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Classroom Connection: New York Times op-ed backlash

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A Dec. 27 opinion column by Bret Stephens in The New York Times headlined “The Secrets of Jewish Genius” drew a wave of criticism last week.

In his original column, Stephens lauded the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews, citing a 2005 paper that was published in the Journal of Biosocial Science, which until 1969 was named The Eugenics Review. The article was co-authored by Henry Harpending, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled an “extremist” with a “white nationalist” ideology.

On Dec. 29, the Times’ opinion section said on Twitter that the column had “been edited to remove a reference to a paper widely disputed as advancing a racist hypothesis,” and an editors’ note had been added.

“After publication Mr. Stephens and his editors learned that one of the paper’s authors, who died in 2016, promoted racist views. Mr. Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views, but it was a mistake to cite it uncritically. The effect was to leave an impression with many readers that Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. That was not his intent,” the editors’ note said, adding that the reference to the study was removed from the column.

However, Jack Shafer of Politico argued that Jewish genetic superiority was exactly what Stephens was claiming, based on the sections removed from the original column. “If you’re going to edit a piece, the smart move is to edit before it publishes,” Shafer wrote.

James Bennet, the Times’ editorial page editor, said Stephens’ column was edited and fact-checked before it was published, according to a report by Michael Calderone, also of Politico. Bennet did not address how references to the research paper made it through the editing process. The editors’ note also did not explain why all mentions of “Ashkenazi” Jews were removed from the revised piece, Calderone noted. Stephens has not commented.

This is not the first time the winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary while at The Wall Street Journal has sparked controversy since joining the Times in 2017. In August, he took issue with a critical tweet by a George Washington University associate professor — which jokingly referred to Stephens as a bedbug — and responded by email to the professor and copied his provost. In addition, his first column in April 2017 raised questions about scientific evidence to support climate change that prompted Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., chairman of the board of The New York Times Company and publisher of the Times in 2017, to send an email appealing to readers who indicated that the hiring of Stephens led them to cancel their subscriptions.

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For Teachers

Discuss: Did the Times handle the controversy over Stephens’ column properly? Was the editors’ note enough? If not, what was missing, and what else should it have included? What should Stephens and/or editors have done differently before the column was published, if anything? Do you think it is part of opinion writers’ jobs to provoke controversy? Do you think it’s important for news outlets’ opinion editors to present a range of political viewpoints? How should opinion editors decide when a viewpoint falls outside the bounds of acceptable discourse?

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