July 15, 2020
In Blog News
Center-right opinion editor and columnist Bari Weiss has resigned from her lucrative and powerful perch at The New York Times, most likely to take up a lucrative and powerful perch elsewhere. Those familiar with her work will not be surprised to learn that her exit is accompanied by a public resignation letter which excoriates twitter critics, other Times staffers and what she describes as a nefarious culture of intolerance and bullying on the left. That culture, she warns, “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.” She then mutters darkly about the “new McCarthyism.” (She does not mention, though presumably she knows, that the old McCarthyism was directed, not against centrists, but against leftists such as those she herself is targeting.)
Weiss’s letter purports to be about free speech. But really it is about deference. Weiss thinks that the chattering classes, to which she belongs, are the most important speakers, and that criticism of them threatens freedom. She cares less about whether lesser employees, with smaller platforms, are able to speak up. Her concern is not that free speech is being limited for all. It is that the speech of the powerful may be balanced by that of others, leading to chaos, mob rule—and (horrors!) a more just world.
The letter dances around the obvious change at the NYT that presaged her departure. Weiss, as she notes, came aboard the paper after Trump’s election along with former opinion editor James Bennet. Bennet’s remit was to add more conservative voices. Many on staff, though, felt he published shoddy writing simply to troll liberal readers. It’s a reasonable charge given that one of his hires, Bret Stephens, started his tenure off with a column of climate change denial.
In the same vein, in early June, the New York Times published an op-ed by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton calling for Trump to send troops into American cities to quell violence associated with nationwide protests against racist police brutality.
The op-ed sparked a staff revolt, led by Black journalists. New York Times reporters have been told not to criticize the op-ed section in public, so reporters speaking against the column risked management disapproval. Nonetheless, in defiance of their bosses, workers began tweeting the message that the op-ed put Black reporters in danger by encouraging violence against protestors. It was a specific, but important, labor action.
Critics also argued that the piece was sloppy journalism; Cotton claimed antifa radicals had infiltrated the protest, a piece of conservative disinformation the Times itself had rebutted. The external and internal criticism proved too much, and Bennet resigned.
Bennet hired Weiss. It’s in the context of his departure that we need to read her letter, which is in large part an attack on her coworkers. Specifically, she argues that the Times should have done more to restrain the speech of peers. “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,” she says. She is literally asking the Times to prevent people at the paper from criticizing her, on the grounds that she dislikes the criticism, and thinks it is wrong. That doesn’t sound like free speech.
Weiss herself has not been shy to criticize others at the Times. After the Bennet firing, she used Twitter to characterize those upset by the op-ed as under-40 “wokes,” a broad and insulting characterization. Again, reporters are not supposed to criticize opinion writers, which meant that Weiss was insulting her colleagues in a forum where responding could get them in trouble with management. Nonetheless, many disputed her claims. Weiss responded, ultimately, with the letter itself, in which she sweepingly denounces her peers as cowardly totalitarians who she says created a hostile work environment.
Weiss and others at the Times have bitterly differing views on the purpose of the op-ed section of the paper. But more than that, they have different opinions on what free speech means. Weiss believes it means that well placed pundits, who have been labeled important, should be able to say anything they want from the nation’s most important journalistic platform, without any interference from the people who work at said platform. Weiss’s coworkers, in contrast, believe they should have some say in what their labor supports, and in how the institution they contribute to uses the value and reputation they help create.
The people with most access to an audience are powerful people, and they naturally are able to frame free speech as a resource mainly for those with education, influence, and large platforms. “The publisher will cave to the mob,” Weiss warns, but the “mob” she’s talking about is her own less powerful, less well connected, and notably less white coworkers. The people who work at the paper—especially the Black people who work at the paper—spoke up at some danger to their jobs, because they cared about their coworkers, their workplace, and their country. Weiss thinks their voices are a danger to free speech. But I think when workers can speak back to the powerful, we’re all more free.