The truth may set you free, if you don’t get fired first
Bari Weiss’ resignation letter as an opinion editor and writer at The New York Times was a brilliant biopsy of all that’s wrong with the modern newsroom, especially her own, and society more generally — a “cancel culture” that punishes “wrong thinking” and threatens freedom in the most dangerous ways.
If Weiss’ name is unfamiliar to those who avoid the Times, she would understand for the same reasons she decided to leave the newspaper.
The cancel culture has resulted, she says, in the intimidation, bullying and sometimes firing of anyone who dares think or speak outside the narrow confines of the new politically correct orthodoxy.
Weiss’ resignation closely follows the June resignation of her boss and editorial page editor James Bennet, who was pushed out after he published an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., in which Cotton advocated using military force to quell violent protests. This was at the height of reaction to the killing of George Floyd and the more-generalized embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Times’ explanation for publishing Cotton, fed in part by complaints by its own staffers, required two days of rumination and two people’s jobs.
At first, the Times defended the decision to publish Cotton. Finally, the paper pronounced that Cotton’s op-ed “fell short of our standards.”
How could a newspaper intent on airing differing opinions and diverse voices decide that a sitting United States senator’s viewpoint didn’t measure up?
Allowing a senator to espouse thoughts one might find objectionable is exactly the point of the op-ed page. The walk-back plainly had less to do with standards and more do to with the simple fact that Cotton thought the “wrong” thing.
As Weiss wrote in her letter to “AG,” the Times’ publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, who goes by his first two initials, there may well be many among the Times staff who are as concerned as she about the cancel culture that now has reached America’s most influential newsroom. But they dare not say so in public.
“If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy,” she wrote, “they and their work remain un-scrutinized.
Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunder dome. Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets.”
When Bennet hired Weiss three years ago to help address the obvious gap between the paper’s 2016 election coverage and the country that elected Donald Trump as president, she was honored and inspired, she wrote.
“But the lessons that ought to have followed the election – lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society — have not been learned.
Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”
What Weiss, Bennet and others experienced was probably inevitable.
I experienced early rumblings of newsroom cancellation in the 1980s when, as a columnist at The Orlando Sentinel, I wrote about feminism’s shortcomings.
Judging from the reaction from some colleagues, you’d have thought I was extolling the gustatory rewards of puppy casseroles. Younger women created a quiz intended to humiliate me.
At the same time, other writers were slipping me notes with ideas for stories they were afraid to pursue themselves.
My offense, of course, was Wrongthink, as Weiss puts it. I was a heretic, who, in a future Twitter world, probably would have been burned at the virtual stake. Though my skin today is thicker than a gator’s, thanks to that initiation rite and decades of hate mail, death threats and anonymous social-media postings,
I’m still grateful for Weiss’ courage and insight into the devolution of journalistic standards, as well as her rebuke of Sulzberger himself: “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.”
Sulzberger, too, is likely cowed by the Wrongthink police. So is corporate America.
So are our institutions of higher education. Most have decided it is not worth the risk of certain punishment to challenge the orthodoxy of the relentless left.
But it is. The alternative is four more years of Trump, who lives in an alternate reality all his own and who in one day can tell more lies than most crooks do in a year.
But he calls out the “fake news” with more justification than the Times had for excoriating Bennet — or causing a brave writer like Weiss to take her premature leave.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org