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Contrarian Conflagration: The Fire and Fury of the New York Times Op-ed Page

The paper of record’s solicitation of reactionary opinions from the likes of neocon Bari Weiss, climate change denier Bret Stephens, and Nazi sympathizer Quinn Norton has raised an essential question: Why?

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Tuesday afternoon, The New York Times announced that the journalist Quinn Norton would join its editorial board as a lead opinion writer about technology.

Hours after the announcement, Norton and the Times abruptly decided to “part ways.” Editorial page editor James Bennet cited several instances of Norton, a white woman, tweeting “nigger” and “faggot” as manners of address.

“Despite our review of Quinn Norton’s work and our conversations with her previous employers, this was new information to us,” Bennet wrote in a statement. “Based on it, we’ve decided to go our separate ways.”

Norton’s would-be employer did not discover the offending tweets on its own. Within minutes of the hiring announcement, Norton’s critics quickly assembled on Twitter to unearth the many alarming disqualifications that The New York Times overlooked. In the process, these critics revealed Norton to be a Nazi sympathizer who claims the Daily Stormer webmaster Andrew Auernheimer, a.k.a. “weev,” as a dear friend. Norton admires the Nazi leader John Rabe, whom history remembers for defending Chinese civilians from Japanese soldiers during the Nanking Massacre. “There are no clear bad guys or good guys in humanity,” Norton writes about Rabe, espousing moral relativism to an extent that only ever seems to valorize and empower the worst possible guys. Chiefly, Nazis.

Online, Norton’s combustion was so rapid and all-consuming that the outrage sequence seemed, and still seems, surreal. Norton’s epithets read so freely, and her intentions so cruel, and her judgment so childish, that I doubted the veracity of the offending tweets until I searched Norton’s timeline myself. There they are. So transparent are Norton’s disqualifications that it’s tempting to believe The New York Times regarded them as qualifications. Perhaps The New York Times liked—or at the very least respected—where Quinn was going with all of her edgelord inquiries and neo-Nazi apologia. Presumably, Bennet meant to give Norton room to expound.

Norton’s hiring proved scandalous because her public language was exceptionally foul, and her association with neo-Nazis is so plain and shameless. But Norton was not the first and only dupe to seduce The New York Times, a newspaper that has selectively propagated reactionary trolling since Donald Trump’s election. In August, the Times published an op-ed from Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who made a self-serving case for unleashing a new team of U.S. mercenaries to win the war in Afghanistan, a country that’s been overrun with Prince’s reckless contract killers for years since the U.S. invaded in 2001. Three weeks ago, the conservative columnist Ross Douthat argued that white nationalists may be crucial to shaping U.S. immigration policy. The conservative columnist Bret Stephens, hired in April, has defended Woody Allen against Dylan Farrow’s repeated accounts of child molestation. The columnist Bari Weiss has published enough repudiations of the #MeToo movement to suggest that the op-ed page runs somewhat opposed to the paper’s earth-shattering coverage of Harvey Weinstein and other powerful Hollywood predators. I have known The New York Times op-ed page to irritate liberals since the George W. Bush years when the paper employed Bill Kristol as its token reactionary champion; presenting ill-informed, heedlessly oppositional views as valiant dissent has always been one of the op-ed desk’s chief functions. But the paper’s post-Trump excesses have been exceptionally vulgar and wild; once-token provocations have become the paper’s most widely circulated missives, diluting the impact of its other departments’ work.

In a January issue, the Times filled its editorial page with letters that the paper had solicited from Trump voters. It is a level of mythology unlike the newspaper’s coverage of Barack Obama, George Bush, Bill Clinton—anyone. Generally, the implications of this coverage are two-fold: (1) Trump voters are interesting because they enthusiastically support the most casually disastrous president in U.S. history, and (2) these voters are underserved by The New York Times, which can only read fairly, if not objectively, as the nation’s paper of record by incorporating the interests and humoring the beliefs of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and other friends of Quinn Norton.

At the start of the Trump administration, The New York Times effectively pitched itself as a bulwark against white nationalism and Trump propaganda. And yet, in the course of a year, the Times has matched Trump in delirious effect—the paper’s political coverage sometimes reading as if it were produced by hostages, the paper’s op-ed page now hosting the most influential gallery of bigots and dipshits in the history of Chartbeat. The shitposting isn’t limited to the stable of columnists and op-ed contributors. The news pages of The New York Times now frequently include obsessive dispatches from “Trump country,” in which the paper reminds its disbelieving readers that a significant number of Americans continue to support the deeply unpopular president. These reports rarely include observations from rural Americans outside the president’s base. In its op-ed page, and in its most controversial political reporting, The New York Times has abandoned whatever pretense of rigor and realism the paper promised as contrast to Trump’s bewildering disinformation campaigns.

In recent months, the judgment in various corridors of the New York Times building has proved so humiliating, so repeatedly, and so reliably, that it’s tempting to view all these supposed missteps as the deliberate editorial strategy indeed. If you indulge the standard characterization of The New York Times as a center-left rag, then you’ll likely read the paper’s post-Trump editorial strategy as a humiliating appeal to Trump loyalists who distrust the newspaper’s coverage of virtually everything. Under this theory, The New York Times publishes Bari Weiss not so much to align itself with her young and clumsy conservatism, but rather to prove that it is willing to humor and even publish such nonsense. Perversely, Bari Weiss stands to represent variety, balance, and the sort of absolute curiosity that Norton, immune to political correctness, has pursued all her life by palling around with neo-Nazis.

Many critics assume that The New York Times is pandering to Trump voters, and the paper is dead set on a delusional mission to convert Breitbart loyalists into Times subscribers. Frankly, I have a lot of trouble entertaining this otherwise popular theory for the simplest reason: No earthly organism could be so misguided as to assume that any number of hateful gamers, stalwart birthers, and MAGA propagandists are in the market for a fact-driven newspaper.

Plus, there’s a simpler explanation for the newspaper’s controversial strategy: the abundance of controversy itself. The New York Times publishes Nazi apologia and other provocative nonsense because Trump’s critics—never mind Trump’s supporters; Trump’s critics—want to read it. There is no New York Times opinion that Trump critics read, share, and discuss more obsessively than the newspaper’s reactionary provocations. Through Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens, The New York Times is catching up not only to the programmatically contrarian web essay mode known 10 years ago as “the Slate pitch,” but also to the longer, broader trend toward oblivion: cable news and social media turn news into rage. The rage is very nearly useless, save for one commercial purpose: rescuing newspapers and web publishing, two struggling industries, from the brink.

For now, perhaps this is all a workable, if desperate measure to keep the nation’s most important news organ in business. But The New York Times is foolish to assume that the paper will outlive the Nazis, just as Norton is foolish to assume she might sabotage Nazism internally, through sentimental characterizations (of Nazis), assimilation (among Nazis), and devil’s advocacy (for Nazis). Somehow, the devil winds up recruiting more advocates than the millions of poorly served readers The New York Times purports to serve.