Hours after Bari Weiss resigned from The New York Times, her 1,500 word resignation letter, attributing her departure to “bullying” by adherents of a new “orthodoxy” within the paper, appeared as an op-ed on the website of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, and her exit was the front page of the printed paper the following day—presented as proof of a dangerous “cancel culture” at elite liberal institutions.
But Weiss herself went silent, though she did tell a reporter from Murdoch’s Journal that “the letter speaks for itself.” I first reached out to Weiss in July since she’d written months after arriving at the Times in 2017 about my departure after 22 years from City Journal, the flagship publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute, after I was blocked from writing about Donald Trump and Steve Bannon at the behest of billionaire donors Paul Singer and Rebekah Mercer. In that piece (as well as in a Vanity Fair interview with former New Republic owner Marty Peretz’s daughter), Weiss compared my decision to break ranks to her own departure from the Journal, where she said she’d been blocked from writing about Bannon and Melania Trump, as part of a purge of Never Trumpers at conservative institutions. “In the broader conservative world, Mr. Stern isn’t alone in making the choice to leave in protest,” Weiss wrote. “At The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, nearly every editor and writer of the ‘Never Trump’ persuasion left the paper in the past year, this writer included.”
Since Weiss and I have both experienced a variant of cancel culture that receives far less attention these days—censorship at conservative thought centers—I asked the self-described political centrist if she could compare the pressures to toe the party line at the Journal and the Times, the nation’s two most influential opinion pages, and if she could elaborate on her latest exit. Last week, Weiss broke her silence and replied to some of my questions, attributing her resignation to “the transformation of the New York Times from the inside” so that “the spectrum of acceptable opinion has narrowed to a very particular sliver.”
I also asked Weiss to reflect on her experiences of censorship at The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, as well as whether there was a breaking point for her at the Times.
Her answer: “The Times was never a comfortable place for me to work, but as long as I could do the work I was hired to do enduring the bullying seemed worthwhile. It was not worth it when I could no longer do that work—especially of bringing in op-eds that contradict the new orthodoxy.
“That the spectrum of acceptable opinion has narrowed to a very particular sliver is apparent to anyone with eyes. An op-ed by a sitting U.S. senator caused a storied editor to lose his job. Meantime pieces in favor of abolishing the police are met with silence or hosannas.
“What’s going on here is as significant as it is straightforward: It is the transformation of the New York Times from the inside. This transformation is not at all unique to the paper—this sort of institutional capture is happening across the media, our universities, publishing houses and more.
“What that transformation meant in my specific case is that I would have had to become a half-version of myself in order to maintain job security. I decided that that price was too high. The moment in this country is too urgent, life is too short and prestige is not so important.”
Weiss framed her resignation letter as a J’accuse against A.G. Sulzberger, the sixth-generation scion of the family dynasty that has owned and guided the Times since the end of the 19th century. The publisher, just three years older than Weiss, apparently stood by silently while she was subjected to a campaign of hateful internet bullying by fellow employees. She reported being called “a Nazi” and a “racist” and taunted for “writing about the Jews again.” According to Weiss, a posse of “woke” newsroom staffers were responsible for this textbook example of toxic cancel culture.
These are explosive charges. As Weiss’s resignation letter notes, the indifference of the paper’s management to the personal harassment she suffered might qualify as “unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment and constructive discharge” – i.e. workplace behavior that is legally prohibited. Even more damning for the Times’ hallowed reputation is that, to date, Sulzberger hasn’t even bothered to offer a defense against Weiss’s serious accusations.
I asked Weiss to provide more details about those hateful attacks. How many were there and who were the perpetrators? I asked whether there was a danger that without her naming names a shadow of guilt would be cast over all current employees at the Times.
She declined to answer the question, citing “legal considerations.”
Weiss’ resignation letter also claimed that the paper’s social justice warriors had succeeded in intimidating editors into tilting stories to conform to the orthodoxies of leftist identity politics. “Most people at the Times do not hold these views,” Weiss wrote, yet they “are cowed” by those who do. The result is that “intellectual curiosity—let alone risk-taking—is now a liability at the Times” and “self-censorship has become the norm.”
In summary, Weiss’ account is that under its current feckless publisher a “new McCarthyism has taken root at the paper of record.” A once great newspaper, vital for maintaining the health of our democracy, has been hijacked by an ignorant mob.
In her letter to Sulzberger, Weiss describes this calamity more in sorrow than in anger. She allows that “some of the most talented journalists in the world” are still at the Times and says she will continue to be “a dedicated reader of their work.” Yet in the same breath she also accuses her former colleagues of turning a blind eye to the ideological rampage conducted by the newspaper’s activists. These prominent journalists failed to speak up for the grey lady’s historic values, either because “they believe they will be granted protection if they nod along,” or because “there are millions of unemployed people in this country and they feel lucky to have a job in a contracting industry.”
In my email I asked Weiss if this was true of everyone at the opinion section. If not, shouldn’t she at least acknowledge that some people at the paper behaved honorably? She didn’t answer that question, again citing legal considerations.
After Weiss’ letter went viral on conservative media she had to expect it would become a political talking point in an ugly campaign season. After all, she had publicly declared that she is of the “Never Trump persuasion.” Yet President Trump seized on her resignation to toss another twitter stink bomb at the Times, while making it all about himself: “Wow. The @nytimes is under siege. The real reason is that it has become Fake News. They never covered me correctly - they blew it. People are fleeing, a total mess!”
Other stalwarts of critical thinking inside the GOP such as the president’s son, Don Jr., and Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio also offered encomiums to Weiss. And the ethically challenged Senator Kelly Loeffler, running for re-election in Georgia, proclaimed in a fund-raising letter: “We need to stand up to cancel culture now. Today, it’s me. Tomorrow, it could be you or one of your loved ones.”
For pure cynicism, though, it’s hard to match the celebration of Weiss as a free-speech warrior by the New York Post. The paper’s front page coverage of Weiss’s resignation had little to do with journalism. It was unadorned political advocacy and, with regard to the issues of censorship and cancel culture, a case study of the pot calling the kettle black.
Here’s a salient fact to consider when evaluating the Post’s stance on Bari Weiss’ resignation. The paper’s op-ed editor, Sohrab Ahmari, boasted on Twitter about getting Weiss’s letter published at lightning speed. Yet Ahmari is a practitioner of a very nasty version of right-wing cancel culture.
Last year Ahmari launched an extraordinary personal attack on David French, a Christian conservative and one of the early supporters of the Never Trump movement. Appearing in the religious magazine First Things, Ahmari’s essay was bizarrely titled “Against David-Frenchism.” French’s unforgivable sin, according to Ahmari, is that he has been insufficiently ruthless in pursuing the culture war against secularism and liberalism.
“Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions,” Ahmari wrote, “Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral.”
In other words, since leftists make war against wishy washy liberals who fall short of supporting the entire revolutionary catechism, devout religious conservatives are commanded to do the same against those conservatives who naively adhere to the old fashioned principle of tolerance for dissenting viewpoints.
The libertarian political thinker Jonathan Rauch has written that cancel culture “is about shaping the information battlefield, not seeking truth; and its intent—or at least its predictable outcome—is to coerce conformity and reduce the scope for forms of criticism that are not sanctioned by the prevailing consensus of some local majority.”
Following Rauch’s lead, we might say that “Sohrab Ahmarism” aims to coerce conformity among conservatives as much as, perhaps even more so, than the social justice warriors at the Times attempted to coerce and control liberals like Bari Weiss.
The pertinent question, therefore, is whether the Post’s opinion page is more open to dissenting opinion than the Times. The answer is decidedly not. The Times has three regular conservative columnists, plus several conservative opinion writers. The Post’s opinion section doesn’t have a single liberal columnist or opinion writer.
In my email I asked Weiss whether she was troubled by the accolades she received from the New York Post, which even in its news pages has become a propaganda organ for Trump and which never prints opinions by liberals.
Her answer: “If I thought about all of the ways I can be used or weaponized in this ugly political moment I would never have the balls to do anything at all. So I try to ignore the noise and live according to my values.”
Despite her complaints about the abuses she suffered from some staffers, Weiss’s resignation letter never suggested that she was prevented from expressing her views in the paper’s opinion section. In her short book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, published in November 2019, Weiss declares herself a passionate Zionist and devotes an entire chapter to exposing leftist anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Her views on these issues are not widely shared at the Times. Yet the paper not only didn’t stifle her, but actually promoted her work. The Times book review section assigned a committed Zionist, the Israeli American writer Hillel Halkin, to review Weiss’ book and then listed it as one of eight noteworthy new books.
That’s why in my email last week, I asked Weiss whether she had been subjected to censorship at the Times or had any of her articles spiked?
She answered, “Yes,” but then diverted to the issue of self-censorship: “The bigger problem is the self-censorship, which is a problem throughout the paper. Writers and commissioning editors know what stories which sail through and earn them accolades and clicks—and which ones will take weeks of cajoling to get through, if they can ever get them through. Given that incentive structure, it shouldn’t come as surprise that people talk themselves out of pursuing stories that contradict the narrative.”
I followed up by asking Weiss if she could describe any instance of censorship at the Times. She answered, “Alas, I can’t.”
In her book on anti-Semitism, Weiss also has some provocative things to say about President Trump, including the following comments about Trump’s response to the 2017 white supremacist parade in Charlottesville, Va.
“It is no surprise that anti-Semites were drawn to Trump‘s banner. They recognized him as a fellow conspiracy theorist—and one willing to flirt with white supremacists. Trump played the major chords on which these bigots could riff for their followers.”
The New York Post’s editors championed Bari Weiss for exposing the lack of viewpoint diversity at the Times, so it’s worth asking how likely it would be for their own opinion page to publish Weiss’s assessment of Trump as a bigot and conspiracy theorist. The answer speaks for itself.
Looking back now it’s clear that Weiss’s resignation letter had some consequences its author didn’t intend. For one, it was a gift horse to President Trump and his enablers, providing an opening to throw the charge of “McCarthyism” at the country’s most prominent anti-Trump newspaper.
Yet the Trump administration is a case study in real time of McCarthyism in power. A recent front page Wall Street Journal story noted, as if it was common knowledge, that “Mr. Trump has taken command of the GOP through a combination of persuasion and purges.” Purging dissenters within one of America’s two major political parties is a pretty good working definition of McCarthyism.
Trump’s Twitter messages to 80 million Americans are loaded with McCarthyite attacks on his liberal and conservative critics, including guilt by association and accusations of disloyalty to America. Vice magazine has compiled a list of 50 individuals and companies that Trump has wanted boycotted or fired.
More serious is the president’s well-documented campaign to purge US government agencies of talented public servants whose only offense was dissenting from Trump’s ill-advised policies. That’s a Trump accomplishment that even eluded the Senator from Wisconsin.
Finally I asked Weiss about her future plans. She replied:
“Doing journalism. Building institutions that trust Americans enough to tell them the truth, without fear or favor. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I’m more confident than ever that there’s hunger for it.”
I wish Weiss well in her next endeavor. Practicing journalism “without fear and favor” is something our divided country could use more of these days. I also hope Weiss realizes she still has some cleaning up to do over the way that her final act at the New York Times was weaponized by a political movement that demands blind loyalty to its leader, practices its own version of cancel culture and could care less about telling Americans the truth.