Bari Weiss, Hero
I spent the late morning and early afternoon sitting out in the gruesome weather (heat index in Baton Rouge today: 109 degrees) having iced coffee with a reader of this blog. He’s a gay man who is a political progressive, and a practicing Christian. I had a great time. We talked about God, family, art, and politics. At one point he talked about the problems he had with cancel culture, and how the more moderate people are being shouted down by the militants. I could have stayed longer, but I needed to get home to cook lunch for the kids, and besides, the heat was punishing. We made plans to do this again. It was fun to be reminded that Twitter, and the Internet, is not real life.
When I got home, I saw that Bari Weiss has quit The New York Times, and boy, did she go out with a bang! You can read her entire resignation letter here. If you don’t know anything about her, she’s a Millennial op-ed writer and editor at the Times — or was, until today. She describes herself as a “left-leaning centrist.” From a Vanity Fair profile last year:
Though most of her friends are liberals, she sometimes socializes with conservatives too. According to friends, she loves to spar not just to hear the sound of her own voice but because she might learn something. After listening to someone else’s point of view, she’s been known to do something amazing—change her mind. Given the current climate, in which everyone seems to be retreating to angry and angrier corners, those who meet her find this expansiveness refreshing.
Broadly speaking, Weiss’s work is heterodox, defying easy us/them, left/right categorization. Since getting hired at the paper in the spring of 2017, she has focused on hot-button cultural topics, such as #MeToo, the Women’s March, and campus activism, approaching each topic with a confrontational skepticism that until recently had a strong place within the liberal discourse. Her basic gist: while such movements are well-intentioned, their excesses of zeal, often imposed by the hard left, can backfire.
She can’t stand Donald Trump. More:
If she wanted to, Weiss could criticize him in every one of her articles. But, she asks, “is our job to be a warm bath and an ideological safe space for people who we think are our readers? Or is it our job to show them the scope of opinions, legitimate opinions, that people all over this country have? I think that’s our job. But there are other people out there who apparently think the job of a newspaper is almost to be socialist realist art.”
So that’s Bari Weiss. She’s the kind of person that any rational newspaper editor would want to have on their op-ed staff. Agree with her or not on particular issues, her kind of curiosity and eclecticism is what brings life to a newspaper’s pages.
Weiss has been under intense attack from within the Times for the past few weeks. Finally, she couldn’t take it. You can get the details in her resignation letter to A.G. Sulzberger, the Times publisher. Excerpts:
I joined the paper with gratitude and optimism three years ago. I was hired with the goal of bringing in voices that would not otherwise appear in your pages: first-time writers, centrists, conservatives and others who would not naturally think of The Times as their home. The reason for this effort was clear: The paper’s failure to anticipate the outcome of the 2016 election meant that it didn’t have a firm grasp of the country it covers. Dean Baquet and others have admitted as much on various occasions. The priority in Opinion was to help redress that critical shortcoming.
But the lessons that ought to have followed the election—lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.
Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.
Tell me about it! It’s why I quit subscribing to the Times. It has gone from being a liberal, but generally reliable paper — something worth having, and subscribing to — to having become the Pravda of progressive elites. Weiss is dead right. More:
My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m “writing about the Jews again.” Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are.
There are terms for all of this: unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge. I’m no legal expert. But I know that this is wrong.
I do not understand how you have allowed this kind of behavior to go on inside your company in full view of the paper’s entire staff and the public. And I certainly can’t square how you and other Times leaders have stood by while simultaneously praising me in private for my courage. Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery.
I hope she sues the hell out of them, just as I hope that professors who are treated to this kind of abuse by their colleagues inside academia sue college presidents. More:
Part of me wishes I could say that my experience was unique. But the truth is that intellectual curiosity—let alone risk-taking—is now a liability at The Times. Why edit something challenging to our readers, or write something bold only to go through the numbing process of making it ideologically kosher, when we can assure ourselves of job security (and clicks) by publishing our 4000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and the world? And so self-censorship has become the norm.
What rules that remain at The Times are applied with extreme selectivity. If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome. Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets.
She’s right about that. The Times has become such a boring newspaper, because you know what it’s going to say about everything, and you know that it’s going to say it with moralistic fervor. Weiss gives specific examples of the Times‘s left-wing batshittery. More:
Even now, I am confident that most people at The Times do not hold these views. Yet they are cowed by those who do. Why? Perhaps because they believe the ultimate goal is righteous. Perhaps because they believe that they will be granted protection if they nod along as the coin of our realm—language—is degraded in service to an ever-shifting laundry list of right causes. Perhaps because there are millions of unemployed people in this country and they feel lucky to have a job in a contracting industry.
Or perhaps it is because they know that, nowadays, standing up for principle at the paper does not win plaudits. It puts a target on your back. Too wise to post on Slack, they write to me privately about the “new McCarthyism” that has taken root at the paper of record.
All this bodes ill, especially for independent-minded young writers and editors paying close attention to what they’ll have to do to advance in their careers. Rule One: Speak your mind at your own peril. Rule Two: Never risk commissioning a story that goes against the narrative. Rule Three: Never believe an editor or publisher who urges you to go against the grain. Eventually, the publisher will cave to the mob, the editor will get fired or reassigned, and you’ll be hung out to dry.
Read it all. You should. Every journalism student should study this carefully. This is big.
The New York Times is always an industry leader, but I bet there are people like Bari Weiss at The Washington Post, National Public Radio, the TV networks, and other mainstream media outlets who could tell a similar story. Back in the 1980s, when I was in college, I chose journalism over an academic career path because I enjoyed the thrill of what journalism could do. As I told my new friend today over coffee, I became really passionate about journalism after discovering the journalistic works of Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote early in my career, and through them, came to see what journalism could be. American journalism has always been a liberal profession; it goes with the territory. But over the course of my career, which began in 1989, I have watched it also become a profession that has more in common with a political party or an established religion than with the gathering, reporting, and analysis of the news.
Bari Weiss is describing the tip of a wedge that is moving through the entire profession, as it is doing and has done through academia. The kind of conversation I had today over coffee with my new gay progressive friend — about our religion, our politics, our differences, and so forth — is not one I would have in a newsroom today, for fear it would be weaponized against me. And believe me, I would a thousand times rather have that kind of conversation than one with someone who agreed with me 100 percent, but who was too afraid or incurious to think about the world outside the narrow confines of ideology and religious orthodoxy. My interlocutor and I were up front about our differences, but we approached each other as people who respected each other, and maybe could learn something from each other. He works in the arts, where the yoke of ideology is as deadly to creativity and truth-telling as it is in journalism.
The good news is that Bari Weiss ended her letter by saying that she’s confident there are Americans who want what the Times used to be:
For [dissident] young writers and editors, there is one consolation. As places like The Times and other once-great journalistic institutions betray their standards and lose sight of their principles, Americans still hunger for news that is accurate, opinions that are vital, and debate that is sincere. I hear from these people every day. “An independent press is not a liberal ideal or a progressive ideal or a democratic ideal. It’s an American ideal,” you said a few years ago. I couldn’t agree more. America is a great country that deserves a great newspaper.
Amen to that! I would throw subscription money at such a paper if somebody would start it. (And if I were Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, I would throw millions at them to start such an enterprise.) I see that Andrew Sullivan announced today his departure from New York magazine, where the same police-state mentality among the progressive staff handcuffed him. He said he’ll explain more in his farewell piece on Friday.
Anyway, I’m standing and cheering for Bari Weiss, who had one of the best jobs in American journalism, but who realized holding on to it was not worth sacrificing her dignity to that pack of scoundrels, and who grasped that like the weak chiefs of colleges and other institutions of American life today, Sulzberger did not have the courage to lead his own staff away from the brink. The Times has become a left-wing hate-sheet — and let me tell you, reader, if you don’t grasp how influential that newspaper is on reflecting and managing the opinions of American elites, you are dangerously out of touch. You might not care what the Times thinks about anything, but what is published in its pages, and what is not allowed to be published, matters in a way that is hard to overstate. The main direction of any society is set by its elites. The overwhelming majority of Americans will never read a word in the Times. But those who do read it, and take their cues from it, are the people who run this country.
I hope history proves that Bari Weiss’s declaration of independence was the day that the ideological hegemony of the illiberal American media suffered a fatal blow. Watch whatever she does next. Bari Weiss will never win the Pulitzer Prize, but a single one of her is worth a thousand of those raging propagandists who are driving a once-great newspaper, and a profession, into the ground.
UPDATE: Look, I get that a lot of you hate Bari Weiss. I am very tired, though, of seeing comments from people saying that this serves her right, because she said something ugly once about Tulsi Gabbard, or she’s pro-Israel. Y’all are completely missing the point. I am sure that I would disagree with Weiss as often as I agree with her, and maybe more. The point is that the Times, always a liberal paper, has been captured internally by a rigidly leftist, militant mob that is destroying a very important American institution. Bari Weiss — Trump hater though she is — is a canary in the coal mine. If the mob — and what a vicious mob it was — drives people like Bari Weiss out of the Times, and the leadership of the Times refuses to stand up for her (cf. university professors) on principle, then that tells us something critically important about that newspaper. Moreover, what happens at the Times eventually happens all over American journalism. I urge you to put aside whatever particular gripes you have about Bari Weiss as a polemicist, and focus on the deeper meaning of what has happened here.