Bari Weiss, one of the most polarizing journalists in the country, has resigned from the opinion section of The New York Times, citing a "hostile work environment" and an institutional yielding to an increasingly extreme ideological "orthodoxy."
"The truth is that intellectual curiosity—let alone risk-taking—is now a liability at The Times," Weiss wrote in a scorching resignation letter self-published Tuesday morning. "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."
This is the latest development in a remarkably turbulent and potentially far-reaching eight-week period within America's leading liberal institutions. Beginning with the videotaped police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May, then the subsequent protests, riots and crackdowns, the country's newspapers and universities and cultural organizations have experienced social media-fueled waves of internal revolts and leadership changes, frequently though not solely over questions of race.
One main fault-line, illustrated most starkly in the opposing open letters published last week about free speech and cancel culture (the first of which, in Harper's Magazine, was signed by Weiss and 152 others, including 15 Reason contributors), is the divide between those journalists and academics who feel like they are defending the very foundations of liberalism, and those who feel like they are chipping away at the institutions of systemic prejudice. To witness the two sides talking angrily past one another, open up your Twitter feed.
In Weiss's telling, the Times is retreating from the ethic of journalistic open inquiry and pluralistic debate, replacing it with a pre-baked notion of what readers ought to think.
"The lessons that ought to have followed the [2016 presidential] 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," she charged. "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….[T]he 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."
That last sentence in particular is surely a reference to the paper's controversial 1619 Project, helmed by Pulitzer-winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, that seeks "to reframe American history, making explicit how slavery is the foundation on which this country is built." Hannah-Jones, who spearheaded the intentionally publicized internal revolt last month that resulted in the resignation of Opinion Editor James Bennett, has been a longtime public critic of Weiss.
"My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views," Weiss wrote, at the beginning of a three-paragraph section that carries the distinct whiff of both drama and potential legal action. "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."
It is both easy and appropriate to be mostly irritated by the overhyped internal personnel battles of elite coastal institutions—including at New York magazine, which today lost star columnist Andrew Sullivan a few weeks after having spiked one of his pieces. In a country beset by an 11.1 percent unemployment rate, 139,000 coronavirus deaths, massive economic uncertainty, and the mental degradations of extended familial quarantine, it's hard to get exercised about a well-paid writer/editor noisily walking away from her job.
I have zero doubt that Bari Weiss (who is a friend), will not just land on her feet, but probably find herself at or near the center of a new media grouping of some kind. "As places like The Times and other once-great journalistic institutions betray their standards and lose sight of their principles," she wrote, almost teasingly, "Americans still hunger for news that is accurate, opinions that are vital, and debate that is sincere."
But 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.
Bonus links: In January 2018, Weiss came on The Fifth Column podcast to talk about, among other things, how she left The Wall Street Journal editorial page after it became too pro-Trump. And in July of that year, Nick Gillespie interviewed her for the Reason Podcast.