The Maddening Crowd

As most of you probably know, the Times has decided to get rid of their public editor position. Why? Not entirely clear. Budget cuts is always a possible reason, of course, although it is only one salary. Furthermore, the consensus seems to be that the newest public editor’s performance was somewhat lackluster, but the logical solution to that would be replacing her, not eliminating the position.

In case you’re not familiar with it, the public editor is a position that was created in order to act as an internal regulatory force on the Times. Ideally, the position was seen as the advocate of the readers, uncovering and exposing problems in Times journalism, and, hopefully, spurring the newsroom to correct or remedy them. This post is actually not unique to the Times, several other major newspapers have or had an equivalent position at one point.

I guess we won’t ever know for sure why the Times made this decision, but, in the meantime, I decided to hop over to the old public editor page in order to find out exactly what we’re losing.

Of course, one of the public editor columns that quickly drew my attention was the one written after Bret Stevens published his first column as a regular Times op-ed writer. Stephens is a well-known Conservative writer who used to work for the Wall Street Journal, which, ideologically, has a decidedly different audience than the Times. The Times, however, to their credit, is (at least according to the former public editor) committed to providing a diversity of viewpoints on their opinion pages, in order to spark discussion, and, presumably, attempt to break up some echo chambers and filter bubbles. Stephens, though, was bound to be controversial from the start, and it doesn’t help that in his first column he tackled Climate Change, which has become somewhat of a touchy subject for liberals, ever since the Republican Party essentially abandoned it.

To his credit, what I take to be Stephen’s core argument is essentially reasonable: That treating anybody sceptical of Climate Change like an idiot or a luddite is unlikely to win the Left any converts. However, to be perfectly fair, his core analogy of likening sophisticated climate models to political polling is, well, somewhat tenuous, to put it nicely. Anyway, I don’t want to go into great detail on this subject, but I will say this: I’ve read a lot of arguments by members of the Conservative Intelligentsia that point to uncertainty in Climate Science as a reason to be sceptical of it. However, the argument suffers from a basic (and I think obvious) fallacy: Uncertainty goes both ways. It could, of course, turn out better than expected, but it could also turn out a lot worse. Let me put it this way: If scientists were 97% certain that an asteroid was going to hit earth in 2040, do you think we wouldn’t be preparing, even if they weren’t completely certain of the asteroid’s size? Sure, it might be small enough not to wipe out all of humanity… But really.

Okay, well, I could write an entire post just on that, but I’ve really indulged myself long enough here. The point is that this situation represents a classic problem that the public editor might seek to resolve. So what does she do?

Well, her column essentially starts out with sorting through the mail from readers, many of whom disapproved of Stephen’s article. She then, predictably, devotes a little space to defending the paper’s quest to broaden the ideological spectrum of its opinion writers, and essentially asks people why, if they claim to support this, they still reject Stephens. Basically, the response seems to be that liberals interpreted Stephen’s first column as a direct provocation. A few also seemed to question the Time’s commitment to truth, by publishing material that was so vehemently disagreed with by the scientific community. Actually, this is a legitimate concern, as the consensus behind Climate Change has finally become mainstream enough that some publications have stopped interviewing deniers and skeptics in attempts to add “balance” to their stories. However, here, I think the public editor has standing: Who said liberals get to be the sole purveyors of truth?

In the interest of balance, and, probably, of resolving the dispute, the public editor also interviews Stephens himself, which I think was a smart move. Essentially, he claims that rather than a provocation, he wrote the climate column because he had previously come under heavy criticism for his views on Climate Change, and felt he had to get things resolved as quickly as possible. I’m not sure I agree with this explanation, as wouldn’t you want to avoid a set of views you’ve been heavily criticized for in the past, especially in your first column? For the record, though, I also don’t believe that what Stephens did was wrong, and, to his credit, and the readers, he admitted that the critical comments on his piece were generally civil and well-reasoned.

Is this not an example of civilized discussion? There, now that we all know where we stand on everything, maybe we can find some way of working together. Actually, what worries me about the elimination of the public editor position is that a critical piece of this civilized discussion has now been removed. I think that this whole episode would have gone off worse, had the public editor not been there to attempt to shed some light on the disagreement. It bothers me that the Times has removed a position that seems so obviously worthwhile.


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