MEDIA
02/27/2018 07:32 am ET Updated Feb 27, 2018

Q&A Transcript: James Bennet Talks About His Editorial Page With New York Times Staffers

"The world needs this from us right now."
Bloomberg via Getty Images

This is a very lightly edited transcript from a December meeting between New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet and a number of Times employees. For more, read our story about the meeting.

James Bennet: So the op-ed page was created to do a bunch of different things. But it was partly because this other paper was going out of business, and the feeling — in this very New York-centric moment, The New York Times obviously was an entirely print-centric world — was, there’s nobody to keep us honest anymore. You know, we’ll take our positions and there’s nobody arguing the other side. And so the Times very deliberately went out to create a space in our own universe where there would be people taking the other side and where we would, again, be able to cover — and you can see this in the initial statement for the op-ed page — we engage with the culture, engage with a wide range of subjects. And that’s remained the goal of the page and the ecology of the opinion report over time. But what you’ve seen is the kind of regression to the mean, I think, that takes place. And in many ways we became more and more homogenous as the years went by. I mean, all the work was excellent. But I think a degree of sameness set in and to the point where it now — to grievously overstate the case, the idea of debate is, you have one guy for the Brookings Institution and one guy from the Council of Foreign Relations arguing in the page.

And we’ve conducted a number of — there have been a number of really important innovations in recent years, and I point to Op-Docs as really a central one. We can talk about that if you guys are interested. But in a lot of ways the world of opinion journalism has been, as you all know, undergoing a revolution over the course of the last 10 or 15 years. The Times hasn’t fully participated in it. So, what we’re trying to do now, and the sort of project we’re engaged in, is essentially to try — you can think of it as trying to diversify ourselves in four dimensions at the same time, or along four axes.

The first is our team itself. So again, the columnists are the most visible representation of this. Each of them are excellent in their own ways and are fantastic as an array. They don’t necessarily represent our aspirations for our audience, let alone our ambition to capture the full range of — one can never capture the full range — but a wider range of the debate that’s out there. This is true of the department as a whole, and we are working towards diversifying our team.

We’re trying to diversify the ways we tell stories, and that’s about breaking out of the boxes that really still constrain us in the print paper, and the notion that what we do is editorials of 500 words and columns of 800 words and op-eds of maybe 900 words. It’s hard to overstate the degree to which that framework constrains us still ― although we’re beginning to push past it and think about other ways of opinionizing against the news. Longer, more deeply reported pieces, incorporating or leading with graphics and visual forms of opinion. And we’ve created a small video unit that’s doing, now, opinion journalism for us, led by Adam Ellick. So that’s story form, second category.

Third category is subject matter — another way that we’ve kind of regressed to a mean, I think. Our default game in opinion is politics and global affairs. And that tends to dominate what we do. We’re going to be putting a much more deliberate focus on subject area and kind of diversifying our range of opinion to more deliberately engage with the world of technology, business and economics, and the culture. We can talk more about that if you want.

And then the last component for it is ideological range, where I think both on the editorial line and our columnists and a lot of our op-eds were conducting a debate that was often between the 40-yard lines. And this was evident in the last campaign, where — the last presidential campaign, now I am talking about politics again — where, you know, there wasn’t really an advocate for the Bernie Sanders view of the world formally in our pages. And we’ve had fewer voices to the right for quite some time. Now, of all of this work, it’s that last thing I mentioned that’s getting the most attention and the most concern, and the most blowback. But what I’m trying to explain is, it is one element in everything we’re trying to do.

We’ve gotten a couple more — and I’m very grateful for — some investment in the company for a few more slots that’s helping us do this work. But it’s a fairly ambitious reset of the entire operation largely within our existing footprint, and it’s really hard on our people. I mean, you’re going through a lot of turbulence right now. And Tyson can testify to that.

I think on the other side of that is a lot of excitement and fun and a real adventure as we kind of get people sorted and get a clear understanding of everything we’re up to, what the ambitions are, and can begin experimenting in a big way. But right now we’re in the thick of it.

Sorry, I talked a lot longer than I meant to. That’s the overall — did I leave anything out?

NYT employee: Can I ask you a question? Can you talk about some of the things that you’re really most proud of, or some of the biggest things you feel like you’ve been able to do since you’ve been here? Even if maybe they’re the most challenging at the same time.

Bennet: I wouldn’t say there’s anything I’m particularly proud of. I’m really grateful for the way that my colleagues have kind of risen to the occasion here. I mean, again, it’s been hard, because everybody’s job is changing, and our people just all lost their offices. I mean, talk about a first-class problem, but it is a problem. If you’re a columnist at The New York Times, part of what goes with that is you have an office. And one day, you get it taken away — and editorial board members, too. We still have members of the editorial board who lament the offices that we had on 43rd Street, which were sort of, I don’t know, baronial — fires in the [inaudible] and dogs on the floor, and somebody — anyway.

I think there’s some work we’ve been doing lately, there’s been some pieces — our graphics team is super strong. It’s two people, basically, right now. But I can point you to some examples of specific pieces, like the big piece about the opening up of this last Alaskan wilderness that we were able to do in a really — we just didn’t have the ability to tell a story that way just a few months ago. And it was really dynamic and powerful. And we’re doing more of that kind of work more regularly. I’m super happy with the work that Michelle Goldberg is doing. She’s a columnist for us, and Lindy West, who’s another new — she’s a weekly voice that we’ve added.

And when I imagine a counterfactual, which is, again, I don’t know if you guys have had time to read any of this stuff, I know we’re all super busy. But we’ve got a bunch more very strong — going through this Harvey Weinstein moment without them, we would have done some really good work, but when I try to imagine what that would have been like, it feels like our report would have been really impoverished. So in a way, both these things are sort of proof of concept to me of how much more exciting it’s going to be when we represent a wider range. I feel the same way about Bret’s work for us. I know that there was a lot of — and I experienced it — a lot of criticism and concern about him. And you guys may disagree or there may be people who do, but I just think he’s an exceptional writer and thinker. I don’t agree with him a lot of the time. But I like to read him, so. And one thing that’s hard here, by the way, is that among the things we’re asking of people is — and I’ve had this experience before elsewhere — is, it’s a really hard thing to ask people who disagree with each other to work with each other. You know? And particularly with opinion journalism, these are people who are paid to have very, very strong convictions, and to believe that they’re right.

And then you want to put them together and say, “OK now we want to treat each other civilly and be good colleagues.” And that can be a difficult thing. But again, people are, I think — and, Tyson, correct me if I’m wrong — they’re making it work. We’ve had some explosions, but culturally it’s real, it’s actually a challenge internally. And if you ask me what I’m proud of, I’m proud of the way people have — I was not proud of some of the moments along the way. But in general, I think people handled that with the grace and dignity we would expect from people at The New York Times.

NYT employee: I’m keeping an eye on Slack in case there are questions, but I guess what I’ll ask you is that — so you alluded earlier to a lot of, sort of, sameness, you know, among the opinions, like, across the board in media previously. How do you feel like the Times is currently — in your opinion section, that you’re running — how is it differentiating itself from, say, other publications?

Bennet: This is where we’re trying to get. If you, um... I think, in general, what we’ve seen is that there are not very many places that have the ambition of putting people with very different points of view into conversation with each other. That may be because it’s a bad idea. I think it’s also because it’s hard to do that. And other publications simply don’t have the same sense of purpose around this that The New York Times has. Particularly the digital upstarts that have come along. The startups, generally, and serious players over the course of the last 15 or 20 years tend to have a point of view on the world and drive that point of view through everything that they’re doing. In the print world, it’s the approach that The Economist has taken, and arguably, it’s kind of what The New Yorker is, in the print world. And if you imagine two axes — and this is Tyson’s visual representation of this — where you put digital and print on two of the extremes and a single point of view and many voices on the other, and you sort publications that way, what you find is that one quadrant is almost entirely empty, which is digital and lots of points of view. One exception to that is media, which is open to everybody and obviously not a curated space. When we think about the competitive landscape, if there’s one publication I would say is maybe ahead of us here is The Washington Post, which scares me, and they’re moving into that space. And there’s a lot of risk here for us.

I mean, this is where we need to go to be consistent with — and I think there’s an intuition and a faith that we’re not reaching a lot of readers who might otherwise appreciate Times journalism, partly because they feel like they don’t recognize themselves in our opinion report. That said, we could piss a lot of people off, you know, doing this work. And we don’t have very good measures of the risk or the reward. But I mean, I’m sorry, again, I’m talking way too much. I guess, to sort of answer your question, it feels like a very — the reason we’re driving towards this position is, it is both true to what... it’s authentic. It’s what we’re supposed to do. The third reason actually is true. It’s true to who we’re supposed to be. And it feels very differentiated. Nobody else is doing it.

The third reason I would say is, I just think it — the world needs this from us right now. You know it is, it is cutting against, and I don’t mean to sound pious, but it really is true that this is a crude and dangerously polarized time. And this is where it’s journalistically true to the ambitions of the Times, to approach opinion in this way. The notion that anybody has a monopoly on what the right answers are is just a dangerous kind of form of hubris that too many of us are really falling prey to right now. And you look what’s happening in the world, the sort of crackup of ideologies, of political parties. Neither party really makes sense, I don’t think, right now, in the U.S., ideologically, and there are big questions about trade, for example, that have been reopened. And to simply assert that we know what the right answers are is not good for the democracy. So I think trying to show that it’s possible, both to have strong convictions and an open mind to other people’s egos, is a valuable contribution that we can make.

NYT employee: So there are questions in Slack, but I don’t want to monopolize. So it’s kind of variations on the same question, so I’m just going to pick one. So, media literacy is a big problem. We see and understand the differences between the op-ed and editorial, but how do you communicate to readers and critics, and keep from sending mixed signals to the world?

Bennet: I think we do a really bad job of this right now. I think, a) I think those categories — these are the sorts of categories that make sense to us and don’t make any sense to other people. Like, what is an op-ed? I’d kind of like to stop using that word, even internally, but we’re stuck with it. What is an editorial? We have been talking too long now, even in the time I’ve been here, about doing a better job of communicating this to readers. And we’re still not actually doing it very well. Partly, it requires product solutions that have so far eluded our grasp. But I think every piece that goes out to us needs to be very clearly labeled. Not just labeled “opinion,” which right there we have a problem, particularly in social. But we’ve gotten a little better there. But then, it needs to carry a description of what it is.

That’s particularly true of editorials, but also other pieces of opinion. And right now, if you, I mean, you know, more than 80 percent of our readers encounter one piece of opinion from The New York Times a month, and that is their only exposure to Times opinion. And if that is a piece by Charles Blow or a piece by Bret Stephens or a piece by Erik Prince, you will form your opinion of who we are based on that one encounter with that one ambassador of our content. And this is... I mean, everybody has this problem: Somehow we have to do a better job at the atomic level of the individual piece of communicating a version of what it just took me 15 minutes to explain to you guys.

So I’d welcome any suggestions on how to do that. One of the areas — I mean, small thing, but where I envy the Post right now — and I don’t know how good or effective it is — but they’ve built a little bit of [artificial intelligence] into their... and I don’t know what level. But they are now able to automate serving up not just one argument, but the counterargument with it. So the related links are right there. Whether anybody uses those links or not, it’s a nice statement about the brand and the ambition ― that we’re giving you this point of view, and here’s somebody who disagrees with it in one package, should you choose to go there. That’s the kind of thing, you know, we should be doing, I think.

NYT employee: One of the questions on here is around the advocacy that you described. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Bennet: This was related to the tax bill, which we’ve been editorializing against. And the voice of the editorial board went onto Twitter to do direct advocacy on it, urging holdout senators who agreed with a number of the positions that we’ve taken on what it would do to the deficit, and how it was shifting the burden of taxation, and the specific issues it didn’t deal with. They each had a different specific issue to stand their ground. It was the kind of experiment that I’ve been encouraging our people to do. And I’m still not sure we’ve learned from it. It had — and, Tyson, you weigh in here, you have a better sense. It had, it had a very big impact. It got a lot of people talking. It pissed off our colleagues in the Washington bureau hugely, because it felt to everybody like a more direct form of advocacy than we traditionally do. In reality, I’ve yet to — and maybe one of you can do this — I’ve yet to get the explanation for why that’s the case. The principled explanation for why this was more direct. Like, we editorialized for this specific election in defeat of a given candidate. We editorialize and say “You should go throw this bum out of office.” That, to me, is as direct a form of advocacy as we could possibly do. Saying “Go call the senator and urge them to stick to their principles” feels like a much less direct form of advocacy. Yet it didn’t... I mean, I can argue logically that it’s a much — I think I’m right. But it felt — and I think it felt that way because it’s just different than anything we’ve done before. It was therefore shocking people and upsetting. But I’m still scratching around to try to figure out where the violation of principle is here.

Tyson Evans, senior editor, opinion products and strategy: I think that was key. Part of the problem in evaluating it is we don’t really have anything to compare it to, because we haven’t done anything similar, so it’s hard to know what size of impact it was supposed to have. I think in the spirit of this moment where we’re trying to say, the form of an editorial is so purely a print construct over the last century, that we’re asking, who are these editorials for? And what action are we trying cause by writing them? And what’s the value of the institution taking a position on something in a moment where it’s just a lot easier for this industry to do something when they feel compelled to do it. When they read a well-written, persuasive argument. Those are the facts on the ground and I think we’re still wrestling with what to do with it, and what’s the capital we have, how many times a year. The Guardian kind of plowed the way forward with this a couple years ago with their “Keep it in the ground” campaign, which was very, very driven over the course of one or two years, I think. [inaudible] It was a really concentrated effort of advocacy and trying to mobilize the citizenship to divest and persuade their legislative groups. So I don’t know, I think we’re early, and we’d love input on what’s the right way to do it, what are the right moments.

Bennet: There are definitely some tactical things that we would do differently if we do this again. And we were able to have an impact. I mean, we did jam the switchboards on Capitol Hill, which is a more tangible outcome than we often get when we editorialize, so. And then we got some pushback from some readers, and some from our colleagues. And from individual senators, who were really pissed. [Sen.] Susan Collins [R-Maine] was just — but, you know.

NYT employee: I mean, maybe to build on this point ― you started by talking about creating a place for civil debate. There is something about this that says, “But we’re also going to go and take some proactive actions beyond civil debate and push one side of the agenda.” And how do you think about the editorial page within that debate?

Bennet: Well, part of the goal of having more debate is, again, the, you know, basically making the editorial line a little more relevant in some ways. Because if we’re all agreeing with each other, what’s the point of having editorials? I think the first-order question is, what’s the point of having editorials? And here’s what I think, is that it saves us from more of the real moral hazards in the opinion environment in which we want to say, we want to convene lots of voices from lots of points of view. I would worry and personally be concerned about saying we’re indifferent to what the right answer is, right? We don’t just want to let a thousand flowers bloom, let a thousand schools of thought contend, and we’ll just provide the platform. In which there is one version of this, in which [inaudible], I think the conversation will continue about whether that’s actually the right outcome. What the editorials allow us to do, is to say on matters of real consequence, where for one reason or another, this institution has felt a kind of historic connection, the Times is going to come down. And God knows, we argued against women’s suffrage on the editorial page of The New York Times, so we should be humble every time we write one of these about whether we’re actually right. But on big questions, you know, climate change — I think this tax bill actually qualifies.

I didn’t mention this, but one of the things we’re trying to do is — and we have done, actually — is lower the key. You know, the last — since time immemorial now, it’s three editorials a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We’re reducing the cadence, so there are fewer of them.

And then this is something David has pressed me for for a long time, is, so what are the issues that The New York Times should be engaging with? [Note to readers: We’re not sure who “David” is.] I mean, I think there’s... the three fundamental, you know, values that guide the editorial on is — and I’m still wrestling with all of these questions, and I’ve not done a good enough job of distilling any of this — but we’re concerned about honesty, fairness and progress. Right? And those things can actually be thought of as usefully in tension with each other. For example, take particularly progress and fairness. I mean, I think we are pro-capitalism. The New York Times is in favor of capitalism because it has been the greatest engine of, it’s been the greatest anti-poverty program and engine of progress that we’ve seen. But The New York Times is very concerned with fairness. We’ve been concerned with the essential equality of human beings from the get-go, and with minority rights and individual rights from the get-go. And in thinking about, for example, the tax bill in this and that, you know, we actually like the idea of reducing corporate rates. We’re not for taxation for purposes of taxation, but we are very concerned about fairness and equitable distribution. And it’s sort of wrestling with the, with the tensions there is, I think, how we come out where we do.

But, you know, there’s a hierarchy of specific concerns. Honesty speaks to, again, to my mind, it speaks to the free exercise of a sound conscience and our preoccupation with First Amendment rights, and the ability for people to always be able to speak their minds and advocate positions that they believe in. That’s kind of at the top of our hierarchy of concerns.

NYT employee: Just reading off the Slack channel, I’m going to abstract it out a little, but when you have differing opinions, how do you first of all vet and make sure that facts are right? But maybe even going a step further, how do you make sure that people aren’t misrepresenting facts? Maybe if you could even tie that into how you even think about the voices you invite in, to kind of judge whether they’re really going to take a fair take on [inaudible].

Bennet: You know we do, I mean at a very basic level, we fact-check our work. So, there is a kind of layer there of having a — but the harder question is representation of fact. And that’s where we’re really, you know, are instilling rules of the road and kind of values for how we approach argumentation and hiring for people. And you know, the first-order value is intellectual honesty. And that means — and God knows we don’t succeed at this every day — but the goal is, you’re supposed to take on the hard arguments on the other side, not the easy arguments. Not the straw men, but the actual substantive, kind of toughest arguments and acknowledge when the other side has a point. No ad hominem attacks. There’s a sort of series of things that we expect of our people and we’re hiring, to my mind — the two columnists who have been brought on board since I’ve been here have been Bret and Michelle so far, and both of them totally clear the bar, in my view, of being people who have both conviction — strong points of view — and very open minds.

I give our conservatives, in general, particular credit because they have to live this every day in a way liberals don’t, because they’re working in an environment where they are constantly having to grapple [with] people with very, very different points of view. It really is in the hiring, of picking people that have these different [inaudible].

But the seduction of straw-man arguing is quite powerful and something. And it’s a danger on the editorial side, too, that we face a lot. Particularly when you’re operating within an echo chamber.

NYT employee: So, kind of building on that, there’s sort of a question related, which is, like, in a world where a lot of people are sort of interested [in] reading the thing that they agree with, how do you balance the desire to have opposing viewpoints versus, you know, people gravitating to certain kinds of coverage? So yeah, just, how do you think about that?

Bennet: I’m really concerned about this for opinion journalism generally, because right now in the last couple of years, with your — particularly now, though, the rewards for saying the same thing over and over again, and providing that kind of affirmation, are huge. And the punishments for stepping out of line and saying something — I’m talking about the individual writer, now — saying, hey, actually you know, the Democrats have a point about X or the Republicans have a point about Y, depending on their point of view, you just get killed for that in social media.

Then the effect of this, and I think you can see it happening, is that writers are becoming less interesting. You know, I can say this particularly as someone who is looking forward to new opinion writers. And you want supple minds and people who are a little bit unpredictable, and you’re not reading the same piece over and over again. It’s getting harder to find people like that. And it is partly a function of the media environment. We need super-strong, tough people, for one thing, to weather that environment and stay true to the ambitions that we have for the work we want done.

NYT employee: I’m going to read, specifically, just cause I want your reaction to it, which is, how do you have a civil debate when one side isn’t interested in being civil or factual?

Bennet: I think there are a lot of people out there, on both sides actually, who aren’t that interested in — and I’ll be accused of both-siderism, I’m only saying that because I’ve experienced it — who aren’t particularly interested in being civil or factual. And that’s true. And I actually understand that feeling myself some days, when I don’t feel like I want to be terribly civil or factual because I’m so angry about it. Um, read the question again, it was —

NYT employee: Let me ask it this way. [inaudible] How do you think about, like, is there one side that isn’t — this specific thing is, one side isn’t interested in being civil or factual, and how do you think about that? Or not.

Bennet: I think that that’s true, and I lament it. I just don’t want to give into that ourselves. And I also think there are a lot of people out there who are susceptible to feeling that way, who aren’t necessarily going to feel that way if they are presented with an alternative. And this is where I think if — it’s not like we’re going to win all those people over and bring them onto our platform necessarily. But I do think if we show that we take — let’s talk about it from the point of view of the left and think about conservatives. Most of our readers [inaudible] are liberal. I think if we show we take conservatives seriously and we take ideas seriously there, we get a lot more moderates paying attention to what The New York Times has to say. I think we lose the moderates completely if we just show that we think the conservatives are just, that there’s no point in even engaging their ideas or to debate with them. That’s not the same thing as saying, you know, I don’t think we’re going to reform everybody in the world.

NYT employee: It’s a follow-up to something kind of earlier. You identified that you’re having trouble finding new voices, and that a lot of the problems you’ve identified seem to be that we just don’t have people representing certain positions. During the election you had no strong advocate for [Sen.] Bernie Sanders [I-Vt.], or any of those positions. And so I guess, in the more recent months, in your attempts to find those voices, where have you been looking, what types of people have you been looking for, and how are you trying to get a more diverse group of people regularly writing in the op-ed section?

Bennet: I think we need, and you know, I’m sorry if I’m going to talk in code a little bit here, but I’m not talking about ideology necessarily. I’m talking about identity, as well. What columnists do, you know,p again, highly intellectually honest, highly entertaining, highly interesting writers who have a lot to say — hard to find those people from the get-go. What a columnist is is a trusted voice in your ear that helps you process, kind of, the world in real time, right? Through a particular lens. And there are a number of lenses we’re missing right now, I think. And a lot of those are, it’s gender and it’s identity, you know, as well as ideology.

So where am I looking? I’m asking, I’m asking you guys. You know, send me names, please. You know, if there are people that you’re reading that you think belong in The New York Times. You know, please. I always, when I was at The Atlantic, I always kept a list of Atlantic writers who didn’t work for The Atlantic, just who felt like — I was at The Atlantic magazine before I came back to the Times, and there was a particular kind of, not that dissimilar from the kind of people we’re looking for now, with voice. And I could see them on other platforms and they just didn’t know that they were Atlantic people yet, but they were. And I don’t have as good a list now as I did then. It might be my own failing. Earlier I blamed the environment for that. But I’m taking nominations.  

I’ve been... if I could, this is what I would be spending 90 percent of my time on. Because hiring in general, and I’m sure you guys feel this, too, is the most important thing that we do. Like, that’s the most important editing we do, is picking the people. After that, you know, you ideally cut them loose to do their thing. In reality, I’m spending a small percentage of my time on this. So I would love help. So please send your nominations my way.

NYT employee: So question for you. Do you consider women’s rights, trans rights, people of color’s rights, to be liberal stances?

Bennet: Um, I consider them to be classically liberal stances, as I understand liberalism classically. Which is to say, very concerned with the rights of the individual. The sort of John Stuart Mill sense of the world. You know, in a sort of American modern ideological framework, I would say they are also understood to be liberal. But I guess that’s not necessarily the way I would — I mean, these are human rights and deeply connected, I think, to our understanding of human value, which, again, I think is core to the editorial convictions of The New York Times. The essential equality of human beings.

NYT employee: Maybe, can I just do a follow-up on that one? How would you think about, like, when you think about encouraging open debate, something like trans rights versus climate change where, you know — are there certain things where you said, like, there’s really not a debate?

Bennet: Oh yeah, there are certain things I would think of as settled law. And I think the fact of climate change is one of them. That is the science of climate change, that it’s happening and that humans are driving it. What to do about it, how to address it, I think that’s a big debate that, in general, we should be participating in more actively than we are, right?

Yeah, there are issues like, “Nazism: good or bad?” is not a debate I imagine The New York Times necessarily convening. It’s just, like, I think there are issues that are settled law. Although, apparently now slavery is an issue again in the Alabama Senate race, as of today. There’s people making a case for that. Well, [Roy] Moore was asked — I only saw it — I guess he was asked when the last time America was great was, and that was when it was great.

NYT employee: So just to follow up on this, there was a thread in Slack on this. You know, with climate change, can people have opinions about it? You know, like with trans rights, can people have opinions about it? Or is The New York Times’ perspective, “No no no, the debate that we want to encourage is not whether there should be trans rights or whether there is climate change but the implications for society about it.” Or how do you think about it?

Bennet: I think we should have discussions about what the implications are for society. I’m not sure I understand the question exactly.

NYT employee: The question is — we’re talking about the debate, what matters are settled that shouldn’t even be debated, versus what the debate actually is. I think, you know, climate change is a good example. So they said that you have a voice in the opinion pages who maybe has a different perspective about what to do with climate change. You’d say, “It’s not that Bret Stephens opposes or doesn’t think climate change is happening,” right? Or is he representing that other perspective? How do you think about where the debate begins versus the debate having been settled?

Bennet: We — let me answer this generically first, and then come back specifically to Bret and climate change. We have, this is, this is the hard and interesting debate we have all the time, which is, what are the boundaries for debate in Times opinion. There are no hard and fast rules here. And it’s our privilege and burden as editors to define those boundaries, and we will get it wrong, right? There will be times we’ll publish a piece that feels, “Wow, that’s really a little bit out of bounds.” I would expect that to happen sometimes. I’d be much [more] worried about the environment in which we never crossed that boundary than one in which every now and then we do. So, that’s going to happen, I think.

And that said, we have faced this over and over again. For example, we published a piece — well, I just gave away the punchline — but we had a big argument over a piece by a settler. And you know, pick your issue. For some people it’s climate change, for some people it’s trans rights, for others it’s a two-state solution and the fate of the Palestinians. In this case, it was the settler saying, look, the two-state solution is dead and [it’s] time to face reality, and here’s some alternative paths for what the future would look like. And we had a real debate about whether this piece was crossing a line, because was it denying personhood to the Palestinians? Was it an act of, kind of, hate speech in a sense? I felt strongly that we should publish the piece and we did, as did others. Because this particular viewpoint is hugely consequential. It actually is creating reality on the ground. To pretend that somehow we would be — either to think that we were legitimating that point of view by having it in our pages or to tell ourselves that we were somehow changing the reality by not allowing it into our pages seems to me to be deluded a little bit. And our readers need to hear it, like, unmediated, I think. They need to confront these arguments. And we published that piece, and we faced that.

We talk a lot about the Richard Spencer test, you know: Would we publish Richard Spencer in the pages of The New York Times? The answer to that is no — oh, well, the piece we’d publish from him is “Why I Got Everything Wrong, by Richard Spencer,” if he was owning up to it. I mean, as you could imagine, there’s conditions. But the reasons we wouldn’t right now are largely because the guy is — he represents a particularly poisonous point of view. And that isn’t having those kinds of consequences. You know, it’s not a, it’s not a giant movement. We’ve published [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, you know, and should we not allow Vladimir Putin into our pages? It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say that that would be doing a service to our readers. But as you can see, I mean, I struggle to articulate what those boundaries are. It’s one of the hard things. You guys have to eventually render judgment, you know. And there’s a degree of subjectivity inevitably that creeps into all of these sorts of decisions, and it’s particularly true in the opinion environment. I do — and I mean, it is a real struggle, and I do want to emphasize the thought that I worry a lot more about how, again, over time, you play it safe, you play it safe, you play it safe, and you wind up where, I think, we were. And I think you become a lot less interesting and a lot less of a constructive source of force in this society if you are not willing to take some chances.

NYT employee: So [inaudible] if you publish one thing in this one perspective, how do you think about providing the balance or making sure that when you’re putting something out there — do you think about that? Or ...

Bennet: Um, I do. I don’t think we do a great job of that, as much as, you know, we want to have this kind of cacophonous opinion report with a lot of different points of view represented. I think it’s hard to do it and have it be compellingly journalistic. If it’s kind of over-engineered, that is, we’ll only publish this point of view when we have a point of view on the other side. And we’ll present everything as a debate — well, actually there are four or five corners to this debate, and we’ve got to wait until we have all the pieces, and then we — people don’t consume journalism that way, and it doesn’t feel very vital. I think it needs to be a running debate, that we need to be more deliberate over time about representing all these points of view. And then again, it’s a product question, too, like once we have them all, we need to be able to present them as a kind of constellation. But even in the editorial piece of it, and this is part of what the reorganization of our team is about, we’re not doing — we’re getting better at that. And look, you guys, I mean, debates are — there are always many, many points of view. And you can’t — my view is that it’s just one side and the other side, but... more voices is going to help us with that.

NYT employee: Do we have time for one more question? [inaudible]

Bennet: What do you guys think we’re doing wrong? Or what would you change?

NYT employee: I think something that the staff would probably say is that, on the web, it can be difficult — and this is something that A.G. said when we did the Q&A with him — is that, on the web, it can be difficult to differentiate opinion pieces versus news pieces when they’re, like, right next to each other. That just generally, I think, continues to be a confusing point for a lot of people.

Bennet: Yeah, yeah, I agree. We’re trying to make a bunch of changes, improve the labeling. We’re actually going to change — I mean these are, some of these are the sorts of cues we’ve used in the past that we tell ourselves matter but don’t really matter to the readers. I think we are going to wind up with a bolder kind of differentiated typographical treatment for our opinion pieces. But there are some basic things we should be doing, like when it’s an opinion piece, the bio of the writer should be at the top of the piece, so you know kind of some sense of who this is and what point of view they’re advocating. You know, that this is the president of Russia. You know, right now it can look like just a New York Times staff writer, and there are design and product solutions here that I hope we’re going to have in place in the first quarter next year. But honestly, I thought we’d have them in the first quarter of this year, so I can’t — um, things take a long time to work their way through the processes here. But I do agree. I worry about that a lot. I know I really don’t like our opinion work to be contaminated by the news side.

CONVERSATIONS