James Bennet, the editor of the New York Times editorial page, lately has been waging his share of battles, which he no doubt would be enjoying more if he did not give a damn about rude things combatants say about him and his publication.
But he does give a damn.
Bennet, whom I’ve known since we were both covering Bill Clinton’s White House, has faced a succession of social media uproars over the past year as he revamps and modernizes the Times opinion section. Even as the page has retained its historically liberal bearings, and regularly lacerates President Donald Trump, it is now regarded with suspicion by some loud voices on the left. There was a backlash to Bennet’s hiring of conservative columnist Bret Stephens (who wrote skeptically about the evidence for man made climate change), as well as to his abortive attempt to bring on tech writer Quinn Norton (the hiring was quickly reversed after Twitter posters exposed a friendship with a neo-Nazi). These and other moves by Bennet to enliven his pages caused such intense distress by some at the Times that, in recent months, he met with a group of aggrieved colleagues—the transcript of which later leaked—and wrote an all-staff memo that explained his philosophy of debate.
For Bennet, giving a damn is a trap of sorts. His tenure has been about standing strong on behalf of a style of discourse that requires making points with precision, insists on the distinction between honest argument and propaganda, and defaults to an assumption that the other side has a legitimate point of view and is deserving of respect … even when that other side is reveling in its contempt toward people who disagree.
So, do the critics bother him? “Look, I don’t like to be called a Nazi,” Bennet said in a recent interview with Politico Magazine in his Timesoffice.
Then, immediately, he seemed to realize that this sounded too much like the kind of hyperventilating, name-calling language some critics use against him and Times colleagues. “I should subtract that,” he quickly added. “I’ve been told I’ve been called a Nazi; I haven’t seen it. I shouldn’t say that.” (He has been called a Nazi sympathizer on social media.)
“I don’t know that anybody likes to be screamed at,” he continued. “Maybe there are people, but I’m not one of them. And I take it seriously. … Our posture is that we don’t have all the answers.”
That earnest and nuanced answer was in its own way a distillation of the central issue regarding his leadership, since March 2016, of one of the most esteemed editorial spaces in American journalism at a time when the space for polite disagreement seems to be shrinking rapidly. Bennet believes the editorials his team writes, and the op-ed columns he oversees, are about helping to recreate an intellectual and moral center in American public life. His version of the center is by no means a place in which everyone will agree with each other or split the difference on matters of fundamental belief. But it is one in which even people with strong views acknowledge the limits of their wisdom and welcome opposing perspectives, and arguments are intended as instruments ofillumination.
There is an alternative view—shared, as recent episodes have shown, even by some journalists within the Times—that sees Bennet’s conception of the center as a place of moral dilution and even surrender. By these lights, in the America of Donald Trump and Fox News, arguments are instruments of power. If demagogues are willing to polarize on behalf of wrong-headed or even intentionally false arguments, it is folly for the Times and other establishment voices to not be equally polarizing on behalf of enlightened ones.
The controversies and Bennet’s views about an editor’s responsibility in an age of ideological and cultural combat were the subjects of our own recent conversation, excerpted below.