A Tale of Two Columnists

Two recent additions to the NYT’s opinion roster weigh in on the Kevin Williamson hire and provide an instructive contrast.

By Nathan Pippenger

When the New York Times hired Bret Stephens as an opinion columnist last spring, editor James Bennet sent an announcement memo highlighting Stephens’s 2013 Pulitzer and praising his “profound intellectual depth, honesty and bravery.” This probably did little to reduce the skepticism of Times journalists who remembered some of the highlights of Stephens’s tenure at the Wall Street Journal, including his strained attempt to convince the world that Chuck Hagel is an anti-Semite and his finely-honed climate sophistry, developed in a string of columns which misinterpreted scientific research and raised specious objections under the guise of Just Asking Questions.

A few months later, Bennet announced the appointment of Michelle Goldberg to the same position (and praised her in nearly identical terms, citing her “intellectual depth, courage and ambition”). Until this week, the contrast provided by their overlapping tenures was more subtle than stark. However, with another controversial conservative appointment to a left-of-center opinion outlet—Kevin Williamson’s new gig at The Atlantic—Goldberg and Stephens have now each written a column on the same topic, which happens to be the nature of their own journalistic enterprise.

Goldberg’s opening sentences pull no punches: Williamson is a “dyspeptic reactionary” whose writing is “truly vicious.” But these condemnations are paired with a frank admission that she nonetheless finds him a “bracing” guide to “hidden currents of cruelty in my own thinking.” For Williamson’s reputation as an anti-Trump conservative was formed, more than anything else, by his notorious denunciation of the “the dysfunctional small towns” of MAGA country, places that Goldberg—from a quite different left-wing perspective—also recognizes with a mixture of familiarity and guilt. “I grew up in a conservative rust belt suburb and hated it,” she admits, “and I loathe populist sanctimony that treats my stultifying hometown as more authentically American than the vibrant city I escaped to.” In just a few sentences, Goldberg expresses the uncomfortable mixture of repulsion and self-recognition that can sometimes be the catalyst of genuine introspection, even when it comes from unlikely or unlikable sources.

While Goldberg opens with self-examination; Stephens opens with self-pity. Implicit, yes, but unmistakable. “Dear Kevin,” he begins,

You had the right to remain silent. Now every word you’ve ever uttered, and every one you ever will, can and will be held against you.

I’m sorry to have to write you, for two reasons. Sorry, first, that you have to endure having your character assailed and assassinated by people who rarely if ever read you and likely never met you. Sorry also that your hiring as a writer for The Atlantic has set off another censorious furor in media circles when surely there are more important subjects on this earth.

The epistolary structure here implies a sort of intimacy to the communication, but when compared to the disarming candor with which Goldberg speaks to her readers, it rings immediately hollow. Especially since the pity purportedly directed toward Williamson is suspiciously self-referential: Character assassination “by people who rarely if ever read you” is more or less how Stephens portrayed left-wing objections to his own recent hire, which in his view set off, as he says about The Atlantic’s decision, “another censorious furor in media circles.” At this point in the column, the reader is supposed to sympathize with Williamson and, by extension, Stephens, the latter of whom escaped the censorious mob and character assassins to ascend to the most coveted space in opinion journalism. Forgive me if I elect to reserve my sympathies for needier figures.

Matters do not improve when the respective columns pivot from the individual case to the broader phenomenon. In a crisp formulation, Goldberg captures the context of Williamson’s hire: “But there’s a broader significance to these recurring fights, because they’re about how we decide which views are acceptable at a time of collapsing mainstream consensus. The intellectual implosion of the Republican Party, it turns out, creates challenges for liberals as well as conservatives, because suddenly it’s not clear which views a person who aspires to fair-mindedness needs to grapple with.” Since Goldberg has herself confessed to such a grappling with the writer in question, her aspiration to fair-mindedness is credible; it illustrates the precise liberal dilemma examined by her column. But where Goldberg contemplates, Stephens condemns: “Learning does not require agreement,” he announces, reaching for wisdom but grasping mostly banality. (This is the kind of thing it might be appropriate to announce to a freshman lecture class; to his readers it’s merely insulting.) “There’s a reason this section of the newspaper is labeled ‘Opinion,’ not ‘Affirmation,’ ‘Reinforcement,’ or ‘Emotional Crutch.’ Liberals used to know that.” Where his colleague found a prompt for reflection, Stephens finds yet another confirmation of his broad-brush theory of What’s Wrong With Liberals.

Much more could be said about the tactics with which Stephens, while adopting his standard pose as fair-minded debate’s beleaguered defender, advances his own defense of Williamson. There’s his strange defense of Williamson’s now-deleted tweet advocating hanging women who have abortions: “I jumped at your abortion comment, but for heaven’s sake, it was a tweet.” The unarticulated premise is that remarks made on Twitter don’t really count as representative of a person’s views (and in any case, Williamson doesn’t seem to have recanted this one). To my mind, this is questionable at best. Likewise questionable is Stephens’s suggestion that Williamson will provide readers of The Atlantic with arguments that are “thoughtful, thought-provoking and offered in good faith.” In my experience, Williamson’s writing tends to confuse hyperbole with erudition.

So far, none of this controversy seems to have had any effect on Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg’s decision. And to the extent that the foregoing contributes, in a small way, to that controversy, it’s not as a commentary on the decision, but as a commentary on the commentary. I’ve largely avoided speaking directly to the appointment itself not only because so many other writers have already weighed in, but because the Times has just provided a revealing example of what the Atlantic’s Goldberg claims to be trying to develop: a forum in which different perspectives can clash. That contest is never clearer than when two writers get a chance to weigh in on the same topic. Perhaps, if Williamson’s appointment goes forward as planned, The Atlantic will soon have a chance to pair his work alongside a parallel effort from one his many distinguished soon-to-be colleagues. My guess is that it would prove revealing in precisely the way the Times’s own contrast has.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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