The problem with NY Times and climate change isn't what you think

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The New York Times headquarters is shown in New York City.

There's a compelling case to be made that this past weekend was the most significant moment for the future of American journalism since the days of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. In Washington, where hundreds of top Beltway journalists and their B- and A-minus-list celebrity dates rallied for the first non-presidential White House Correspondents Dinner since Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, icons Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein rallied the troops. Woodward told the assemblage that "the effort today to get this best obtainable version of the truth is largely made in good faith. Mr. President, the media is not fake news."

That message apparently didn't reach Pennsylvania, where President Trump, before a rabid throng of supporters, was attacking the media with a vigor that might have made some of the 20th Century's worst tinhorn autocrats blush. The nation's leader did indeed rip two of the three leading TV news networks -- CNN and MSNBC -- as "fake news," went on a long and occasionally bizarre rant about "the failing New York Times," and labelled America's working journalists as "very dishonest people."

Trump's Straight Outta Nuremberg-style shot was arguably just a more extreme and more bitter version of things he's said before, but the next morning his chief of staff Reince Priebus poured out the chaser, that the White House was open to a constitutional amendment that would strip journalists of 1st Amendment protections. Given the general ineptitude of the Trump administration so far, the notion of rallying political support to pass such a measure in 38 states is laughable, but the sheer audacity of even proposing that dictator move was chilling. It probably should have led every paper and TV newscast in America, but for many everyday news consumers this wasn't even the biggest media-related outrage of the weekend.

Instead, thousands of readers -- exactly how many is closely held trade secret -- were jamming the switchboards of the above-mentioned New York Times to cancel their digital or print subscriptions. These were not readers who agree with Trump's critique that the most prestigious and best-known newspaper in America is "failing." To the contrary, these were mostly liberal-minded folk -- furious that the so-called Paper of Record had hired a conservative columnist, Bret Stephens, previously of the right-leaning Wall Street Journal, whose very first piece then challenged his readers to question the near certainty of the science surrounding climate change.

"Bret Stephens does not deny the reality of climate change, but he uses a familiar strategy from the skeptical playbook: misdirection," Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard, wrote to the Times in a letter published today -- one of a slew of letters, think pieces, online comments, and social media posts that savaged Stephens' debut offering.

And no doubt, Stephens -- who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2013 -- knew exactly what he was doing in launching his Times career with global warming skepticism, poking a large stick in a hornet's nest, almost in sync with what the president was doing in Harrisburg this weekend. Indeed, the very loud fallout broke along painfully familiar lines: The outrage voiced by liberals over Stephens' seeming rejection of the now widely accepted science on climate was derided by conservatives as smug, sanctimonious and intolerant, which I guess was what the columnist was really going for.

Yet I think almost all of the commentary -- and there's been tons of it -- has missed the bigger picture. The reason so many people were so mad to go so far as to cancel, or at least threaten to cancel, their Times subscriptions over the incident is in most cases only loosely related to what people believe about global warming. Rather, this is largely about branding -- about what people want, and thought they were getting, when they subscribe to the New York Times. And how that was crushed.

Ever since November 8, the Times has implicitly marketed itself -- and spent millions of dollars on a first-of-its-kind ad campaign -- as an antidote to Trump's America, as the avatar of a powerful idea that objective truths exist and that smart, educated. persistent people can unearth and promulgate those truths. Stephens'  column was light on science but heavy on the idea that experts are smug and possibly fraudulent -- the exact opposite of the worldview that inspires people to buy the New York Times.

Simply put, the Times decision to hire and promote Stephens trashed its own brand, the brand that it's spent years and millions of dollars building up. From a business standpoint -- and yes, the New York Times is very much a business, now struggling to find new strategies to save itself -- the move almost makes the 1985 debut of New Coke look good. And that the people who run the New York Times didn't see this -- and still don't seem to understand the problem -- should make people very afraid about the future of American journalism, especially at the moment when the media is also under assault from a wannabe strongman at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Times' editors who hired Stephens were following a tired playbook that's over a century old -- even as the nature of both journalism and how readers relate to the news has changed radically in the last decade. Simply put, mainstream news orgs have an almost mystical, quasi-religious faith in the notion that to be moral and ethical they must have some approximate balance between liberal and conservative opinion writers. But it wasn't always that way, and there's no logical reason for this in 2017.

Historically, the newspapers of early America -- the era when the notion of a free press was established in the Bill of Rights and took root in a young democracy, celebrated by observers like Alexis de Tocqueville -- were outrageously partisan. It was widely understood that owning a printing press gave you the power to promote your view of the world. That notion started to change around the end of the 19th Century for one reason: Money. A fast-growing middle class, with new leisure interests like sports and pop culture, wanted information, and promoting your publication as a Democratic or Republican organ killed off half your potential audience. The notion of a balanced opinion page with a variety of viewpoints flowed from that business decision -- not from some divine ethical mandate -- and it gained strength as big newspapers became monopolies or near-monopolies in the later 20th Century.

The 20th Century is over. A person who lives, say, in Youngstown, Ohio, can get his or her news from any of hundreds of sources, and not just the (wonderfully named) Youngstown Vindicator. That lessens any moral obligation, if there ever was one, for the op-ed editor in Youngstown -- or a New York Times editor at what Trump thinks is seedy real estate across from the Port Authority -- to offer every viewpoint under the sun. And something else that has arrived with the Internet is interactivity: Readers who disagree with the perspective of an opinion columnist have a chance to make an opposing argument, in real time. It's true that a price has been paid in civility -- but arguably a diversity of expressed viewpoints has never been wider than it is today.

Meanwhile, something else happened that should jar the old-fashioned notion of a balanced opinion page. The fundamental notion of what it means to be a liberal and, especially, a conservative has changed. Sure, to some degree it's still a debate between big government and small government, but it's now about a lot more than that. Modern conservatism -- especially the strain that Trump exploited in winning the presidency -- is largely based on not just mistrust but out-and-out resentment of elites in government, in the arts, in science and in journalism. It's a clash of civilizations over a worldview that liberals see as rational and fact-based and conservatives see as smug and arrogrant. That's the worldview that Trump assaulted before cheering zealots in Harrisburg and that Stephens attacked in black ink.

In terms of the critically important discussion about climate change and what to do about it, Stephens' column was pretty much a nothingburger. His one attempt at introducing a scientific fact managed to get that fact wrong.  One scientist summed up the piece as  “vague, general and full of innuendo, and not supported by any evidence or specific examples. This style of discourse is characteristic for people that do not have the evidence on their side.” But science wasn't the point so much as mocking experts and their "certainty" as a quality that one associates with arrogance, and not with accepting the large pool of facts that significant climate change is already taking place. The cornerstone of his argument is that smug experts and their polls didn't predict that Hillary Clinton would lose, so you shouldn't trust the experts on climate.

Seriously.

Again, the mere mention of Clinton is meant to be a dog whistle to right-wingers who despise Hillary and respond to this type of muddled message -- but who don't subscribe to the New York Times. Conversely, Stephens clearly revelled in waving a red cape in front of the people who do subscribe, his new readers. Mission accomplished.

But it's a mission that makes absolutely no sense. In the wake of Trump's election, the Times earlier this year launched the most ambitious ad campaign in its history, including a 30-second spot that aired during the Oscars at a cost of $2-2.5 million (or enough to hire 10-15 Pulitzer-quality investigative reporters for a year...just sayin'). The core message: "The truth is more important now than ever." That selling point struck a chord: Digital subscriptions to the Times reportedly skyrocketed.

Then, weeks later, the Times threw good money after bad to hire a columnist to say don't believe anyone who's selling you "the truth" and that scientists, pollsters, and -- by implication -- their professional cousins who report the news for outlets like the Times are smug jerks, probably peddling crap. What's more, in trying to stir up uncertainty over climate change, he was aiding and abetting Trump's fact-free, pro-fossil fuel political agenda. That's exactly the opposite of what new subscribers thought the Times was promising in those ads, to be a force that would counteract Trumpism. And now a number of Times editors and reporters seemed baffled that so many readers are hurt and confused. They don't understand their own business model, or brand.

In 2017, the notion of an ideological balanced roster of columnists is about as relevant as a Smith-Corona typewriter. This won't happen, but the New York Times should fire Bret Stephens tonight and probably some of its other small posse of conservative columnists as well. And then tomorrow the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Examiner and the Oklahoman can fire their liberal columnists (if they have any). That doesn't mean erecting a "great wall" around debate and discourse. If an independent writer submits a scientifically valid criticism on some aspect of the climate debate, the Times should publish that. But it shouldn't pay a staffer a large salary to show up twice a week to trash the core values of its paying customers.

The realization that the New York Times doesn't seem to understand why readers care about the New York Times is beyond disturbing. News organizations already face crushing business pressures from the Internet-fueled implosion of the old business model, so driving away even more customers in a foolish quest for "balance" is suicidal. As this weekend proved, Trump and his minions only intend to accelerate their assault on a free press. Fighting back will require money and public support -- two things that the Times eroded by hiring and promoting Bret Stephens.  If we all don't wake up and see what's at stake, we could be swamped by two high tides at the same time -- a flood of actual "fake news" and rising oceans.