Quitting the Times

Bari Weiss sets off an explosion at the Newspaper of Record.

I wrote my first book review for the New York Times in 1990. It was about a grim memoir, in the Face of Death, by a dying Swiss jurist called Peter Noll. Over the next decade and a half, several of the editors at the Book Review invited me to write about many other books, mostly literary fiction. Here are just the A’s and B’s: Louis Auchincloss, Deidre Bair, John Banville, Louis Begley, Veronica Buckley, Frederick Busch, A.S. Byatt.

After I published a book on gay rights in 1993, and another on Protestant fundamentalism in 1997, the editors at the Times opinion pages asked me regularly to bang out op-eds on relevant news stories, and their colleagues at the Leisure and Arts section commissioned articles from me about movies that touched on those topics.

In 1996 I reported for the New York Times Magazine on a heresy trial in the Episcopal Church. After I moved to Europe in 1998, I contributed articles about the Netherlands and Norway to the Times travel section. I also wrote several pieces for the Times Week in Review section, including a 2004 article about the mood in Amsterdam after the jihadist murder of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh.

Over a period of several years, not a month went by without at least one phone call from an editor at the Times. I developed close working relationships with well over a dozen Times editors. They kept giving me work because I was easy to work with and because they knew I’d turn in a publishable piece on deadline.

Then, in 2006, I published a book called While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within. And guess what happened? 

The phone calls stopped. All of them. From everybody.

I could have phoned one of my editors and asked what had happened. But I didn’t. It was clear what had happened.

Immediately on publication, While Europe Slept had shot to near the top of the Amazon bestseller list – somewhere in the low two digits. It made the Times list, too. But the Times didn’t review it. This was more than odd. I had friends at the Book Review, my main home at the Times. In 1996, they had actually run a review of my collection of essays on poetry. But While Europe Slept, a timely book on an important issue? Nothing.

Clearly, the higher-ups had sent the word down: I was out. By opting to criticize Islam, I’d become a non-person at the Times.  

To be sure, my next book, Surrender (2009), did get a terrific notice in the Times Book Review. I still suspect that a friendly editor there managed to sneak that one past the folks upstairs. Three years later, when my book The Victims’ Revolution came out, I got word through my agent that it would get the whole front page in the next issue of the Book Review. I foolishly hoped that the Gray Lady had changed her mind and decided to make up for kicking me to the curb. Alas, I was wrong. My book sounded an alarm about the growing danger of identity studies on campus; the Times review assured readers that identity studies were already on their way out, so my book could safely be ignored.

The Times reviewer was a purported expert in education. Could he really believe that identity studies were on the wane? Of course not. The whole review was sheer hogwash. And it had obviously been placed on the front page to ensure that it would do the greatest possible damage. Criticizing identity studies, apparently, was as verboten at the Times as criticizing Islam.

So much for my history with the New York Times. I offer it up merely to contextualize my reaction to the resignation letter written by Times editor Bari Weiss to that paper’s publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, and posted by her yesterday on her website.

Here’s my reaction: hooray!

I’m not alone. Weiss’s letter has created a firestorm. I’ve never seen my writer friends on social media so exercised. I’ve never seen any single item, on any topic, posted by so many people on my Facebook feed.

And with good reason. Sensate beings have been complaining for years – and especially since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency – about the breathtakingly irresponsible and dishonest direction that the Times had taken of late.

To be sure, duplicity, flimflam, and whitewash have always been arrows in the Times' quiver. This is the paper, after all, that won a Pulitzer for the mendacious reporting of Walter Duranty, who reassured readers that there was no famine in the Ukraine. It’s the paper whose correspondent Herbert Matthews wrote a series of articles painting the young rebel Fidel Castro as a glamorous liberty-lover who, if he won his revolution, would inaugurate a golden era of freedom and prosperity for the Cuban people. In the 1990s my late friend Hilton Kramer, the former art editor of the Times and founding editor of the New Criterion, contributed a regular “Times Watch” column to the New York Post in which he chronicled the paper’s latest perfidies.

He never ran out of material.  

But the Trump era has seen the Times sink to new lows. The increasingly authoritarian atmosphere at the paper came under renewed scrutiny in early June, when head opinion-page editor James Bennet resigned under pressure because he’d dared to run an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton arguing that the military should be sent in to quell the riots in American cities. It’s a view that was probably shared by a majority of Americans, but it horrified the thousand-plus staffers at the Times who agitated for Bennet’s removal.

In a series of tweets sent out after Bennet’s departure, Weiss illuminatingly depicted the Times newsroom as the site of a “civil war…between the (mostly young) wokes [and] the (mostly 40+) liberals.” The latter, she wrote, are civil libertarians who “assumed they shared that worldview with the young people they hired who called themselves liberals and progressives. But it was an incorrect assumption.” 

In her letter to Sulzberger, Weiss picks up where she left off in those tweets. Noting that she’d been hired three years ago as a non-leftist opinion-page editor because somebody at the Times realized that 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,” she laments that

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.

Because she diverged from that orthodoxy, writes Weiss, she was “the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. 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.’ Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers.” All of which goes to show, she argues, that “intellectual curiosity – let alone risk-taking – is now a liability at The Times.”

I used to read the Times every day. Religiously. No more. But I do drop in now and then, if only to see what new craziness is afoot. I don’t stay for long – it’s like visiting Chernobyl. But even on my brief visits I’ve been stunned by the editors’ decision to fill their pages with insipid, overwrought anti-Trump screeds that seem indistinguishable from one another. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s wondered how this happened. Weiss explains:

Why edit something challenging to our readers, or write something bold only to go through the numbing process of making it ideologically kosher, when we can assure ourselves of job security (and clicks) by publishing our 4000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and the world? And so self-censorship has become the norm.

Weiss goes on to provide a fascinating – if chilling – glimpse into the editorial process at the Times op-ed page in the year 2020:

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….

Keep in mind that this is a paper that is still considered by many to be “the newspaper of record.” Weiss has something to say about that, too:

The paper of record is, more and more, the record of those living in a distant galaxy, one whose concerns are profoundly removed from the lives of most people. This is a galaxy in which, to choose just a few recent examples, the Soviet space program is lauded for its “diversity”; the doxxing of teenagers in the name of justice is condoned; and the worst caste systems in human history includes the United States alongside Nazi Germany.

Granted, she says she’s “confident that most people at The Times do not hold these views. Yet they are cowed by those who do.” She’s probably right. More or less the same situation obtains pretty much everywhere else, from the cable-TV newsrooms to the House of Representatives to the humanities faculties of many universities: the ideological extremists may well be in the minority, but they’re the ones with the cojones, and they manage to scare the pusillanimous majority into following their lead.

Alas, that’s not my idea of good news. Is it better to live in a country where the people at the top are all far-left ideologues or in a country where they’re mostly lily-livered cowards, doing the bidding of a fanatical minority? To me it looks like a toss-up at best.

At least we know this: one person who most assuredly isn’t a coward is Bari Weiss. Her letter is an instant classic – a key document of our time. More authoritatively than anything else I’ve read, it pulls back the curtain not just from the Times but from the mainstream Western news media in general. It affirms every criticism that has been made of those media by honest critics who were brought up believing in journalistic objectivity.

That being said, I’m not sure how much difference her letter will make at the Times itself. If Sulzberger were a better man he’d be filled with shame, take her message to heart, and make some changes at the paper he inherited. But of course if he were a better man he’d never have let things go this far in the first place.

No, I suspect that his first instinct, on reading her resignation, was to think strictly in terms of damage control. The sad fact, I fear, is that Sulzberger and his cronies, in reaction to the election of Donald Trump, have steered the New York Times so far from anything that might remotely be considered responsible journalism that there seems to be little if any hope of that newspaper ever recovering its bearings – or its reputation.