This week, New York Times op-ed editor Bari Weiss tweeted out congratulations to U.S. Olympic figure skater Mirai Nagasu. The six-word tweet read, “Immigrants: They get the job done,” a reference to the line “Immigrants, we get the job done,” from the musical “Hamilton.” Within minutes, abuse started streaming in in response. The problem? Nagasu was born in California to immigrant parents, so is not herself an immigrant.
Weiss was berated as a racist on Twitter for what was either an honest mistake, or as she says, the use of poetic license to celebrate the contributions of immigrants to the United Sates. Never mind that Weiss, who is viewed as one the Times’ more conservative writers, was arguing in favor of immigration. By mislabeling Nagasu she engaged in racism, or a micro-aggression, or something.
The Internet is full of people of every political stripe who spend their day looking for absurd reasons to be offended. If that were as far as this incident went, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But it wasn’t. Instead, the following day Huffington Post ran a story about the Weiss tweet that contained an extensive anonymous, leaked conversations between Times employees from a chat server.
The discussion is clichéd identity politics gibberish of the kind we so often read about on our college campuses. At one point, a participant compares Weiss’ tweet to Japanese American internment in World War Two. But these weren’t college students or Twitter trolls, they were employees of the nation’s paper of record, arguably the most powerful newspaper in the world.
A Short Stint
On Tuesday, as the Weiss storm was gaining strength, another controversy hit the Times op-ed page. That morning they hired former Wired writer Quinn Norton to cover the tech world. Yet by Tuesday evening, Norton had been fired. The firing was also a result of social media. Almost immediately after news of the hire, old tweets from Norton in which she used derogatory language about blacks and gays emerged. In addition were statements she made about befriending neo-Nazis with an eye towards helping them to change.
Supporters of Norton pointed out that covering the dark corners of hacking and the Internet, which Norton has done for years, provides a context for her language that should be taken in account, that she was talking about racism, not engaging in it. Wherever one stands on the firing, in the space of two days, Internet anger from progressives directed at two op-ed page writers had flared up enough to affect discussions and decisions inside the paper.
All of this comes amidst a broader context of criticism from the Left directed at the Times op-ed page’s apparent uptick in conservative contributions in the wake of Donald Trump’s election (disclosure, I published an op-ed at the Times last year). Writing for the Ringer, after specifically calling out pieces by Ross Douthat, Bret Stephens, and Weiss, Justin Charity has this to say: “the paper’s post-Trump excesses have been exceptionally vulgar and wild; once-token provocations have become the paper’s most widely circulated missives, diluting the impact of its other departments’ work.”
To be clear, Douthat, Stephens, and Weiss are not exactly regarded as firebrands on the Right. Weiss’s pro-immigration tweet that started her controversy shows that. If you look at the political spectrum, the Times runs op-eds much farther to the Left than anything they run on the Right — which is fine. The opposite is the case at The New York Post. What is troubling though, is the idea that these articles are provocations, as opposed to good-faith arguments that progressives disagree with; the idea that conservative opinions have no place on Section A’s penultimate page.
We Need Diversity of Opinion
It’s tempting to say that this phenomenon is a result of the Trump presidency, but it may be more accurate to say that the Trump presidency is the result of this phenomenon. Progressive complaints that conservatives are just science-hating shills whose work does not belong in serious discourse predate Trump. It was exactly this dismissive approach the ideas and beliefs of millions of Americans that Trump tapped into by making “fake news” his greatest foil.
One can readily understand why the Times would react to Trump’s victory by trying to find more balance in its coverage. Clearly, almost everyone in the the media who assumed an easy Hillary Clinton victory had managed to miss something, and it was conservative, not more progressive, voices who most likely had new answers. But, notwithstanding the conservative contributors and hires, one has to live in a bullet-proof bubble to believe that the Times has become some kind of far-right Trojan horse.
In fairness, the Right is not immune from overreactions and needless outrage when the Times presents an op-ed that runs afoul of their shibboleths. Last year, a black professor wrote a piece wondering if black and white children can be friends. The screams of “racism” from many conservatives would have been right at home at the Occupy Wall Street general assembly.
The main reason to publish an op-ed section is to expose readers to a broad range of opinion, some of which they agree with, some of which they disagree with. We should hope that the Times does not give in to external and internal pressure to cut back on their new commitment to conservative voices.
Abandoning that commitment would not be catastrophic to conservative opinion. In fact, we are in the midst of a flourishing of outlets and journals on the Right. But it would mean we lose a vital space where progressives and conservatives can both go to be both soothed and, more importantly, challenged. Those spaces are growing increasingly rare as more and more people self-select to only read with what they agree.
“All the news that’s fit to print,” has been The New York Times’ motto since 1896. It has been understood as a commitment to objective journalism, and fair treatments of newsworthy subjects. In 2018 it is not clear if such a commitment, at least in the opinion section, is sustainable. Some people within and without the Times do not seem to believe there are any conservative voices fit to print.