In October 2017, Squirrel Hill native Bari Weiss came back to her hometown as a featured speaker at an event sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Just six months earlier, she had left her job as an op-ed and book review editor for The Wall Street Journal and moved to The New York Times as a staff editor for its opinion section.
“I’ve gone in the last year from being the most progressive person at The Wall Street Journal, to being the most right-winged person at The New York Times,” she told her audience — more than 300 people — in Rodef Shalom’s Freehof Hall.
During a morning Q&A, Rabbi Danny Schiff posed questions to the then 33-year-old journalist on a variety of topics, including her experiences at the WSJ and her enthusiasm for joining the Times.
“I’m thrilled to be at The New York Times,” Weiss said then, while still in the honeymoon phase of her employment there. Although she was still writing the same sorts of pieces that she wrote at the WSJ, she was now being viewed as “provocative” and “engaging with people who don’t agree with me.”
That was fine with her. That was good journalism.
Weiss is far from a knee-jerk conservative. In fact, back in 2017, she told her Pittsburgh audience that she left the WSJ because of the paper’s response to President Donald Trump, whom she described as a “master of chaos.” She was troubled by the paper’s ultimate decision to “be neutral” to Trump, then its move toward a “pro-Trump stance.”
Weiss is a true centrist. She is anti-Trump and in favor of repealing the Second Amendment, but she also sticks up for Israel, condemns anti-Semitism wherever it lurks and criticizes the progressive left for its penchant for “cancel culture.”
Last week’s news that Weiss had resigned from the Times, and her stated reasons for doing so, spoke to a model of American journalism and a “cancel culture” that is troubling at best and dangerous at its worst.
In her resignation letter to the Times, Weiss noted that she was hired to give a platform to writers that would not otherwise appear in that paper, including “centrists, conservatives and others who would not naturally think of the Times as their home. The reason for this effort was clear: The paper’s failure to anticipate the outcome of the 2016 election meant that it didn’t have a firm grasp of the country it covers.”
But as things turned out, at least according to Weiss, the Times was not committed to that mission.
“My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views,” Weiss wrote. “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.’”
Weiss does indeed frequently “write about the Jews.” She was raised among the Pittsburgh Jewish community to be proud of her identity and heritage and to support the Jewish state. Last year, in the wake of the anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life building — the site of her own bat mitzvah years before — she wrote a book on anti-Semitism of all streams, including within the progressive left, entitled “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.”
Weiss is but one recent victim of the prevailing “cancel culture,” a culture prevalent in journalism as well as academia and politics that targets the livelihood and professional reputations of those who dare to deviate from acceptable groupthink. Other recent victims of “cancel culture” include Andrew Sullivan of New York Magazine and the renowned Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker.
Weiss also was among 153 prominent and diverse writers and academics who recently signed a letter that was published in Harper’s Magazine, advocating for open debate. “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away,” read the letter. They were attacked via social media and by some journalists who actually condemned them simply for writing in favor of free speech.
It is disturbing to think that it might have been a problem for her colleagues at the Times that Weiss, as a Jew, often writes about Jewish issues. Should the fact that she is Jewish have disqualified her from doing so? We can’t help but wonder if those who complained about her propensity for covering Jewish topics also take issue when writers of other minorities cover issues of particular relevance to those minorities.
The Times’ editors, Weiss charged in her letter, select stories to satisfy a progressive narrative for “the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions.” History, she wrote, “is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.”
We hope that Weiss’ stated reasons for her resignation are not a portent of a continuing denigration of American journalism and the squelching of the free exchange of a diverse array of ideas and perspectives. We also hope that the current environment of “cancel culture” does not create a class of rising young journalists and academics who choose to self-censor rather than expose themselves to vicious online bullying, or worse.
As Weiss wrote: “Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery.” PJC