline.
Bennet giddily penned valentines to Detroit’s inspirational ruins (“Like art, Detroit’s abandoned buildings challenge visitors and inspire wonder, in their original grandeur and the ways nature works upon it”), and alarmist screeds about women making their way up in the world (“ . . . it also appears to signal that the rise of women is being matched by a decline, not just of male dominance, but of men”). His singular notion of a brave thinker “taking a substantial risk for a big idea” was NBC’s Jeff Zucker, for moving Jay Leno into prime time. His big idea for the incoming Obama administration? Put Mitt Romney in charge of General Motors—the sort of notion that gets bandied about in the sundown hours of one of Sally Quinn’s cocktail parties.
Perhaps the oddest thing Bennet penned was “Against ‘Long-Form Journalism’.” The weirdness of the piece’s conceit was more than a pointed rebellion against Bradley’s stated mission “to help, encourage and preserve the practice of serious, long-form journalism.” No, this was a guns-blazing rant against nomenclature:
Imagine that you are David Brooks, the Bobo King of the New York Times op-ed page.
This choice of words matters, I think, not only because of the false note it sounds about particular stories but also because of the message it sends to the world about magazines’ sense of purpose these days. The term long-form has come to stand for narrative and expository and deeply reported journalism during the same period—over the past twenty years, and particularly the past ten—that magazines have had, as the politicians say, some challenges. I think this wrong turn in our taxonomy is a sign of, and may even contribute to, the continuing commercial upheaval and crisis in confidence. The story of the transition from an industry that was within memory so exuberant and ambitious—so grandiose, really, in its conception of its cultural and societal role—that it could declare itself to be inventing a “New Journalism,” to an industry wringing its hands over preserving something called “long-form journalism,” does not sound like a long-form story with a happy ending. It certainly doesn’t sound like one I’d want [to] read, much less live through. “New Journalism” is a stirring promise to the wider world; “long-form” is the mumbled incantation of a decaying priesthood.
But like many a thought-leading meditation, Bennet’s plaint was made up of mumbled incantations in an exclusive temple. No one outside of the journalism industry uses the term “long-form.” It’s not something that readers specifically seek out by name, or fret over when they stumble upon it. And “New Journalism” isn’t a stirring promise to a wider world; it’s jargon. It’s not a call to editorial innovation, it’s a memo to marketers. Who is this for? Why does this exist?
There is, alas, but one explanation. The unhappy throughline of this critical phase of his career is the decline of Bennet’s keener reportorial sensibilities and the emergence of the trollish hand by which he’d steer the New York Times.
A Pen Dipped in Rocket Fuel
When he returned to the Times to take the reins at the editorial page, Bennet found his former home facing headwinds nearly as severe as the ones that plagued the magazine he’d departed the Times to run.
As the New York Observer’s Ken Kurson chronicled in 2014, Bennet’s predecessor, Andrew Rosenthal, had spent his tenure digging a deep vein of resentment at the paper, one that pitted Times journalists—who were, at the time of Kurson’s telling, decimated by buyouts and cuts—against their own editorial page: a plush domain, untrammeled by the financial sacrifices burdening others, lorded over by the “petty and vindictive” Rosenthal. As one anonymous Times reporter told it, the journalistic side was enjoying a heyday of quality writing and real-world impact, while Rosenthal’s well-compensated charges sputtered along as deadweight to the operation:
Andy’s got fourteen or fifteen people plus a whole bevy of assistants working on these three unsigned editorials every day. They’re completely reflexively liberal, utterly predictable, usually poorly written and totally ineffectual.
Against this backdrop, it’s not hard to see what made Bennet an ideal choice to turn the page around—on paper, he offered a combination of managerial acumen with a deep and abiding knowledge of the Times’ journalistic culture. And the benefits to Bennet were fairly clear as well: while remaining at The Atlantic could have kept him happily thrumming along as a guardian of “public intellectualism,” the position of New York Times editorial page editor put him back in the mix for maximum leadership of the paper of record.
It wasn’t long after Bennet returned that the paper’s past Rosenthal traumas were eclipsed by the singularly deranging rise of Donald Trump. Trump’s improbable ascension to the presidency broke against nearly everything for which the paper had traditionally stood—the trusted imprimatur of gold-standard journalism, the power of the Fourth Estate’s stewardship to root out malefactors, the sturdy primacy of liberal professional-class pieties.
Whether the Times treated Trump’s rise as a watershed moment for journalism or a marketing opportunity is open to interpretation. Not long after Inauguration Day, the paper launched a major ad campaign, dovetailing off Trump aide-de-camp Kellyanne Conway’s now-famous assertion of the existence of “alternative facts.” “The truth is more important now than ever,” concluded the advertisement.
In a matter of months, Times higher-ups were bragging about how Trump had been “rocket fuel” for their digital subscriptions. “Trump is the best thing to happen to the Times subscription strategy,” enthused Times executive editor Dean Baquet on CNN’s Reliable Sources. (It’s not clear whether everyone at the Times felt that they were on a similar rocket-ride—in June, hundreds of Times employees staged a work-stoppage in protest of the paper’s decision to halve the number of copy editors on staff.)
It was a fraught moment for the paper, and for Bennet as well. Both the Times and its chief thought leader faced all the criticisms trained on the mainstream media writ large at the end of the presidential campaign—that newsrooms were out of touch with normal Americans, and that they desperately needed to diversify their point of view and leave their urban aeries to rediscover the nation’s needful heart. With all of that in mind, Bennet decided that the best move for his op-ed page was to bring conservative columnist Bret Stephens on board.
It was a puzzling decision, viewed against the backdrop of the paper’s renewed and restated mission, together with the chief lamentations of media critics at the time. The Times op-ed page was already a many-headed hydra of doughty white elites, with professional-class conservatism already well over-served as a point of view. And Stephens already had a lofty sinecure as an op-ed thought-dispenser at the Wall Street Journal, so this arrangement was merely a reshuffling of the Manhattan media’s gold-plated deck chairs. By this point in his career, Stephens had become fairly set in his ways as a thinker, reliably campaigning for heavy-handed neoconservative foreign policies and against any efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. But what made Stephens such a great get in June of 2017 was the fact that he was one of those sorts of people that every major media institution wanted as a pet: an “anti-Trump conservative.”
Of course, these come in all manner of varietals. For example, Bennet’s former colleague at The Atlantic, David Frum, actually has some distinct policy preferences that not only separate him from Trump, but from the modern conservative movement, which excommunicated him for advocating that conservatives productively participate in the debate over health care reform that culminated in the ACA’s passage in 2010. Other conservatives, such as the lion’s share of the National Review contributors who signed on to that magazine’s wan “Against Trump” issue, oppose Trump because they feel that he’s not actually a conservative. And there are other “anti-Trump conservatives” who find themselves in that camp for no other reason than that Trump is uncouth and tactless in pursuit of priorities they share.
Stephens’s maiden outing at the Times left no doubt which sort of anti-Trump conservative he was at his core. Likening the specious certainty of Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff to the rigorous, peer-reviewed output of climate scientists, Stephens weaves a tale in which they are one and the same:
Let me put it another way. Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.
None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences. But ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism. They know — as all environmentalists should—that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.
There are signs that exposure to the Thought Leader mindset had the effect of sozzling Bennet’s worldview.
It was, as they say, too clever by half—the facile likening of a mostly anonymous cohort of climate scientists to Clinton’s famous categorizing of “deplorables” is a studiously deceptive sweep of the proverbial broad brush. But the more insidious assertion here is the notion that the leaders of the scientific community have some sort of “political power.” It’s quite clear they do not—power brokers in politics and the media alike have long insisted that the consensus opinion of the scientific community is only sufficient to purchase the right to participate in the debate, not end it. And those who want to add journalistic heft to the cause are forever facing the additional onus of finding a way to disseminate these facts more innovatively. As Nieman Lab noted, during its assessment of Inside Climate News’ Neela Banerjee’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of Exxon’s efforts to cover up the findings of the oil giant’s own climate change research:
Despite the urgency of climate change as an issue, in-depth stories like the one produced by ICN are a rarity. A veteran of the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Banerjee joined ICN out of frustration at not being able to pursue in-depth investigations on the topic. “Top management in the newsroom don’t give a hoot about climate change: ‘It’s depressing. It’s boring. It’s not sexy,’” she says. “They’ll tell you it’s the most important beat on the planet, but unless it’s wrapped up in politics and who’s up who’s down, they don’t care.”
Far from possessing political power, those who are speaking the truth about what is happening to the environment continue to find it difficult to make it past the gatekeepers. The dreadful symmetry between Banerjee feeling that she had to go outside mainstream newspapers to hold Exxon to account and Stephens pulling in what’s almost certainly a cool six-figures to liken the scientific community to authoritarians pretty much says it all. But Stephens’s game was probably summed up best by Slate’s Susan Matthews, “I do know what Stephens is doing here. He is sowing the seeds of epistemic uncertainty. He is telling readers that the experts’ wrongness during the 2016 election is a good justification for doubting other established facts.”
Odd, considering the Times’ insistence that “the truth” was “more important now than ever.” But very much in keeping with what Bennet would go on to unleash on the New York Times’ op-ed page.
Back in 2011, then-Village Voice music critic Maura Johnston witnessed the emergence of an odd future in the music industry—the increasing materialization of “pieces of pop culture as designed for maximum internet attention as they are pieces of art that can stand (or at least wobble) on their own.” To these curios, Johnston attached a new coinage: “trollgaze.” Those who knew Johnston to be an equally wise critic of the mass media might have anticipated that trollgaze would soon roam uncontained across the content-creation landscape. Certainly Bennet has enshrined it firmly at the temple under his care.
On March 17 of this year, Bennet afforded primo op-ed real estate to Louise Mensch, a regular purveyor of overheated rumors about Russian collusion creating a full-blown Trumpist putsch on the American state. “It should be relatively easy to get at the truth of whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia over the hacking,” Mensch opined. She went on to suggest that a meme that White House director of social media Dan Scavino retweeted on Twitter was possible proof of Trump campaign connections to “a Russian-controlled network of malware-infected computers,” and not just a vulgar member of a vulgar administration being vulgar on Twitter.
Months later, the Guardian’s Jon Swaine reported that Mensch needed to spend more time learning the lessons that she’d sought to dole out to Times readers. It turned out that many of the claims she’d repeatedly made about soon-to-emerge criminal inquiries into the Trump White House had been provided to her by a “hoaxer” who said that she “acted out of frustration over the dissemination of fake news” by Mensch and her online ally, Claude Taylor.
Another key Bennet hire, Bari Weiss—who prior to her ascension at the Times was not known for much more than her enthusiastic cheerleading for Israel’s most anti-democratic tendencies—has become Bennet’s go-to scribe whenever he feels the Times’ liberal audience is in need of course-correction. Weiss has a tendency to swing wildly at the lowest-hanging fruit. As The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald notes:
She was first cheered for using this highly valuable journalistic real estate to attack organizers of the Chicago Dyke March for excluding flags that contained the Star of David on the grounds of similarity to the Israeli flag, followed by a crude guilt-by-association attack on the minority women who organized the Woman’s March based on their praise of various Muslims we’re all expected to hate, and then yesterday mocked campus critics of “cultural appropriation,” taking time—in advance—to celebrate her own courage and martyrdom by including this line: “I will inevitably get called a racist for cheering cultural miscegenation.”
As Leah Finnegan—now of The Outline—observed, Weiss’s “up-with-cultural-appropriation” screed, coupled with her attack on the Women’s March founders, was an interestingly ironic and intellectually inconsistent bit of two-stepping—an op-ed “about how identity politics are bad by a writer” who subsequently demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that “politics are her entire identity.”
Yet this was hardly the only one-two punch Bennet would throw. In August of 2017, he’d take another pair of intellectually dishonest shots. As Splinter’s Libby Watson ably documented at the time, Bennet’s combination play began with an editorial from Brookings fellow James Kirchick, slagging Chelsea Manning and Vogue magazine for admiringly profiling the Pentagon leaker in its August issue. There’s no doubt at all that most Vogue profiles tend ineluctably to dissolve anything of substance in the magazine’s gauzy reduction sauce. But Kirchick—whose larger case is that Manning would not be quite the cause-celebre if she wasn’t a transwoman—overheats his own pot to a fare-thee-well. His rousing call to arms went like this: “When Ms. Manning transmitted 750,000 secret military records and State Department cables to WikiLeaks in 2010, she not only jeopardized continuing missions and disrupted American diplomacy. She also put an untold number of innocent people’s lives in danger.” In fact, that’s a significant overstatement of things. According to a 107-page Department of Defense report surfaced by Buzzfeed’s Jason Leopold, “the disclosures were largely insignificant and did not cause any real harm to U.S. interests.”
Which isn’t to say that the disclosures didn’t harm someone’s interests:
The archive, which describes many episodes never made public in such detail, shows the multitude of shortcomings with this new system: how a failure to coordinate among contractors, coalition forces and Iraqi troops, as well as a failure to enforce rules of engagement that bind the military, endangered civilians as well as the contractors themselves. The military was often outright hostile to contractors, for being amateurish, overpaid and, often, trigger-happy.
That passage is part of a larger article by James Glanz and Andrew W. Lehren, documenting the “chaos” and “mayhem” caused by private defense contractors in Iraq. Here, there truly was significant evidence of harm done to U.S. interests: “Contractors often shot with little discrimination—and few if any consequences—at unarmed Iraqi civilians, Iraqi security forces, American troops and even other contractors, stirring public outrage and undermining much of what the coalition forces were sent to accomplish.”
That report was in the New York Times, by the way, which reported deeply on the Manning disclosures and—let’s face it—profited from their existence as well.
Mercenary on the Make
But the irony would hardly end there. The very next day, the Times op-ed page featured an advertorial offering from the infamous mercenary contractor Erik Prince, of Blackwater fame, comparing himself to Elon Musk and shilling for his latest venture, Frontier Services Group. Prince, the brother of Trump’s Education Secretary, was clearly putting up a shingle in this faintly disguised advertorial offering to let military clients know that all parties could carry blissfully on as though the moral and legal trespasses of the past dozen or so years simply hadn’t happened. It was an embarrassing virtual callback to The Atlantic’s Scientology sponsored-content debacle—only in the elite precincts of the Times, there was no pay-to-play arrangement. That sort of thing would only sully the reputation of thought-leading discourse in the paper of record.
Negligence increasingly seems to be characteristic of Times-branded opinion-makers.
And, again, it was New York Times journalists who have ably damned Prince over the course of many years. The justly celebrated Times ace investigative reporter Matt Apuzzo had chronicled the convictions of Prince’s Blackwater underlings “for their roles in a deadly 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square that marked a bloody nadir in America’s war in Iraq.” Times reporters Omar Al-Jawoshy and Tim Arango gave an invaluable public hearing for witnesses of Blackwater’s crimes. The paper’s Kirk Semple did the same for Blackwater’s victims. And believe it or not, it was Andrew Rosenthal’s New York Times editorial board who demanded, in April of 2015, “Justice for Blackwater Victims.”
As Maura Johnston might observe, there’s nothing in the above Bennet-sponsored op-eds, as written, that would survive in the world, on its own, as “thought.” Indeed, the only ostensible thought in any of this is that the internet’s constantly churning charnel house of pointless provocation and anger-baiting needed more cheap fuel. But here we also see the utterly pointless undermining of the Times’ own productive journalistic output—and not in the service of providing a forum for alternative ideas, as some would claim. In the case of Erik Prince, we’re talking about bad ideas from a thoroughly discredited man who should have been banished from polite society on the strength of the Times’ own reporting, instead granted both credibility and elite respectability.
When you consider how the Times’ journalists were said to be in open revolt against Rosenthal, you have to wonder how they think things have gone since Bennet—who came bearing the credential of a long and well-regarded tour as a Times reporter himself—was installed. And you might also have cause to wonder how Bennet feels about those who still gloriously perform the task at which he once toiled, with what was, by all accounts, a celebrated verve and fidelity.
In August 2017, a federal judge tossed out a defamation suit against the New York Times brought by one-time vice presidential candidate and itinerant political troller Sarah Palin. The issue at the center of the case was an editorial penned by the Times editorial board. Titled “America’s Lethal Politics,” the piece was pegged to the mass shooting of Republican lawmakers—who were in Alexandria, practicing for a charity baseball game—carried out by a gunman who had specifically targeted GOP lawmakers.
Palin was suing over one paragraph in particular, which the paper subsequently altered, but read in the original thusly:
Was this attack evidence of how vicious American politics has become? Probably. In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killing six people, including a nine-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and nineteen other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.
The relative tastefulness of using cross hairs in this fashion is, of course, questionable. But this account of those events is, in any case, wrong. Leaving aside the obvious distinction between placing cross hairs over congressional districts (which is what Palin’s PAC actually did), versus placing them over politicians, the simple fact of the matter is that Loughner was a paranoid schizophrenic, and too lost to mental illness to have reliably drawn any sort of connection to, or set of instructions from, a piece of paraphernalia from a political action group. (The Times’ correction, which asserts that “no such link” between Loughner and Palin’s cross hairs “was established,” really doesn’t do the matter justice—in fact, such a link was fully outside the realm of possibility.)
Of course, what was most absurd about all of this is that by June of 2017, when the Times published this editorial, the notion that Loughner was acting from a set of instructions from Sarah Palin’s political action committee wasn’t just fake news, it was old news. The wide world had long since deliberated on the matter, pondered the possibility, discovered the truth, and moved on.
Palin may not have uncovered a knowing attempt to defame her, but to her credit, her suit did shine a bright light on some flabbergastingly awful journalism. And the judge in this particular case, Jed S. Rakoff—who’d previously earned fame for his withering opinion of the SEC’s cowardly prosecution of Citigroup—wouldn’t let the matter pass without questioning the Times’ decisions. And so it came to pass that Bennet, who’d admitted to editing the piece, which was originally drafted by editorial board member Elizabeth Williamson, was called to testify. As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple reported, “Under questioning from Palin’s attorney and Rakoff, Bennet repeatedly said that he hadn’t read or remembered various stories noting that there was, indeed, no Palin PAC-Loughner link.”
Their exchange, in part, went like so:
Rakoff: Well, maybe I am asking a more narrow question. I am asking a question about grammar and sentence structure, which presumably you have some expertise in. The sentence in its entirety reads: “In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a nine-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear.” Doesn’t that mean as a matter of ordinary English grammar and usage that that sentence is saying that the shooting in 2011 was clearly linked to political incitement?
Bennet: That is not what I intended it to mean. I understand what you’re saying, Your Honor. But what I was thinking of was of the link between the victim and the overall climate, that there was actually an example of political incitement that we could point to in that case to create a link between the victim and the incitement. I wasn’t—what I wasn’t trying to say was that there was a causal link between—a direct causal link between this map and the shooting.
Rakoff: In the next sentence you seem to be saying that the political incitement was the result, in part, of Sarah Palin’s political action committee’s map, yes?
Bennet: In which sentence, Your Honor?
Rakoff: The very next sentence, “Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and nineteen other Democrats under stylized crosshairs.”
Bennet: Right, Your Honor. That is the—is again—in my mind was the example — the specific example of—and the word I used was “political incitement” or “incendiary rhetoric” that connected the climate to the victim.
In short, the entire origin story of the paragraph that had so wrong-footed the editorial and invited this legal predicament is that it was a fuzzily reconstructed memory of Bennet’s, pulled from the foggy recesses of his recollections in the service of some ill-considered whataboutism, that was too good to verify. Really, it was a mistake of imprecision that no working writer worth their byline would have made in 2017.
So it’s no wonder that Rakoff, in his final determination, concluded that Bennet’s “behavior is much more plausibly consistent with making an unintended mistake and then correcting it than with acting with actual malice.” Indeed, malice requires a studious attention to detail and rigorous thought before-the-fact. There’s no evidence in this case of either. Rather, it was sheer negligence.
Negligence increasingly seems to be characteristic of Times-branded opinion-makers. This September, the paper welcomed new hire Michelle Goldberg, formerly of Slate, to the Times op-ed page, apparently for the sake of viewpoint diversity. Alas, the day after her hiring was announced, the Times published a book review by Goldberg—a burn-it-down critique of Vanessa Grigoriadis’s book on campus rape, Blurred Lines. She portrayed the book as one filled with “baffling errors” of reporting. But on further review, it turned out that it was Goldberg, not Grigoriadis, who had mangled key facts, earning her torrents of scorn.
The result was one of the more dire Times corrections in recent memory.
A review on Page 11 this weekend about Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power and Consent on Campus, by Vanessa Grigoriadis, refers incorrectly to her reporting on the issues. She does in fact write about Department of Justice statistics that say college-age women are less likely than nonstudent women of the same age to be victims of sexual assault; it is not the case that Grigoriadis was unaware of the department’s findings. In addition, the review describes incorrectly Grigoriadis’s presentation of statistics from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. She showed that there is disagreement over whether the data are sound; it is not the case that she gave the reader “no reason to believe” the statistics are wrong.
Grigoriadis, who says Goldberg “essentially threw together some ideas she gathered during her time at Slate and punched me in the face with them,” wants a full retraction of the piece. It remains on the Times’ website, with its pompously assured and dismissive ex cathedra tone and a red-faced correction of the record that points to one more example of the turn toward trollgaze garbage.
Goldberg herself characterized the episode as “a round robin of fuckups”—not long after a memo from Bennet and his deputies had welcomed Goldberg to “the strongest lineup of columnists in the world.”
Of the two statements, Goldberg’s comes closer to describing James Bennet’s tenure so far.