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Normally, an opinion editor/writer resigning from The New York Times would be newsworthy mostly in just media circles. The fact that it was controversial writer Bari Weiss who stepped away on Tuesday made the news more notable.
It became a blockbuster story once her resignation letter became public. In a scathing criticism of the Times, Weiss laid out both personal and professional grievances that questioned the integrity and politics of the Times and became the latest saga to rock the Times’ Opinion section.
There’s a lot to break down here, and I’ll go over it in pieces.
First, let’s start with that letter. Wow, what a letter it was. Nearly 1,500 words and almost all of them slamming the Times.
Not only did she criticize the Times for muting voices, but she said she was the subject of “constant bullying” by colleagues. The allegations are serious.
“They have called me a Nazi and a racist,” she wrote, “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.”
Weiss said she was publicly smeared as a liar and bigot on Twitter by Times employees who were never punished for it. “They never are,” Weiss wrote.
Weiss added, “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. I do not understand how you have allowed this kind of behavior to go on inside your company in full view of the paper’s entire staff and the public. And I certainly can’t square how you and other Times leaders have stood by while simultaneously praising me in private for my courage. Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery.”
Then she took aim at the Times’ journalism, saying Twitter has become the Times’ “ultimate editor.”
“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times,” Weiss wrote. “But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the 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.”
The Times responds … sort of
The Times did not get into a public war of words with Weiss. Publisher A.G. Sulzberger likely will talk about Weiss in the future, as he surely will be asked about it — especially her claims of a liberal bias. But, for now, he is not commenting.
In a statement, Eileen Murphy, the Times’ senior vice president, communications, said, “We’re committed to fostering an environment of honest, searching and empathetic dialogue between colleagues, one where mutual respect is required of all.”
Kathleen Kingsbury, acting editorial page editor of the Times, said in a statement, “We appreciate the many contributions that Bari made to Times Opinion. I’m personally committed to ensuring that The Times continues to publish voices, experiences and viewpoints from across the political spectrum in the Opinion report. We see every day how impactful and important that approach is, especially through the outsized influence The Times’s opinion journalism has on the national conversation.”
The heart of the matter
While her claims of being bullied by colleagues are not to be overlooked or dismissed, the heart of Weiss’ resignation letter (and the part being most scrutinized) is her assertion that the Times is giving in to the liberal leanings of its employees and readers.
She wrote, “Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or a writer in serious trouble, if not fired. If a piece is perceived as likely to inspire backlash internally or on social media, the editor or writer avoids pitching it. If she feels strongly enough to suggest it, she is quickly steered to safer ground. And if, every now and then, she succeeds in getting a piece published that does not explicitly promote progressive causes, it happens only after every line is carefully massaged, negotiated and caveated.”
Weiss alluded to the latest scandal at the Times editorial department — the departure of editorials editor James Bennet, who left the paper after the Times published a controversial op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton about sending the military into the streets to deal with protesters.
And that became the latest chapter in Weiss’ disagreements with colleagues. Not long after the Cotton controversy broke, Weiss posted a lengthy Twitter thread that said there was a civil war going on at the Times between, “the (mostly young) wokes” and “the (mostly 40+) liberals.”
But, as Times media writer Edmund Lee noted, many Times staffers pushed back on Weiss’ description of what was happening at the Times. Opinion editor Max Strasser, for example, tweeted, “I am in the same meeting that Bari appears to be livetweeting. This (is) inaccurate in both characterizations: It’s not a civil war, it’s an editorial conversation; and it’s not breaking down along generational lines.”
More about Weiss
Weiss, herself, has not been without controversy at the Times. Washington Post media reporters Elahe Izadi and Jeremy Barr called her a “lightning rod for both her social media posts and her published writings.” They pointed out several examples of controversial writings, including a feature on the “intellectual dark web” and an essay about a college protest movement in which she cited a hoax Twitter account. She then told HBO’s Bill Maher that a “mob” of liberals attacked her for several mistakes she had made.
Lee wrote that Weiss was “critical of a woman who described an uncomfortable encounter with the comedian Aziz Ansari and questioned whether the sexual assault charges leveled against Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh should disqualify him from the post.”
It also should be noted that in her resignation letter, she seems to be complaining that certain voices are muted and yet she bragged about introducing new voices to the Times op-ed pages — listing no fewer than 20 names along with “many others.”
What should we make of all this?
Weiss is now gone from the Times and that will generally draw one of two reactions.
One, from many readers and Times staffers, will be: good riddance. Her opinions were occasionally harmful and her resignation letter was a whiny rant of someone who likes to dish it out but can’t take it when she is criticized. And, they might ask, was she ever stopped from writing anything?
The other reaction, from many Times critics and some colleagues, will be: see, more proof that the Times is a liberal mouthpiece that doesn’t allow for other (conservative) voices. In fact, the resignation letter became catnip for conservatives such as Fox News’ Brit Hume and The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, as well as Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr.
Without being inside the Times and, especially, the editorial department, it’s impossible to know which is most accurate. But it’s not as if Weiss will disappear. She is likely to show up somewhere and in a high-profile spot.
And that leads me to this …
An interesting thread
I found this Twitter thread by New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz to be very thought-provoking. He started with this:
“That Bari Weiss feels confident enough to leave one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism when the entire economy is collapsing tells you all you need to know about how right wing personalities are protected by the safety net of the conservative media welfare state.”
And, he defended Weiss’ colleagues who were critical of her by tweeting, “I’m just completely over this idea that ‘professionalism’ means holding your tongue when somebody at your publication, or in your field, says or does something that negatively affects you and people you work with. Where are the ‘freedom of speech’ advocates on this issue?”
Zoller Seitz goes on to say that once conservative voices reach a certain level of “fame” they will always have a job. You can read the thread for yourself and form your own opinions.
But here was the part that really resonated with me. He wrote, “I am nostalgic for my days at New York press, where extremely right wing, extremely left-wing, and ideologically uncategorizable writers not only had different takes on things, but called each other out in print, by name, from issue to issue.”
Another big resignation
Weiss wasn’t the only high-profile writer to resign on Tuesday. Andrew Sullivan tweeted that this would be his last week at New York Magazine. His reasons sound similar to Weiss’.
Sullivan tweeted, “I’m sad because the editors I worked with there are among the finest in the country, and I am immensely grateful to them for vastly improving my work.”
Sullivan, who has been at New York since 2016, said he had “no beef” with his colleagues and didn’t give a specific reason for his resignation, but added, “The underlying reasons for the split are pretty self-evident, and I’ll be discussing the broader questions involved in my last column this Friday.”
Sullivan said his column will continue somewhere else and that, on Friday, he would “detail some exciting news.”
In a memo to staff obtained by CNN’s Kerry Flynn, New York editor-in-chief David Haskell said the parting was “mutual.” He said, “Andrew and I agreed that his editorial project and the magazine’s, though overlapping in many ways, were no longer the right match for each other.”
Haskell did allude to differences with Sullivan, if not in political views then in approach.
“I am trying hard to create in this magazine a civil, respectful, intellectually honest space for political debate,” Haskell said. “I believe there is a way to write from a conservative perspective about some of the most politically charged subjects of American life while still upholding our values. I also think that our magazine in particular has an opportunity to be a place where the liberal project is hashed out, which is to say not only championed but also interrogated.”
One last thought
Wouldn’t it be something if Andrew Sullivan and Bari Weiss resigned on the same day just so they could start some joint venture together? Just a thought.
A local issue
Margaret Sullivan’s new book is out. The Washington Post media columnist wrote about local news in “Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy.” Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds recently reviewed the book.
Now up on Poynter’s website is an interview Sullivan did with Marc Jacob of Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative. Check out the whole conversation, but I found this particularly interesting:
Mark Jacob: In your book, you write that the alarming decline in local newspaper coverage may allow government corruption to flourish. Can you talk about that?
Margaret Sullivan: One of the things that local newspapers have done well, generally, over many decades is to do a kind of granular government coverage that we don’t see in other kinds of news media. That’s not to say that a local radio reporter doesn’t do a great job or that local TV can’t do very good investigative work. But local newspapers particularly have a history of showing up at every board meeting, maybe even the committee meetings, working these sources over time, and being able to get at, through this detailed beat and local coverage, how people’s tax dollars are being spent.
Sullivan went on to talk about how a reporter at The Buffalo News, Barbara O’Brien, did “nitty-gritty” journalism work and ended up discovering an “unexplained $100,000 payout to a retiring sheriff.”
Such a story might not win a Pulitzer, Sullivan said, but it’s the type of watchdog journalism that is critical to any community.
Trump on Trump
ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos sat down with President Donald Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, for an exclusive interview Tuesday. Mary Trump’s book, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man,” published by Simon & Schuster, was released Tuesday. Stephanopoulos’ interview with her will air this morning on “Good Morning America.” Part of it ran Monday night on ABC’s “World News Tonight.”
During one point, Stephanopoulos asked, “If you’re in the Oval Office today, what would you say to him?”
She said, “Resign.”
Remember the evening when protestors in Washington, D.C., were pushed back by authorities so President Trump could stand in front of a church? The Ringer’s Alan Siegel with “One Night in D.C.: The Oral History of June 1, 2020.”
In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, Harvard professor Joseph G. Allen gives us six reasons for optimism about the coronavirus.
Vulture’s Craig Jenkins with “Kanye West and the Media Are Once Again Playing a Dangerous Game.”
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More resources for journalists
- Bring Empathy to Your Reporting to Cultivate Sources — July 16 at 2 p.m. Eastern, Poynter
- Make Design More Inclusive: Defeat Unconscious Bias in Visuals — July 22 at 2 p.m. Eastern, Poynter
- Building a Scalable Personal Brand — Online group seminar starts July 31, Poynter
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