Should the New York Times Fire Their Climate-Denying Columnist?
For years now, we’ve been calling out for the removal of denial from mainstream media. But today we want to talk about free speech.
First and foremost, it bears repeating that the editorial separation between opinion and reporting means hiring a denier on the opinion side of the New York Times has no influence on the Times’s top-tier climate journalism. One bad opinion hire among dozens of outstanding reporters does not justify canceling a subscription; that’s shooting yourself in the foot.
That said, the outrage caused by the Times’s decision to hire Bret Stephens, which we’ve covered before, is well deserved. Joe Romm is absolutely right in his (many) criticisms of the decision and responses of the public editor to the initial criticism and further comments Stephens made in a Vox interview.
Stephens published his first column on Friday. The piece suggests that if scientists and advocates told the public the science is less certain than it actually is, they would be more likely to believe it. Romm and Dana Nuccitelli at the Guardian have already done a nice job handling the factual failings with the column. We’d also like to point out that Stephens’s thesis flies in the face of the social science showing consensus messaging is key to accepting the reality of climate change.
But should he be censored, his views silenced?
For some time now, the right has been building a case that the left wants to shut down free speech it doesn’t like (Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel even wrote a book on it). This argument is a deliberate distortion of the difference between silencing and ignoring speech. And there’s a difference between not wanting to propagate factually inaccurate statements and shutting down opinions.
Just because a columnist is not given an audience to deceive does not mean they have been silenced. A news organization has an obligation to tell the truth. It has no obligation to provide a platform for deception. An institution has a right to exercise its editorial judgement. This is why we have no issue with a denier speaking at an event with actual experts: An informed audience knows better than to believe him and can laugh right in his face.
But for the general public readership of the Times opinion page, should Stephens be allowed to publish factually inaccurate columns, for sake of free speech? No. The Times has no obligation to deceive its own readers. Is there some value to being aware of opposing opinions? Yes, of course. Is there value in reading lies? After years of writing the Denier Roundup, we can tell you: No, we’ve not had any grand epiphany or uncovered any unexpected avenue for disarming deniers.
Should the Times fire Stephens? Probably not—we should see if he can learn from these mistakes. Should they fact check his columns? Absolutely. If Stephens’ editors tell him not to lie about climate change or he’ll be fired, is that censorship? Not at all. Should he be mocked and ridiculed for his ridiculousness? Absolutely. (And by his new colleagues no less).
There is a difference between silencing someone and choosing not to hand them a microphone. There is a difference between suppressing speech and not offering a liar a stage. There is a difference between free speech and fake speech. We hope that the Times’s readership can use Stephens’s upcoming columns as valuable lessons in distinguishing between the two.