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The Self-Cancellation of Bari Weiss

Like much of her writing, the former New York Times editor’s resignation letter is long on accusation and thin on evidence.

Alberto E. Tamargo/Sipa/AP Images

What is the biggest media story of the last five years? The decimation of local news at the hands of private equity, Google, and Facebook (and the subsequent loss of tens of thousands of jobs) would certainly get a lot of votes. The murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi Arabian government is another leading contender. Newsroom eruptions in the wake of #MeToo and the protests following the murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent reckoning with racism and sexism in media have rapidly changed the industry. And then, of course, there is Donald Trump, who has declared the news media the “enemy of the people.”

It would be a stretch to add the resignation of a 36-year-old New York Times opinion editor to this list. But that is what Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan did on Tuesday, tweeting that Bari Weiss’s departure from the paper of record was “the biggest media story in years.” The story, though, wasn’t really Weiss’s departure, but the 1,500-word resignation letter she posted on her personal website, in which she makes repeated allegations of extensive harassment and claims that the Times adheres to a “new orthodoxy” that’s evangelized on social media. “Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor,” she wrote. “Intellectual curiosity—let alone risk-taking—is now a liability at the Times.

The notion that the Times has succumbed to a woke mob has been percolating for a while but has accelerated since James Bennet resigned under duress after publishing an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton that called for troops to be sent in to quell unruly protests against police brutality. (Bennet and others at the Times have acknowledged serious problems with Bennet’s management of the opinion page.) Weiss wants to frame her resignation as a consequence of this supposed hostile takeover—that she’s a free thinker cast out by an intolerant, illiberal regime. But her letter, while long on invective (and just plain long), is short on evidence, and what she’s done instead amounts to auto-cancellation: quitting, then blaming her peers for driving her out. It’s a rhetorical mode that many of her fellow travelers in the “Intellectual Dark Web” are familiar with.

At an all-staff meeting following the Times’ publication of the Cotton op-ed in June, Weiss tweeted that a “civil war” was raging inside the paper: on one side, the paper’s besieged over-40 staffers, who believe in free inquiry and free speech; on the other, under-40 staffers who believe in “safetyism,” a creed “in which the right of people to feel emotionally and psychologically safe trumps what were previously considered core liberal values, like free speech.” It was a bold accusation and a self-serving one. For most of her career, Weiss has warned about the politically correct masses streaming out of college campuses every year. Now those masses had breached the walls of the most important journalistic organization in the country.

But there was one problem: A large number of Times staffers tweeted back that Weiss was mischaracterizing both the meeting they were attending and their workplace. There was no “civil war,” nor a generational conflict. What was happening was, instead, very normal, even banal: “an editorial conversation.” But Weiss’s resignation letter triples down on her narrative. She appears to reference pushback against her “civil war” characterization when she laments being publicly called a “liar” by other Times employees. That is one of many allegations against her co-workers. She says she was called a “Nazi” and a “racist,” that people were bullied for associating with her, and that some posted “ax emojis” next to her name on Slack. “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,” Weiss continues.

These are serious charges. The implication is that the Times did not protect her because it was cowed by the mob—though there is little evidence provided. But Weiss goes further, suggesting that she was bullied for her commitment to “Wrongthink” and that a tepid commitment to intellectual diversity resulted in her being shunned by her colleagues, both publicly and privately. Weiss insists that many Times employees live in fear and message her privately “about the ‘new McCarthyism’ that has taken root at the paper of record.” Being a centrist at the Times, she says, now requires “bravery.”

The Times, of course, is hardly an organ of the woke left. The editorial page that Weiss is leaving employs a number of conservative voices—David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Bret Stephens—as well as a great many that could fairly be described as centrist. Though Weiss’s letter appears to be largely focused on that opinion page, the paper’s news division is regularly criticized on Twitter for credulously reporting on the Trump administration. This has occasionally resulted in social media–driven controversy—as happened when the paper published the headline “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism” following two racially motivated mass shootings. But those instances are relatively rare. “I don’t believe our role is to be the leaders of the opposition party,” Times executive editor Dean Baquet told the Columbia Journalism Review last summer. In spite of those controversies, the Times’ approach to political journalism has not changed: Few would accuse its reporters of being members of the resistance, let alone beholden to the mercy of the woke left.

Weiss is convinced she was targeted for her “centrist” beliefs, but a great deal of the criticism she has received has been about specific flaws with her writing. She has been critiqued for her uncritical glamorizing of right-wing YouTube celebrities, for citing a fake Twitter account as evidence of the illiberalism on college campuses, and for her hypocrisy on the subject. (As an undergraduate at Columbia, Weiss targeted Muslim professors, claiming that they were antisemitic. Shortly after Weiss was hired by the Times, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald wrote: “It’s truly amazing: Weiss now postures as some sort of champion of free thought on college campuses. Yet her whole career was literally built on ugly campaigns to attack, stigmatize, and punish Arab professors who criticize Israel.”)

Far from displaying a commitment to free inquiry or open-mindedness, much of Weiss’s work displays a knack for taking thin, anecdotal evidence and framing it in grandiose culture-war terms. Mistakes are an inevitable part of opinion journalism, but Weiss has routinely turned any criticism of her work into proof that her critics are illiberal and out to silence her. (Appearing on Bill Maher in the wake of making a series of errors, Weiss suggested that she was being targeted by the “mob” for her beliefs. After incorrectly calling an Asian American figure skater an “immigrant” on Twitter, Weiss said she was using “poetic license” and lashed out at her critics.) You see this tendency in her claims of a “civil war” at the Times and again in the letter itself, in which little distinction is made between social media abuse and criticisms of her work. Weiss’s critics never have a valid point; they’re only trying to silence her.

Weiss’s letter blurs another critical distinction—between being fired and quitting. It’s a fitting end to her tenure at the Times. She has spent years claiming that illiberal dogma was spreading throughout college campuses and beyond and that “cancel culture” would one day come to infect all of American culture. The evidence of such a wholesale transformation remains thin. After all, Weiss was awarded with a plum perch at the country’s most influential newspaper. Now, with her exit from the Times, she has made herself a character in her dubious narrative. She need only cite herself as proof of the malign influence of the woke left and cancel culture in America’s most hallowed institutions. It’ll make the perfect ending for her next book.