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Listening to Bari Weiss

The New York Times has been warned.
July 15, 2020
Listening to Bari Weiss

Bari Weiss is about to find herself with a lot of temporary new friends and even more permanent and rather bitter enemies. By resigning from the New York Times in spectacular fashion, denouncing a culture of intolerance, she has gone from heretic to heresiarch.

But she has company.

Along with Andrew Sullivan, who announced that he is leaving New York magazine, and the signatories of an open letter in Harper’s on free inquiry, Weiss has exposed a jagged fault in the culture, and in particular the culture of journalism, which has been infected by an intolerant wokeness once confined to the university campus.

The resignations of Weiss and Sullivan are signs of what Reason’s Matt Welch calls “elite journalism’s eight-week nervous breakdown.” But as the furious response to the open letter in Harper’s shows, the fight over illiberalism runs even deeper than that. As Jesse Signal noted, “the American left is basically a war zone at the moment—or online it is, at least.”

For now, the civil war in the newsrooms feels like the front line.

In her resignation letter, Weiss writes that “intellectual curiosity—let alone risk-taking—is now a liability at The Times.” She describes an atmosphere of stifling intellectual conformity. “Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome,” she writes. “Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets.”

Let’s stipulate that American journalism has other issues. Last year a prominent columnist was murdered on the orders of a Saudi prince allied with our current regime; newsrooms across the country have been decimated; and fact-based journalism risks being crushed under an avalanche of crackpottery, propaganda, and misinformation.

But that is not an excuse to dismiss the Weiss/Sullivan/Harper’s stories as merely intramural spats among the media elite. The slide toward illiberalism is as much an existential threat to the future of journalism as the other challenges. The Times, after all, is not supposed to be a left wing doppelganger of the Federalist or the Daily Caller.

So this is a fight that will extend long past the Trump era. As Matt Welch writes, even if you don’t care about “the ongoing nervous breakdown of the media, that doesn’t mean the breakdown doesn’t care about you.”

The New York Times, for better and worse, has been the go-to model for the country’s other newspapers for at least the past half-century; what happens on 8th Avenue definitely does not stay on 8th Avenue. Basic media literacy suggests paying attention when an entire industry that contributes to the way we interpret the world announces loudly that it is rethinking its basic orientation.

More immediately, the name-and-shame defenestrations of the past two months have long since jumped the banks from media/academia to the more prosaic corners of the economy. “Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper,” Weiss observed, “should not require bravery.” Nor should it at a restaurant or software company, but there we might well be going.

But making all of this about something other than Bari will be difficult. For the record, I find her to be smart, provocative, brave, and charming. But, there’s no denying that there is something about Bari that inspires strong feelings among both her detractors and her friends.

Chatterton, who is, like Weiss, a leading critic of the cancel culture, was nevertheless inspired to literally and physically cancel someone from his home in a fight over Weiss’s work. (Before deleting his tweets, Chatterton tried to clarify that the offending individual “ended up self-expelling with my encouragement.”) Bari Derangement Syndrome is very much a thing.

There is a segment of New York Times readers who seem to be in a state of perpetual performative hysteria about the presence in their paper of the likes of Bret Stephens, David Brooks, and until now, Bari Weiss. But Weiss appears to be a peculiar object of their obsession.

Vanity’s Fair’s 2019 profile was headlined: “Mad About Bari Weiss: The New York Times Provocateur The Left Loves To Hate.”

The word “hate” in the headline was not an exaggeration. This is how the piece opens:

Meet Bari Weiss, “alt-righter,” “fascist,” “the Jewish, female version of Kanye West.” She doesn’t like immigrants. She’s a traitor to her gender, and she should be “sterilized.” In short, “Bari Weiss can fuck off.”

She’s become a somewhat unwitting avatar for the knee-jerk flash-bang of social media, a poster child for the polarization of the chattering classes.

The article describes her works as heterodox, defying easy us/them, left/right categorization.” She had turned a skeptical eye on the excess of some of the activist movement, noting that “while such movements are well-intentioned, their excesses of zeal, often imposed by the hard left, can backfire.”

This attitude, apparently, has become deeply controversial at the Times.

All of this came to a head during the contretemps over an op-ed by Arkansas senator Tom Cotton (that resulted in the defenestration of the paper’s editorial page editor). Weiss charged into the fight with a series of pointed tweets.

“The Old Guard lives by a set of principles we can broadly call civil libertarianism. They assumed they shared that worldview with the young people they hired who called themselves liberals and progressives. But it was an incorrect assumption.

“The New Guard has a different worldview, one articulated best by @JonHaidt and @glukianoff. They call it ‘safetyism,’ in which the right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe trumps what were previously considered core liberal values, like free speech.”

She continued: “I’ve been mocked by many people over the past few years for writing about the campus culture wars. They told me it was a sideshow. But this was always why it mattered: The people who graduated from those campuses would rise to power inside key institutions and transform them.”

Her resignation letter makes it clear who Weiss thinks won that civil war:

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.

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.

So now we are left with the question: will the Times take her warnings seriously? Doubtful.

Dismissing critics, especially from the right, has long been a reflex in elite media circles. The impulse to react defensively will be enhanced by the enthusiastic embrace of Weiss’s new (and temporary) admirers on the right, who think that she has confirmed all of their deepest suspicions about the media.

Despite a penchant for nationalistic navel-gazing, my experience has been that few industries are less willing to engage in genuine soul- searching or introspection than the media. William F. Buckley once quipped that “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.” But it’s even worse in progressive newsrooms.

It’s not merely that most journalists share a similar worldview; many of them have seemingly lost sight of the fact that there are other worldviews. Just as a fish doesn’t know it’s wet, too many journalists do not seem to realize they are swimming in an ocean of RightThink.

And that was even before the advent of WokeJournalism.

A deeply held conviction of superior virtue can be used to rationalize not just ideologically-based journalism, but also compromises on truthiness, fact-based journalism, and the spirit to free inquiry.

But the legacy media, including the Times, have to make a choice. They can be a safe space of ideological conformity and whispered dissent, or they can be a voice of credible 21stcentury journalism. They can’t be both.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.