Ethics Hero: New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Bret Stephens


Bret Stephens has been criticized on this site for regularly failing his alleged assignment of bringing a principled conservative voice to the New York Times op-ed pages, and seeming to yield to the strongly biased culture of the uenthical paper that employs him.

In his most recent column, however Stephens courageously and unblinkingly calls out the New York Times’ controversial “1619 Project” for what it is—dishonest, misleading, falsified—oh, let’s not mince words— crap. [Ethics Alarms discussed the “1619 Project” and its unethical creator, Times reporter and race activist Nikole Hannah-Jones, here] Josh Blackmon, for example, writing at Reason, thinks that the columnist metaphorically biting the hand that feeds him will mark the beginning of the end of Stephens at the Times. After all, a Times editor recently resigned after the paper’s Jacobins called for his head for daring to allow a Republican Senator to voice an opinion that went against the Times’ view of the world. Stephens has gone far, far beyond that.

He knows it, too. At the end of his dissection of the bad history and unethical journalism that disgracefully won the Times a Pulitzer Prize, the columnist writes,

For obvious reasons, I’ve thought long and hard about the ethics of writing this essay. On the one hand, outside of exceptional circumstances, it’s bad practice to openly criticize the work of one’s colleagues. We bat for the same team and owe one another collegial respect.On the other, the 1619 Project has become, partly by its design and partly because of avoidable mistakes, a focal point of the kind of intense national debate that columnists are supposed to cover, and that is being widely written about outside The Times.

To avoid writing about it on account of the first scruple is to be derelict in our responsibility toward the second.All the more so as journalists, in the United States and abroad, come under relentless political assault from critics who accuse us of being fake, biased, partisan and an arm of the radical left. Many of these attacks are baseless. Some of them are not. Through its overreach, the 1619 Project has given critics of The Times a gift.

Among Stephens’ damning points:

Journalists are, most often, in the business of writing the first rough draft of history, not trying to have the last word on it. We are best when we try to tell truths with a lowercase t, following evidence in directions unseen, not the capital-T truth of a pre-established narrative in which inconvenient facts get discarded. And we’re supposed to report and comment on the political and cultural issues of the day, not become the issue itself. As fresh concerns make clear, on these points — and for all of its virtues, buzz, spinoffs and a Pulitzer Prize — the 1619 Project has failed.

In his introduction, [New York Times Magazine editor] Silverstein argues that America’s “defining contradictions” were born in August 1619, when a ship carrying 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from what is present-day Angola arrived in Point Comfort, in the English colony of Virginia. And the title page of Hannah-Jones’s essay for the project insists that “our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written.” Both points are illogical. A “defining contradiction” requires a powerful point of opposition or inconsistency, and in the year 1619 the points of opposition were few and far between. Slavery and the slave trade had been global phenomena for centuries by the early 17th century, involving Europeans and non-Europeans as slave traders and the enslaved…What was surprising was that in 1776 a politically formidable “defining contradiction” — “that all men are created equal” — came into existence through the Declaration of Independence. As Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1859, that foundational document would forever serve as a “rebuke and stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.” It’s why, at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery, Lincoln would date the country’s founding to “four score and seven years ago.”

As for the notion that the Declaration’s principles were “false” in 1776, ideals aren’t false merely because they are unrealized, much less because many of the men who championed them, and the nation they created, hypocritically failed to live up to them. Most of us, at any given point in time, are falling short of some ideal we nonetheless hold to be true or good.

“Out of slavery — and the anti-Black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional,” writes Silverstein. Nearly everything? What about, say, the ideas contained by the First Amendment? Or the spirit of openness that brought millions of immigrants through places like Ellis Island? Or the enlightened worldview of the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift? Or the spirit of scientific genius and discovery exemplified by the polio vaccine and the moon landing? On the opposite side of the moral ledger, to what extent does anti-Black racism figure in American disgraces such as the brutalization of Native Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act or the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II?

The world is complex. So are people and their motives. The job of journalism is to take account of that complexity, not simplify it out of existence through the adoption of some ideological orthodoxy.

In a lengthier dissection, published in January in The Atlantic, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz accused Hannah-Jones of making arguments “built on partial truths and misstatements of the facts.” The goal of educating Americans on slavery and its consequences, he added, was so important that it “cannot be forwarded through falsehoods, distortions and significant omissions.” Wilentz’s catalog of the project’s mistakes is extensive….

The 1619 Project is a thesis in search of evidence, not the other way around.

Yet, aside from a one-word “clarification” issued in March — after months of public pressure, The Times conceded that only “some” colonists fought for independence primarily to defend slavery — the response of the magazine has been, in effect, “nothing to see here.”

The larger problem is that The Times’s editors, however much background reading they might have done, are not in a position to adjudicate historical disputes. That should have been an additional reason for the 1619 Project to seek input from, and include contributions by, an intellectually diverse range of scholarly voices. Yet not only does the project choose a side, it also brooks no doubt.


When “1619” was spray-painted on a toppled statue of George Washington, many people took angry or horrified notice. When Hannah-Jones tweeted that “it would be an honor” for the summer’s unrest to be called “the 1619 riots,” the right took notice again. For many, the 1619 Project smacked of fake history coming from the “fake news” — with results that were all too real. As unbidden gifts to Donald Trump go, it could hardly have been sweeter than that.

…unlike other dates, 1776 uniquely marries letter and spirit, politics and principle: The declaration that something new is born, combined with the expression of an ideal that — because we continue to believe in it even as we struggle to live up to it — binds us to the date.

Contrary to what the 1619 Project claims, 1776 isn’t just our nation’s “official” founding. It is our symbolic one, too. The metaphor of 1776 is more powerful than that of 1619 because what makes America most itself isn’t four centuries of racist subjugation. It’s 244 years of effort by Americans — sometimes halting, but often heroic — to live up to our greatest ideal. That’s a struggle that has been waged by people of every race and creed. And it’s an ideal that continues to inspire millions of people at home and abroad.

Stephen has justified his tenure at the Times. If this is, as Reason predicts, his last column for the Times, he saved his best for last, and it will be a magnificent exit. (Among the more than a thousand comments on the column, many hundreds accuse Stephens of enabling white supremacy.)

Read his whole column here.

27 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Bret Stephens

  1. The Times Guild shows its priorities: “It says a lot about an organization when it breaks it’s own rules and goes after one of it’s own. The act, like the article, reeks.”

    No, that wouldn’t get past moderation on Ethics Alarms..

    • Please tell me that’s an accurate transcription and the Times Guild failed to use the possessive “its” and instead the contraction it’s. Because that would be hilarious.

        • How delightful! Guess the Guild laid off its last copy editor, eh?

          Damn, but the comments on that column are depressing.

          Meantime, in other NYT news: did you hear that the LA Times is heavily courting NYT executive editor Dean Baquet? The NYT has a mandatory retirement age of 65, and Baquet is months away. Maybe he okayed Stephen’s column in hopes he’d be shown the doorway to swimming pools and movie starts that much sooner.

      • I’m pleased to be able to tell you exactly that. Much fun being had on their twitter feed (which you can view without signing up or anything):

            • And the Guild has apparently decided to remove the Tweet…
              So now it only lives in our memories, and on a couple of dozen archive sites, and on the hard-drives of the hundreds of people who took a screenshot of it. Yep, it’s gone forever.

        • More than the typo, I find the sentence clear as mud. I have no idea what they’re trying to say. The Times has broken a rule and gone after the Hannah-Jones woman? Stephens is The Times? I guess this is the union circling its wagons around one member by attacking another? Or are editorialists not union members? Again, I’m confused. Anyone? Beuhler?

  2. “As fresh concerns make clear, on these points — and for all of its virtues, buzz, spinoffs and a Pulitzer Prize — the 1619 Project has failed.”

    To which I would humbly add: not only failed, but Failed Spectacularly!

    “The 1619 Project is a thesis in search of evidence, not the other way around.”

    Reminiscent of Global Warming research, am I right?

    And not the 1st time The Paper of Record has been accused of SUCH THINGS, which Michael Cieply’s epic, gloves off, beatdown depicts

    To believe the national agenda was being set in a conference room in a headquarters on Manhattan’s Times Square REQUIRED A VERY SPECIAL MIND-SET INDEED (bolds/caps/italics mine)

    A special mind-set, indeed!

  3. I’d admire Stephens more if he’d submitted his resignation upon the piece being published. He’s bound to be fired sometime Monday. Or maybe he already has been.

    But good for him. Bravo, Brett. Bravo.

    • I usually agree with you OB, but firing would say more about the NYTT than resigning would. In fact, I hope he gets fired; that would give the story legs.

  4. Bret Stephens is certainly no dummy, he’s a University of Chicago and London School of Economics graduate. He appears to have found the courage and wisdom to use that intelligence to point out what some of us on the right have known all along – that the 1619 project was just revisionist propaganda masquerading in the stolen robes of academia.

    As James Dunnigan and Albert Nofi pointed out in their book Victory at Sea: The War in the Pacific at the end of a damning essay that tells the whole truth about Japanese-American internments, “it’s not enough to remember history, one must also remember the details.” Attention to detail is sometimes scoffed at as “details, details,” but there’s a difference between trivial details and important details. One important detail wrong on an architectural plan can put thousands of lives at risk. One important detail gotten wrong can derail a legal argument, or make a plan unworkable, or cause an academic project to collapse as surely as a building where the architect got some detail of the plan wrong.

    The fact is that the political left and its advocates have skipped over many important details of history because they aren’t interested in telling what actually happened. They are interested in pointing out only the parts of history that support their basic premise. Lately, that premise is that America and Europe are evil and have always been, but, if they’ll do just what the left says, then they might, emphasize MIGHT, have a chance at redemption. Although lately they want to silence we Italians, I think one of our proverbs fits here: Chi cerca mal, mal trova. He who searches for evil, evil finds. For decades the political left has searched for nothing BUT the evil in Europe and America. It should come as no surprise that they have found it. Looking only at it, it should come as no surprise that they have concluded that Europe and America have done nothing but evil, since that’s what they set out to prove in the first place. However, this conclusion was flawed the same way as the conclusions of the famous six blind men who each touched part of the elephant, and variously said it was like a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, or a rope. What they felt and concluded was true, but only part of the truth, and actually only a very small part of it, which ignored a great deal more.

    It is true that the Europeans mounted no fewer than eight Crusades in attempts to wrest the Holy Land from the Muslims, and were in some cases very brutal to non-Christians. It’s also true that the Muslims had spent their first century conquering much of the Middle East, Persia, North Africa, Spain and Portugal, and probably would have conquered France if Charles Martel and the first knights hadn’t smashed them at Tours-Poitiers in 732. They weren’t done conquering either. Sicily, southern Italy, and all southeastern Europe up to Vienna would fall under the Muslim yoke at various times, and they Muslims would not be kind or just overlords to the dhimmis, or non-Muslims, treating them like second-class citizens at best, slaves at worst. It would take European nation after nation centuries to throw off the Muslim yoke. ending, believe it or not, only in 1832, when the Greeks forced the Turks from their land, with a lot of help from the British, French, and Russians. It would be almost another century to end Muslim imperialism altogether, and, as the Armenians, the Lebanese, and others can bear witness to, it would not go quietly. Yet the left would have us believe that the crusaders who occupied the Levant from 1099 to 1291 were the only villains and the only aggressors in the wars of religion that defined the Mediterranean for 12 centuries. Who were the villains, or the greater villains?

    It is true that Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, and opened the door to the conquest of the Americas by Europe. It is also true that he wasn’t exactly nice to the natives, and certainly the conquistadores were anything but. However, it’s also true that he came out of a vast time of change in Europe, when the wars on the continent that had kept the major nations there occupied were ending. The reconquest in Spain and Portugal was complete. France was united and the Hundred Years’ War was won. In England the Wars of the Roses had ended with the coming of the House of Tudor rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the Houses of York and Lancaster. It was a time when those nations were ready to start reaching out for new discoveries, new sources of wealth, new lands, new knowledge, new everything. In fact Portugal was already on its way to reaching the east by sailing east (logically), had already started to colonize Africa, and King Joao II (the Perfect Prince) turned Columbus’ idea of sailing west to reach the east down before he ever talked to Ferdinand and Isabella. It should have come as no surprise that something like Columbus’ expedition would have come out of this, and no surprise what happened when this rapidly developing civilization met with the less developed civilization, if it can be called that, of the Indians. The Indians themselves also weren’t the peaceful mystics in tune with nature we sometimes see in modern movies, either. Human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, all were common. Yet out of this the left wants us to take the idea that the Europeans were conquest and slavery-minded brutes, just interested in killing of enslaving anyone who wasn’t white.

    It is true that slavery, and particularly black slavery, came to be an important part of the United States’ economy for a time. It is also true that slavery was nothing new, as the Bible tells us, as the history of the Middle East tells us, as the history of ancient China (where male civil servants frequently had their entire genitalia cut off) tells us. It is also true that Europe still practiced serfdom in many areas then. I might add that no American ever went into the depths of Africa to capture his own slaves. African slaves were typically either seized in war or kidnaped by other Africans to be sold, and certainly the Empire of Songhai, the Kingdom of Dendi, and other African nations which most Americans haven’t even heard of didn’t hesitate to practice chattel slavery, debt slavery, and other forms of slavery among themselves. Did America fall short of its ideas by allowing this to continue past its inception? Yes. Was it a necessary bargain to make the Constitution happen? Also yes. Is everything between then and the Thirteenth Amendment irredeemably polluted as a result? No – does that even make any sense, unless you are looking to lay a HUGE guilt trip on all America?

    I could go on and on, but I think the point is made. The 1619 Project is not history. It’s cherry picking from history to make the point that this country is evil, and that its origins are evil, and so on. Every non-black American, according to the project, bears his or her own slice of the guilt, which can only be expiated by doing exactly what the left says to do. Those who refuse to acknowledge this fact are unrepentant sinners and should be dealt with as such.

    • I learn more history from you every time you you go on a rant. Keep ranting so I keep learning. Context is so vitally important in history and rarely ever taught

    • And this is why NO ONE wants an honest discussion about race in America. If you wanted an honest discussion, wouldn’t you have to acknowledge that Africans were just as responsible (if not more so) for slavery in America than current Americans? I mean, they reintroduced slavery to Western Europeans and they still practice such slavery today. The only major anti-slavery movement in Africa was imposed there by European colonialists. What about Islam, that has controlled much of the African slave trade since the 8th(?) century? That is 1200 years and it hasn’t stopped! Now it is true that for much of that time, Muslims were more interested in capturing Europeans for sale as slaves to the Middle East (the word slave comes from Slav, because so many of them were enslaved). Today, however, there are an estimated 12 million African slaves in Muslim countries. There were only 4 million in the US in 1860. If you want to look at slavery, what cultures have EVER rejected slavery themselves? There aren’t many. Far from being the originators and worst culprits, the US and Western Europe actually come out looking better than most on the sin of slavery.

  5. I think a major article that openly contradicts the mantra of social justice warriors written by a New York Times columnist and actually being published by the New York Times is signature significant and shows us that there is something major going on behind the scenes at the New York Times. The New York Times would not have published something like this six to eight months ago.

    Keep your eye on the New York Times.

    • Something IS going on. The NYT has a mandatory retirement age of 65 and Executive Editor Dean Baquet is nearing that. Reports are that he’s being courted by the LA Times, which has no such restriction. But there WILL be a new EE in the relatively near future.

      I’m not convinced this portends a change in philosophy, btw. Further, the NYT Magazine, in which 1619 was published, technically has its own editorial staff, and Dean Baquet probably has little to no control over what it publishes. One may presume that given that the Publisher’s slot at NYTco shifted from Arthur Ochs Sulzberger to Arthur Gregg Sulzberger (now 40 years old) two years ago, AG was the head honcho during 1619 (daddy continues as chairman of the company).

      There ARE clearly changes afoot. But I certainly question whether they’ll be substantive or result in a more honest delivery of the news – or just more of the NYT continuing in its role as primary Public Relations counsel to the Democratic Party.

      • The NYT might be (nah!) positioning itself to appear as a more credible critic of Joe Biden…just another crackpot theory, but I couldn’t resist brain-farting it.

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