Kathleen Kingsbury: Endorsing two candidates confused Times readers

Kathleen Kingsbury. Photo via The New York Times.

The Nieman Journalism Lab’s Sarah Scire last week spoke with The New York Times’ recently named opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury. It’s an interesting conversation that defies easy summary, but I was struck that Kingsbury now says she and the Times “ended up confusing people” when they endorsed two presidential candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, in last year’s Democratic primaries.

More than anything, I think Kingsbury represents steady leadership after the tumultuous James Bennet era, often caricatured as coming to an abrupt end over the infamous op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton but that was in fact — as Scire points out — punctuated by numerous lapses in judgment. Kingsbury demonstrated that steadiness last week when she killed a piece by columnist Bret Stephens. If the commentary, an n-word-filled defense of Don McNeil, had run, critics would be wondering if Kingsbury were up to the position. (Stephens’ point, such as it was, is that it ought to be considered acceptable to quote others using the n-word as long as there was no racist intent.)

I was also interested to see that Kingsbury and publisher A.G. Sulzberger “tend to talk daily.” The rule of thumb for good publishers is that they should stay out of the newsroom but that involvement in the opinion section is appropriate. John and Linda Henry are certainly involved in The Boston Globe’s opinion operation. On the other hand, Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is known to be as hands-off with opinion as he is with news coverage. Sulzberger is entitled to have his say, but maybe he ought to back off and let Kingsbury do her job.

I had a long interview with Kingsbury several years ago, when she was the Globe’s managing editor for digital. She struck me then as capable and creative. The Times’ gain was definitely the Globe’s loss.

Correction: Kingsbury objected to my original characterization that she had said the Times made a mistake by not endorsing just one of the Democratic candidates. “I still believe choosing the two candidates was the right thing to do,” she says. I’ve updated this post to reflect that.

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Bret Stephens takes on the 1619 Project — and comes out on the losing end

Let me wade ever so gently into New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’ latest, in which he joins legions on the right in trashing his own newspaper’s Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project. Since I’m a firm believer in the adage that if there’s something rotten floating around the top of the barrel you need not go fishing underneath to see if there’s something better, I’ll just point to this one passage. Stephens writes:

Here is an excerpt from the introductory essay to the project by The New York Times Magazine’s editor, Jake Silverstein, as it appeared in print in August 2019 (italics added):

“1619. It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?”

Now compare it to the version of the same text as it now appears online:

“1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619?”

In an email, Silverstein told me that the changes to the text were immaterial, in part because it still cited 1776 as our nation’s official birth date, and because the project’s stated aim remained to put 1619 and its consequences as the true starting point of the American story.

Readers can judge for themselves whether these unacknowledged changes violate the standard obligations of transparency for New York Times journalism. The question of journalistic practices, however, raises deeper doubts about the 1619 Project’s core premises.

Pardon the long excerpt, but I wanted you to get the full context. Now, was anyone who read the original text somehow fooled into thinking that the United States was actually founded in 1619? Did anyone go running to Wikipedia to double-check on that 1776 thing? Of course not. It is ludicrous to think that the idea of 1619 as our country’s founding year is anything other than “a metaphoric argument,” as Nikole Hannah-Jones, who conceived of and produced the project, argues.

Echoing President Trump, Stephens complains that this supposedly adulterated history is being taught to school children. Well, the obvious response to that is that maybe the editors decided to tweak the language a bit because they knew kids who haven’t been exposed to this history might, in fact, take the 1619 date literally. So what?

All of this is pretty rich coming from Stephens, who less than a year ago offered a cryptic quasi-endorsement of the idea that Ashkanazi Jews are genetically more intelligent than others, and then got off with an Editor’s Note that didn’t quite acknowledge what he had done, as Jack Shafer of Politico pointed out at the time.

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Bennet’s out as newsrooms come to terms (or not) with Black Lives Matter

Photo (cc) 2010 by samchills.

At least at the moment, I have little to add to the story of James Bennet’s departure as editorial-page editor of The New York Times beyond what Ben Smith of the Times, Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute and Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review have written, and what I wrote last week.

As Smith, Jones and Allsop point out, Bennet’s misguided decision to run Sen. Tom Cotton’s ugly commentary advocating violence against protesters should be seen as part of a larger story that encompasses Wesley Lowery’s unfortunate experience at The Washington Post, the resignation of Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Stan Wischnowski over his paper’s horrendous “Buildings Matter, Too” headline, and the right-wing Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s meltdown over Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter whom they claimed couldn’t be trusted to cover Black Lives Matter protests because of an innocuous tweet she had posted.

Because of the Times’ central place in our media culture, Bennet’s departure is the big story. As the coverage makes clear, Bennet lurched from one misstep to another during his time as editorial-page editor, so it would be a mistake to attribute his departure solely to the Cotton op-ed. I don’t think he ever fully recovered from his mishandling of a Bret Stephens column in which Stephens came very close to endorsing a genetic basis for intelligence.

Bennet will be replaced through the election on an interim basis by deputy editorial-page editor Katie Kingsbury, who won a Pulitzer when she was at The Boston Globe. Kingsbury is terrific, and I hope she’s given a chance to earn the job.

Finally, a semi-related incident involving the Globe. You may have seen this on the front of Sunday’s print edition:

There’s no question that the cover, which you can see here, would have been considered entirely inoffensive before a police officer killed George Floyd. Even now I’m not sure how many readers would have been outraged. Still, I think the Globe made the right call. An abundance of caution and sensitivity is what’s needed at the moment.

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Yes, Bret Stephens really did write that there might be something to eugenics

Over the weekend, media Twitter was aflame over a column by Bret Stephens of The New York Times in which he appeared to endorse the notion that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically more intelligent than other people. You can read the original here.

Stephens, who should have already been on probation for past offenses, appears to have gotten away with it again. After the column appeared in print, it was appended with an Editor’s Note saying that Stephens intended to say no such thing. The column was edited after the fact to remove the offending reference as well as a link to a study he was citing. You can see the new version with the Editor’s Note here.

I had intended to write a full post. But this piece by Jack Shafer in Politico is so comprehensive and spot-on that I’m going to suggest that you read it in full. I’ll just offer a few points that I think deserve emphasis, especially among those who’ve been inclined to give Stephens the benefit of the doubt.

  • Stephens’ original column links to a 2005 study whose executive summary claims, over and over, that the Ashkenazi may well have certain genetic advantages with regard to intelligence. For instance: “In particular we propose that the well-known clusters of Ashkenazi genetic diseases, the sphingolipid cluster and the DNA repair cluster in particular, increase intelligence in heterozygotes. Other Ashkenazi disorders are known to increase intelligence.”
  • One of the co-authors of that paper, Henry Harpending, has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “white nationalist” and a longtime advocate of eugenics — that is, discredited science that argues for the genetic superiority (and inferiority) of certain races and ethnic groups.
  • Stephens did not dismiss the study. Rather, he glossed over it, writing that whether it’s true or not, it’s less important in explaining Ashkenazi intelligence and achievements than their environment. Thus Stephens piously claims that the genetic theory matters less than other factors, but that there might nevertheless be something to it. Here is the key quote from Stephens: “Aside from the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher I.Q.s, there is the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose.”
  • The Times’ re-editing of Stephens’ column goes far beyond correcting errors or clarifying ambiguities and raises ethical concerns of its own. Moreover, it signals that publisher A.G. Sulzberger and editorial-page editor James Bennet are once again prepared to walk away rather than deal with the mess they created when they hired Stephens away from The Wall Street Journal in 2017. Stephens is not just a Pulitzer Prize-winning #NeverTrump conservative; he is also someone who regularly engages in trollish behavior seemed mainly designed to call attention to himself at the expense of the Times’ reputation.

At a moment when Jews are under attack both in New York and nationally, it was unconscionable for Stephens, who is himself Jewish, to add fuel to pernicious, discredited theories about race and intelligence. I hope we learn in the days ahead that Stephens didn’t walk away quite as unscathed as it would appear.

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