It's not what Bret Stephens said. It's where he said it.
That's the chief takeaway from the press' collective freak-out this weekend over conservative columnist Bret Stephens' debut article at the New York Times.
Stephens, who came to the Times after nearly 20 years with the Wall Street Journal, suggested in an op-ed concerning the fierce political debate surrounding climate change that, "if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it."
"[O]rdinary 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," he added.
Despite that he was careful to note he doesn't "deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences," the article left many reporters and pundits in a state of disbelief.
Vox.com's David Roberts said Monday in a bluntly titled response article, "The New York Times should not have hired climate change bullshitter Bret Stephens."
David Sirota, of the International Business Times added elsewhere, "False equivalence is a newspaper hiring a climate change denier in the name of manufacturing an artificial image of balance."
Others declared proudly on social media that they had cancelled their subscriptions.
The reactions, though not entirely surprising, are amusing considering who Stephens is, and what he has done with himself for the last decade.
It's important to remember he is not some random blogger the Times plucked from obscurity and handed a massive megaphone. Stephens, who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, spent 16 years at the Wall Street Journal, one of the largest, best known and most circulated newspapers in the United States. He spent the latter portion of his career with the Journal penning opinion articles, many of which dealt directly with the issue of climate change.
His positions are not new, his ideas not out of the blue and he is not unused to having a major platform from which to air them. Further, in all the years that the Journal employed Stephens as an opinion writer, national media didn't try to shame the newspaper into firing him. They didn't encourage readers to cancel their subscriptions. Members of the press certainly didn't mind sharing the Journal's in-depth reporting, especially when it concerned the Trump presidential campaign.
It was only when Stephens came to the Times that his ideas became cause for widespread protest.
The meltdown this month is more about reporters being upset that a premium media brand has stained its reputation with a conservative voice than it is about the paper giving foolish people space to write (Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman still have columns, after all).
The anger over Stephens' article is about the Times' prestige, not the spread of supposedly dangerous ideas. It's not as if the Times is unused to giving space in its opinion section to controversial materials or authors. Just last month, the paper's opinion section published an article by an honest-to-God convicted terrorist. A few days later, it published an op-ed by Vivian Gornick that amounted to little more than a love letter to the greatly diminished Communist Party in the United States.
Journalists' social dynamics often resemble those found in a typical high school, where raging hormones and emerging adult identities fuel an ongoing obsession with status and placement in a pecking order.
In high school, students tend to be hyper-conscious of their social standing. As such, they work hard to avoid even the appearance of association with someone who is other. Every high schooler has his eye on being seen as one of the cool kids, and there's no surer way of achieving this end than to gain admission into the most popular clique.
With Stephens writing for the Times, reporters seem to be less concerned about what he says – indeed he has been saying this sort of stuff for a while – and more upset that the Times, which is considered the most prestigious of media cliques, allows him the space to say it.
It's not what Stephens said. It's that he said it while sitting with the most popular clique at lunch.
This article has been updated.