It Didn't Start with the Bedbugs
September 5, 2019 7:25 AM   Subscribe

In New York Times Columnists vs. the Haters: A brief history of overreaction, Ashley Feinberg details NYT opinion pieces reacting to criticism.
posted by an octopus IRL (34 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
I should note that, while I enjoy a good NYT dunkfest as much as the next person, that's really not why I'm posting this. I found it to be an interesting, thoughtful breakdown of how influential columnists in a well-regarded paper react to criticism and some of the implications of that. I'm guessing the mods would prefer this not turn into an "NYT sucks" "they do vital journalism" "they suck lol" conversation.

Sorry if this seems like I'm trying to direct the conversation, which is not my intention, I just really did find the piece interesting and I don't want the post to get deleted because of tangentially-related fightiness about topics that have already been covered pretty extensively elsewhere. Thank you!
posted by an octopus IRL at 7:25 AM on September 5, 2019 [22 favorites]


There are a lot of workplaces where borrowing the credibility of the institution and your title to engage in a personal slapfight is explicitly against the rules. I don’t get why the Times is not harsher about this. I doubt an assistant there could get away with using their Times email address to write a strongly worded email to their landlord—it would be considered improper. So why aren’t columnists held to the same rules? A similar issue is the lack of fact-checking and similar editorial standards for these same columnists.
posted by sallybrown at 7:47 AM on September 5, 2019 [28 favorites]


Except social media didn't break Brett Stephens brain, he represents mainstream neoliberal centrist thought. That's why he was hired in a time of criminal presidents and climate disaster. This is just what they're like.
posted by Reyturner at 7:52 AM on September 5, 2019 [6 favorites]


It is interesting and not quite clear as to where it leads, but the era of unquestioned authority being taken as a given once one reached certain positions in society is decidedly gone. Thank goodness for that, but it does leave something of a void that needs filling by more representative and accepted expertise to provide reliable information about the world and the many areas that do rely on specialized information to really understand.

That should be the domain of news organizations like the NYT and sometimes still is, but those organizations need to reconsider how they are defining the balance of "reporting" and "opinion" and refine it to better match the needs of their readers/viewers and the world and drop the chicanery around facts being dictated by political leanings which deserve equal time and considerations on merit. Lose the op ed page pundits and turn to people with actual lived experience and expertise on the subjects to explain the nuances and details.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:57 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


Lose the op ed page pundits and turn to people with actual lived experience and expertise on the subjects to explain the nuances and details.

Just my casual view—but the Washington Post does seem to handle this better. They absolutely give space to some fringe/crank views on the op ed pages, but don’t make these people regulars, so it feels less like an endorsement and more like an exchange of ideas, especially because on the weekend they give prominent space to readers who write in in response.
posted by sallybrown at 8:00 AM on September 5, 2019 [8 favorites]


One thing that seems fairly clear is that the actual text getting run in the NYT’s op-ed section is barely edited, if at all (my impression as a journalist reading their product is that editors are involved in workshopping stories with the columnists before writing but whatever they turn in at deadline is what gets run). Hard to imagine that doesn’t play into the way it seems to blow some of the writers’ minds when somebody tells them their articles suck.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:05 AM on September 5, 2019 [12 favorites]


The Bruni one ("An Abomination. A Monster. That’s Me?") is a phenomenon I've seen happen a fair bit. Someone from point of lesser privilege suddenly realizing that position doesn't preclude them from being assholes about what privilege they do have. If you're used to the dynamic being one way and always thinking you're punching up, when the script flips and someone else is punching up at you, you don't have any more license to punch down than any other person with privilege.

This is exactly why intersectionality is important. Sadly, that's not a topic that even the NYT can manage apparently.
posted by bonehead at 8:13 AM on September 5, 2019 [15 favorites]


I still say it comes down to getting ad views. The NYT hires these people to write op-eds because they know it drives people to rage-read and rage-share. This drives clicks, and ad impressions, and increases revenue. There's really not much more to it than that. Ideology takes a back seat to the demands of capital.
posted by SansPoint at 8:14 AM on September 5, 2019 [5 favorites]


Becca Lewis, @beccalew [twitter]
In light of Bret Stephen’s truly atrocious column, I thought I’d do a quick thread explaining one of the prime reasons why the NYTimes opinion section sucks as badly as it does
The real problem with the New York Times op-ed page: it’s not honest about US conservatism, David Roberts
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:24 AM on September 5, 2019 [19 favorites]


It's a damn shame to see the NYT's ideology take a back seat to the demands of checks notes capital.
posted by Reyturner at 8:25 AM on September 5, 2019 [7 favorites]


Good lord:
Not long ago, a public challenge such as [Kathryn] Schulz’s would have been a firing offense. But the gradual degradation of editorial authority is another depressing feature of our digital age, as supposedly neutral reporters use social media to opine freely, ferociously and very publicly about whatever they please, not least their own colleagues and employers.
I knew Stephens sucked but this constant "I demand to be taken seriously!" shrieking into the void is... not a good look. Or good outlook. Or good anything. It's just really disgusting.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:40 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


The real problem with the New York Times op-ed page: it’s not honest about US conservatism, David Roberts

How could they be honest about conservatism and still defend it? I mean look at the painful rhetorical knots that Brooks has to tie himself into to not admit that he's spent his career being a polite defender of white supremacy?
posted by octothorpe at 8:42 AM on September 5, 2019 [8 favorites]


I'm wondering if this phenomenon will die down a bit once the columnists are young enough to have actually spent quality time in various Internet forum free-for-alls before they became "important." Hard to imagine a thirty-year-old whose brain isn't truly curdled by toxic privilege (well, this won't help Stephens, I guess!) emailing some random tweeter's boss over a mild personal insult. In all my years of having dumb fights on the Internet, never once did I feel the need to escalate anything to anyone's boss. That was more old-school Internet culture than extraordinary personal restraint, but we seem to be in a gap period right now between that culture and the culture where everybody's used to dunking on everyone else.
posted by praemunire at 8:45 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


praemunire: I have to imagine that - provided the top Journalism school are still churning out a few people with the full set of talent, ideals, and drive, then soon enough we'll start seeing EICs who understand social media and who are as vicariously embarrassed about all of these columns as the readers of them are.

But right now the editors are tacitly encouraging these public tantrums where they should be instead prescribing a cold shower and a strong cup of coffee.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:48 AM on September 5, 2019 [7 favorites]


The thing that really struck me, and the reason I posted this, is the absolutely inability or unwillingness of these well-compensated, influential people to tolerate even the most basic and valid criticism. It seems like they're incapable of even considering that they might engage in self-reflection and handle things differently in the future. The fragility absolutely staggers me and I am frustrated that they almost certainly will not change because every time someone suggests they perhaps should change they write a self-absorbed, histrionic column instead of actually fucking listening to what someone who's been harmed by them, or even simply disagrees with them, has to say.
posted by an octopus IRL at 8:54 AM on September 5, 2019 [19 favorites]


Like Bari Weiss wrote an entire piece uplifting and giving a platform to the "intellectual dark web" because someone mentioned it in a nice tweet about her! That's it, that's what happened! They cannot listen to criticism and they are pathetically easy to manipulate because they will amplify any voice that tells them they're Good, Actually, and this affects lots and lots of lives because these columnists are taken extremely seriously by many people.
posted by an octopus IRL at 8:57 AM on September 5, 2019 [14 favorites]


I'm wondering if this phenomenon will die down a bit once the columnists are young enough to have actually spent quality time in various Internet forum free-for-alls before they became "important."

Yeah, it's going to be great when they SWAT them instead.
posted by betweenthebars at 8:59 AM on September 5, 2019 [4 favorites]


It seems like they're incapable of even considering that they might engage in self-reflection and handle things differently in the future

They don't even need to do that! Haughty dismissal in your own head is free! If I had Bret Stephens's life, nothing short of rape/death threats would get me even mildly exercised. (Of course, then I'd have to be Bret Stephens.)
posted by praemunire at 9:04 AM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


The thing that really struck me, and the reason I posted this, is the absolutely inability or unwillingness of these well-compensated, influential people to tolerate even the most basic and valid criticism.

Not just well-compensated and influential people, but well-compensated and influential writers. Journalists, supposedly! It's supposed to be all but impossible to succeed as a writer while absolutely refusing to accept any criticism, because of the entire institution of editing, which is why I see this as first and foremost a failure by the NYT opinion editors to do their jobs.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:05 AM on September 5, 2019 [9 favorites]


I'm not a big fan of term limits, but I keep thinking the NYT columnists are in desperate need of one. Bret Stephens, Maureen Dowd, Frank Bruni, David Brooks -- how often do any of these people contribute meaningfully to our national discourse? Isn't that what the Times believes is their purpose? (By "discourse," I do not mean everyone on Twitter making fun of them.) Complaining about being criticized is a comically bad look, but, in fairness, it's not any more out-of-touch than these writers' usual output.
posted by grandiloquiet at 9:28 AM on September 5, 2019 [7 favorites]


One might also ask why newspapers continue to have opinion pages. There are some things only newspapers can do well. I'm glad they do them and am happy to support them. Printing half-assed opinion pieces by whatever arrogant twit happens to have connections to the publisher is not one of them. It hasn't been useful for 30 years. (Whether it was useful before that is a harder question.)
posted by eotvos at 9:37 AM on September 5, 2019 [10 favorites]


I'm wondering if this phenomenon will die down a bit once the columnists are young enough to have actually spent quality time in various Internet forum free-for-alls before they became "important."

I would imagine it will (after all, it has been acknowledged even by chief editor Dean Baquet himself that there is a generational divide in the newsroom), although, the question is: are younger writers even going to get a gig as a NYT columnist?
posted by bitteschoen at 9:38 AM on September 5, 2019 [1 favorite]


I'm just stunned by how baldly Bret Stephens' entire "philosophy" can be expressed as a desperate need to get everyone on board with the rigid hierarchy he has in his head and which he has devoted his life to appeasing, so that anyone not respecting it can be silenced. And clearly from someone who got to where they are purely on the twin powers of privilege and judicious ass-kissing and not at all through any talents or skills associated with their lofty position. Just fucking stunning.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:40 AM on September 5, 2019 [5 favorites]


Bitteschoen, a few already are – Sarah Jeong is on staff there, and Jamelle Bouie uses his Twitter account to extol the classic PlayStation action/RPG Vagrant Story instead of flipping out at the existence of people other than himself. The question is whether those two are token young people, and we’ll see more writers along their lines as millennials reach a “respectable age for the NYT, or they’re token sane people and new hires will continue to focus on thin-skinned narcissists regardless of age.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 9:45 AM on September 5, 2019 [11 favorites]


Also Alexandra Petri, at WaPo, is millennial as hell and the best argument going for keeping Op-Ed staff on newspaper payroll.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:49 AM on September 5, 2019 [14 favorites]


It's 100% not the lesson of this piece, but maybe NYT columnists just need to spend less time on Twitter.
posted by thivaia at 10:04 AM on September 5, 2019 [4 favorites]


It's 100% not the lesson of this piece, but maybe NYT columnists just need to spend less time on Twitter.

Maybe the second lesson should be to get rid of certain columnists altogether and/or not read the NYT.
posted by Fizz at 10:38 AM on September 5, 2019 [4 favorites]


The thing that really struck me, and the reason I posted this, is the absolutely inability or unwillingness of these well-compensated, influential people to tolerate even the most basic and valid criticism. It seems like they're incapable of even considering that they might engage in self-reflection and handle things differently in the future.

I feel that regardless of how much money one makes, regardless of one's level of influence, there's always going to be a percentage of any group of folks who refuse to learn how to deal with criticism. I can think of not-that-well compensated, non-influential people I know who respond to criticism in pretty much the same way as the writers in this piece- they don't have a platform to write Op-Eds, but the general attitude of "It's not FAIR how people are reacting to my words and thoughts! NOT FAIR AND MEAN!" is still there. It seems like the writers in this piece respond to and escalate like every.single.criticism they receive because they have no practice with hearing negative things about themselves to a great enough frequency that they don't feel the need to get emotionally invested every.single.time some rando doesn't like something they've written.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:59 PM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


Maybe the second lesson should be to get rid of certain columnists altogether and/or not read the NYT.

Luckily for me the NYT has recently made it super easy to not read it, and more difficult to read it than its content really warrants 95% of the time, so... 🤷‍♂️
posted by Caduceus at 3:22 PM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


I know it’s been said frequently, but I love it so much when these brave defenders of free speech and provocative ideas are so easily offended by other people engaging in free speech. What a bunch of whiny snowflakes.
posted by ActionPopulated at 5:27 PM on September 5, 2019 [2 favorites]


David Brooks seems to have completely lost it today; I really can't tell what he's trying to do with this column. I don't know if this is a criticism of people online, himself, the other columnists at the NYT; no idea:
I’ve lost faith in reason. Communication is for condemnation and arousal. Forgiveness has become foreign to me. Sometimes you have to be vicious for justice. If I afflict the comfortable I have served justice. I don’t have to worry about comforting the afflicted. If I attack faraway wrongdoers I don’t have to worry about tutoring a child.

Online war is a force that gives life meaning. Hatred gives me that delicious simulacrum of power. Did you really think you could raise me on gourmet coffee and yoga pants and I wouldn’t find a way to rebel against your relativism and materialism? Didn’t you observe the eternal pattern — that if you try to flatten a man to the bourgeois he will rebel by becoming a fanatic?

And yet … somehow it’s not working. Somehow politics doesn’t fill my soul, bring me peace or end my existential anxiety. I have helped create a harsh world in which vulnerability is impossible and without vulnerability there can be no relationship. Relationship is the thing that I long for the most and that I make impossible. I have cut myself off from the only thing that can save me.

I am indignant. I am superior. I read Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From the Underground.” I am alone.
posted by octothorpe at 4:24 AM on September 6, 2019 [4 favorites]


This is the dilemma of all the “campus free speech” freakout guys in our culture. They insisted for so long that “coddling” college students (which was really just giving a voice to college students who aren’t white guys) was going to lead to the downfall of society. But with the rise of the alt-right we see the actual danger comes largely from angry and violent disaffected white guys. Not the “safe space” “coddled” college students. Thus:
Adults in my life have not been trustworthy. Friends have not been trustworthy. Women reject me. I passed through school unseen. You have no idea how ill equipped I am to deal with my pain. I was raised in that coddling way that protects you from every risk except real life.
This figure he is describing here is incoherent because the pieces don’t fit. The generation “raised in that coddling way” that Brooks et al have been shrieking about for years is actually turning out well, to be empathetic adults who care about the world. They are not the alt right figures who actually pose a violent threat—the guys who felt they “passed through school unseen” and aren’t getting the respect they “deserve” as white guys from the modern world.

But Brooks and his ilk can’t let it go—to bring this back to the post topic, they’ve been clinging to this theory all these years in all these columns without any pushback.
posted by sallybrown at 4:52 AM on September 6, 2019 [7 favorites]


David Brooks seems to have completely lost it today; I really can't tell what he's trying to do with this column. I don't know if this is a criticism of people online, himself, the other columnists at the NYT; no idea:

Oh I think it’s intended as in line with the other rants about incivility on the internet and kids these days, only amped up to 11 thousand to supposedly create a false equivalence between far-right and far-left in terms of sociopathy and violence. No idea what prompted it. Entertaining reactions on twitter though, as well as in the comment section. It’s so horribly written! There are so many good writers out there more deserving of a NYT column, and I’m glad to hear there are already some younger better voices in there but they don’t deserve to have this crap dragging down the reputation of the entire Opinion section. It’s frankly embarassing.
posted by bitteschoen at 4:56 AM on September 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


(Digression: meanwhile in Canada, the infamous op-Ed columnist Margaret Wente has taken a buy-out and left The Glob. Which is news if you follow this sort of thing.)
posted by ovvl at 7:48 AM on September 6, 2019 [3 favorites]


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