When James Bennet, previously the editor in chief of The Atlantic, became the editorial page editor of The New York Times in May 2016, he instituted a dramatic — and controversial — shift in what is one of the country’s most influential opinion forums. The changes included, as Bennet put it, publishing a breadth of perspectives that don’t necessarily match up with the Times’ own positions or the positions of their readers. Bennet added that, in his view, “particularly now, we owe it to our readers to present a wide range of intellectually honest opinions.”
Fine — or it would be if that’s what the Times was actually doing.
Bennet talks about presenting intellectually honest opinions. But one columnist he commissioned was Bret Stephens, a climate change skeptic. Stephens then dedicated his first column in the Times to questioning the validity of climate change, even though the vast majority of scientists agree that the Earth is warming. In addition, Bennet published an op-ed about the Russia scandal written by Louise Mensch, a former conservative member of Parliament in the United Kingdom who often spreads conspiracy theories about Russia on Twitter. He also ran a piece by Erik Prince, a conspiracy theorist and founder of the mercenary group Blackwater. These people’s ideas about the world shouldn’t fit under any reasonable definition of intellectual honesty. Yet Bennet allowed them to write for one of the most prestigious opinion sections in the country, all under the guise of intellectual diversity, or as he calls it, publishing a “wide range of voices.”
It’s true that intellectual diversity is important. But too often, perhaps because of the accusation that establishment publications are part of the “liberal media,” it has come to mean that conservatism, and particularly conservatism that is controversial and conspiratorial, is prioritized. Intellectual diversity, at its core, means viewpoints that are not often heard should be allowed to come to the forefront. But what about views from far–leftists, anarchists, indigenous people, impoverished individuals and those critical of the American empire? They too, under the edicts of intellectual diversity, should regularly get a chance to argue in publications like the Times. But in its efforts to publish a variety of perspectives, the Times has given people who espouse anti-establishment, left-wing views far less of an opportunity, instead preferring to outrage and provoke its establishment-oriented, slightly left–of–center readership with the most far-fetched ideas from conservatism.
The mainstream media has a responsibility to be a space for many different kinds of opinions. Therefore, if the Times wants to be a true vehicle of intellectual diversity, it should regularly publish both conservative and progressive viewpoints — as well as viewpoints from people who hold establishment and anti-establishment opinions about many aspects of society — and those perspectives should rely on verifiable facts and information rather than conspiracy theories and lies. But in its effort to reach Donald Trump’s “Red America,” the Times has forgotten this, and as a result, its opinion page has suffered.