Bari Weiss, after becoming the target of workplace harassment and discrimination after expressing opinions that clashed with those of her colleagues, resigned from her role as opinion editor and writer at The New York Times on July 14.
Now, as someone who wants to become a writer, I’m afraid of what to say.
Before leaving her perch at The New York Times, Weiss wrote to the children — the young and aspiring writers like myself.
“Speak your mind at your own peril,” she said in a resignation letter posted on her personal website.
Weiss’ resignation followed a month after she posted a controversial Twitter thread about an op-ed written last month by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton. The piece, which argued that the government should use military force to end the violent protests that erupted in response to the killing of George Floyd, amassed significant criticism from readers who called it insensitive and slammed The New York Times for publishing it.
In response to the criticism, The New York Times published an editor’s note at the beginning of the op-ed, saying it “should have been subject to further substantial revisions … or rejected.” Weiss, however, supported its publication in a tweet, while also commenting on the ideological division of the Times staff, likening it to a civil war. She claimed inside differences exist between the “Old Guard” who support civil libertarian values and a “New Guard” of young woke individuals who value “safetyism” over free speech.
“Here’s one way to think about what’s at stake,” Weiss tweeted. “The New York Times motto is ‘all the news that’s fit to print.’ One group emphasizes the word ‘all.’ The other, the word ‘fit.’”
While others in the writing industry have also expressed frustration regarding censorship with concerns similar to Weiss’, several of Weiss’ colleagues denounced her on Twitter. Max Strasser, also an opinion editor, rejected Weiss’ accusation of generational division between New York Times staff, and instead called it an editorial conversation. Although, backlash against Weiss — especially on Twitter — isn’t a new fad. She has received significant disapproval for her avid support of Zionism and criticism of the #MeToo movement, as well as a whole slew of other things.
I didn’t stumble upon writing until the age of 14. It began as the simple and innocent practice of journaling — a way to cope with the traumas of high school. But by the time my junior year rolled around, it had evolved into writing for the school newspaper. I decided to major in writing in college, thinking if I gave my little pen-to-paper hobby enough attention, it could somehow develop into a valuable skill and worthwhile career.
When I told this to friends and family, I heard the same response: “So you mean like, journalism?” At the time, I had no idea what pursuing a writing degree would look like, but I knew I didn’t want it to have anything to do with journalism.
Real journalism, I would tell my parents — the kind that extends beyond my high school reporting on the lifelessness of the Student Senate’s pep rally — is messy. “Too divided,” I would say to my sister. “Too political,” I would tell the bartender during my Friday night shift at a local restaurant.
The Times hired Weiss, who identifies as a left-leaning centrist, in 2017 in an attempt by editorial page editor James Bennet to bring more diverse opinions to the paper, which some readers have criticized as too liberal. However, by the time she left, Weiss claims the paper adopted a completely opposite mindset by selectively publishing stories that adhere to the liberal ideology of the “New Guard.”
“Op-eds that would have easily been published just two years ago would now get an editor or writer in serious trouble, if not fired,” Weiss wrote in her resignation letter.
Although, according to Weiss, writers face stakes higher than not getting their story published. In her letter, she says other New York Times employees called her a Nazi and racist for holding socially controversial opinions, with some even degrading her work and character on the company-wide Slack channel. Others went as far as putting ax emojis next to her name.
In her resignation letter, Weiss also takes the time to reflect on how the narrowing ideologies represented through journalism will affect future writers.
“All this bodes ill, especially for the independent-minded young writers and editors paying close attention to what they’ll have to do to advance in their careers,” Weiss wrote.
Most of my time writing consists of staring at a blank word document and a ticking cursor that has enough resiliency to drive me crazy. I sit at my desk, scraping the cuticle of my thumb with my index finger until it bleeds, as I try to precisely find the right word to use. The word that won’t be wrong, the one that won’t offend.
Thinking about the potential criticism I could face from relinquishing my writing into the world — whether I’ve expressed my own opinions or questioned those widely held by society — has made the process of forming the words in the first place incredibly challenging, as I find myself struggling to put words on the page the same way a cat struggles to cough up a hairball.
The field of journalism requires a thick skin, as they all say, and to this I agree. But I also believe that at one point, everyone was young enough to dream of having a career that allows them to speak their mind freely without having to endure the ridicule and shame of others, especially from co-workers.
The debate surrounding Weiss’ resignation shouldn’t be about Tom Cotton’s op-ed, nor should it be about whether any of her arguments from the past three years can be deemed agreeable. It should be about whether we want to promote a society that shames voices that go against the grain in an attempt to silence them.
Do you have your answer? I have mine, but at risk of speaking at my own peril, I’ll keep it to myself.