New York Times columnist Bret Stephens ambushed and gravely wounded his own career on the evening of Dec. 27 when his piece about—bear with me here—the alleged superior intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews went live on the Times website.
As Twitter fury rose to smite Stephens for his “The Secrets of Jewish Genius” column and press coverage tilted hard against him, his editors attempted some post-publication damage control. They went back into his column and simply deleted the most provoking passages from his copy, expunged the reference (and link) to a controversial and brutally debunked race-science paper from 2005, and added a note explaining that it was not Stephens’ “intent” to argue that “Jews are genetically superior.”
The Times disavowal and re-edit (tellingly neither co-signed nor acknowledged by Stephens) was too little and too late—if you’re going to edit a piece, the smart move is to edit before it publishes. More than that, it was clearly wrong about what he was saying. Jewish genetic superiority was the exact direction his woolly argument was headed, something easily deduced from reading the passages excised from the original column. If Stephens and his editors want to insist he was merely misunderstood, they do so at their own peril. As writer Paul Fussell observed long ago, when a writer is as widely “misunderstood” as Stephens claims he was, it’s almost always the writer’s fault.
The Stephens self-mauling did not come as a complete surprise. Just a few months ago, he assumed a vindictive and petty pose by bullying a professor who playfully called him a “bedbug” on Twitter. Other Stephens columns in the Times about global warming and Ilhan Omar had been irritating the paper’s liberal readers (he’s a conservative) since he moved over from the Wall Street Journal in 2017, but by outraging readers across the political spectrum, his “Jewish Genius” piece marked a new personal low.
Nobody pities—nor should they pity—the political columnist. He usually wins the position after distinguishing himself in the journalistic arts, often reporting or editing, but sometimes editorial writing or even politics itself. It’s a berth whose great privilege is outweighed only by its fringe benefits: a major-media columnist can negotiate generous book contracts, join the lucrative speaking-tour racket, gain invitations to all the swank political parties, and waddle through life’s other venues as a boldface name. At newspapers like the New York Times, the op-ed page columnists are treated as a kind of journalistic royalty, granted carte blanche to write whatever they want, as New York Times op-ed page columnist Gail Collins explained in 2016. “The theoretical rule is that the editor can’t force a columnist to make a change,” Collins wrote. “Remember, they’re not responsible for our opinions. If there’s a standoff, the only thing the editor can do is pull the column out of the paper. But as far as I know that rule has never, ever been tested.”
Did Stephens seek the advice of an editor before he filed his column? Perhaps his future success at the Times could be assured by finding a sturdy editor unwilling to sign off on slapdash, embarrassing copy like the “The Secret of Jewish Genius.”
What’s good for the columnist is not always good for his publication. Several hundred columns into his run, even the wisest columnist exhausts his store of ideas and starts repeating himself. That’s not so terrible if the ideas can withstand the tensile torture of being recycled, but such robust ideas are rare, and it becomes time to send the columnist to pasture.
But because columnists come to regard their jobs as tenured, lifetime positions, moving one to a new beat or (god forbid!) a noncolumnist position is too emotionally draining for most top editors. So instead, they wait for the columnist to approach retirement age and cull with a buyout.
There are exceptions to these rules. George F. Will, 78, a political columnist for 45 of them, can still bring the goods. On his good days, my old boss Michael Kinsley, 68, can kill you with cleverness. Mary McGrory was still filling the pot with hot copy at the age of 84. But it could be that Stephens, a relative youngster at 46 who started columnizing in 2006, has exhausted his highest grade ore. Maybe he should start looking for a job in management or an easy post at a journalism school?
The columnist’s duty has always been to stimulate and infuriate his readers, thereby opening their minds to new vistas. But in the Internet era, that’s not always how it turns out. Readers are already overstimulated and showboating moves like Stephens’—grabbing the third-rail of race-science without first donning insulated gloves—can end in disaster. I’ll leave it to Stephens and his editors to decide whether his “Jewish Genius” column was a miscue or a cue for a curtain call.
Am I washed up, too? I ask myself this every morning in the mirror. Send your assessment via email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have a column, kind of. My Twitter feed peddles only news. My RSS feed knows what it’s like to be dead.