A fight is raging at the New York Times – a fight that has been raging for years across the American media. The questions raised by this battle are fundamental. What can a journalist report on? What can a paper publish? In the past fortnight, dozens of unionised New York Times contributors signed an open letter criticising the paper’s coverage of trans issues, singling out some of their colleagues by name.
In response, the paper’s editor, Joe Kahn, and opinion editor, Kathleen Kingsbury, made clear that the paper stood by its coverage. Now some of its leading journalists, including the chief White House correspondent, Peter Baker, have published a letter in reply, criticising the paper’s union and arguing: “We are journalists, not activists. That line should be clear.”
These tensions have been bubbling for half a decade. All of the fury playing out on social media has an antecedent: in the story of Bari Weiss.
Many American journalists – along with other, less fully employed writers, podcasters and allies – loathe Weiss. Their dislike is axiomatic. They do not need to refer to her by name when they traduce her online; they all know who they are talking about. “Bafflingly awful, even for her,” wrote one male reporter after a piece by Weiss in 2019 that they had all decided was Very Bad (by then, anything she did was Bad by default). “Like an infant did a book report,” the man affirmed, safe in the knowledge that his view of this female journalist was almost universally shared by his media set, at least among those who felt able to tweet.
In trying to destroy Weiss, that media set made her. Since 2017, Weiss has gone from being an unknown books editor at the Wall Street Journal to the founder of one of the biggest political platforms on Substack, via the opinion pages of the New York Times. Her news and comment site, the Free Press, is estimated to be bringing in around $2.5m in reader revenue per year, and is growing quickly. The venture has also attracted outside funding from major investors in, friends of Weiss tell me, both the San Francisco tech class and an older generation of Jewish backers in New York who see Weiss as a voice of sanity in a journalistic generation they do not understand.
In December, Weiss was granted access by Elon Musk to what became known as the “Twitter files”: the first instalment of which concerned a series of internal documents detailing Twitter’s decision to suppress news coverage about Hunter Biden’s leaked laptop in the weeks before the 2020 election. The release of these documents, which Weiss said showed the “incredibly cozy relationship between… the FBI and Twitter [prior to Musk]” and “the unbelievable power that basically a handful of private companies have over the public discourse”, led to Weiss’s Twitter audience all but doubling; she added 450,000 followers in a fortnight.
Weiss has left New York for Los Angeles, relocating there with her wife, Nellie Bowles, another journalist who felt she was forced to flee the city’s media by a certain social milieu. “You are dating a Nazi,” one New York Times editor is reported to have howled at Bowles after she and Weiss started seeing each other – “a f***ing Nazi!”
“It would be considered very gauche,” says one denizen of New York media, “to go around saying you liked Bari Weiss in young to youngish journalist circles here. She drives large portions of the New York commentariat into a state of fury.”
“I find the hatred baffling,” says Andrew Sullivan, who also gave up a prized column in New York media in 2020 to move to Substack. Asked to explain the feeling against Weiss, Sullivan suggests that she is “a young Jewish lesbian mother, and if you have those characteristics, you are supposed to be very left, and she isn’t. The other obvious factor is jealousy.”
The fury some feel is easily heard on local podcasts, such as Chapo Trap House, a show hosted out of Brooklyn by three once-young men. “I always hate talking about her,” one of the hosts says to the other two, on one of many episodes in which the trio painstakingly dissect an article or announcement by Weiss. “Because there’s just nothing there, just absolute zero.” Weiss is, says another of the men, “so f***ing vacant, just an empty case”. On this occasion, it was Weiss’s attempt to set up a new university based in Austin in 2021 that they were disgusted by. (A friend of Weiss’s concedes that the “university” is currently little more than a summer school; multiple members of its advisory board have since quit.)
“This is not going anywhere, this is nothing,” they reassure each other. “This is bull***t man, this is bull***t… what the f**k is this? This is nothing, you’re an asshole,” says one, suddenly addressing Weiss. “It’s like when a guy who had one big song two years ago says ‘I’m selling NFTs’ – f**k off.”
What exactly does Weiss do to elicit such warmth? The calm case against Weiss is that she can be credulous. In 2018 she wrote a glowing profile of the “renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web” which arguably cast some of its subjects, such as Ben Shapiro or Dave Rubin, two conservative radio hosts, in too flattering a light. Having been vilified by the left, Weiss has perhaps too easily embraced conservatives. But is that why these men hate her? Why do they and other New York journalists delight in attacking her? What line did she cross? And what does Weiss know that they do not?
In April 2017, as Donald Trump began his presidency, Bari Weiss was unknown outside of the New York literary scene. She was 33, a minor figure on the Journal’s books desk, and a decade removed from graduating at Columbia University, New York’s most prestigious college. She was “doing perfectly well but hadn’t broken through”, says a friend, who nevertheless remembers someone of “enormous ambition and immense charm”.
“She almost has a politician’s touch,” says another who knew Weiss in the 2010s. “She uses your first name a lot, which makes you feel important and appreciated. And she has a very nice smile.” They also describe Weiss as someone who was “always yelling a little too loudly in bars. She’s the one who’s pushing for one more drink, telling a story about herself as the main hero, and going on and on about how she didn’t come from New York.” Weiss grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the eldest of four daughters whose parents ran a flooring business, Weisslines. The family is Jewish.
That April, Weiss was plucked from obscurity when the New York Times hired her – along with her boss and mentor at the Journal, Bret Stephens – in a bid to broaden the paper’s ideological range following Trump’s victory. She was to be an editor and writer for its opinion section, working under James Bennet, the section’s then-editor (who now writes the Lexington column at the Economist). She had just been handed prime real estate in New York media.
Immediately, Weiss began to highlight what she saw as the intolerances and illiberalism of the political left. In her second column, she wrote about the case of Bret Weinstein, then professor at Evergreen State College in Washington state who had objected to a proposal for an enforced day of absence for white people on campus. Dozens of students had turned up at Weinstein’s office and accused him of supporting white supremacy, telling him: “You’re useless. Get the f**k out!”
Weiss backed Weinstein. “Without free speech,” she wrote, “what’s liberalism about?”
Over the next year, Weiss wrote about the extreme, unexamined views of some leaders of the 2017 women’s march, who had praised known anti-Semites. She argued against the idea of cultural appropriation. She opposed the attempted cancellation of a conservative speaker (Ben Shapiro) at Berkeley who some students considered a threat. In 2018, when Aziz Ansari, the comedian, was accused of sexual misconduct in an anonymous post on Babe.net, Weiss defended his conduct – “Aziz Ansari is guilty. Of not being a mind reader,” ran her headline.
The woke revolution was reaching its apogee, says an observer, and Weiss “just said no”. They think the Ansari piece was prescient. It landed Weiss on Bill Maher’s HBO talk show, a mainstay of the cultural circuit. “I read that column and said, ‘I’m going to make her famous,’” Maher told LA Mag in December. (Maher, like Weiss, considers himself a liberal who has been left behind by modern American liberalism.) Less than a year into her tenure at the New York Times, Weiss was ascending. Weeks later, her career almost collapsed.
Nothing matters as much to the many aspirants of the New York press as the pages of the New York Times. (The current storm over the paper’s coverage of trans issues is yet more evidence of this.) No slot is more coveted than its opinion section. By February 2018, Bari Weiss had – in the eyes of that aspirant class, and activists inside the New York Times newsroom – become more than a blot on the paper’s masthead. She stood between them and Progress.
“The journalists who are active on Twitter and considered cool,” explains an observer of the New York scene, “their top [political] focus, more so than healthcare or even labour rights, is DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] and trans. And it’s on exactly those issues that Bari dissents.”
When Weiss erred that February, they pounced. The ice skater Mirai Nagasu had just become the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Winter Olympics, to which Weiss tweeted, innocently but erroneously, “Immigrants: They get the job done.” Weiss was celebrating Nagasu, but Nagasu was American-born; her parents were immigrants. “I can’t describe the level of violence that was directed at her,” says a friend, “I think it would have broken a lot of people.”
A Twitter mob descended on Weiss. She tried to ignore the blowback in public. But privately she was crushed. It was shocking to her. She knew many of the people who were rounding on her. The mob thought they were destroying her. Instead, a friend suggests, they made her. Weiss changed tack, riding the abuse and spinning it into her own moral cause. “Do you need another sign of civilization’s end?” she tweeted of the reaction, casting herself as a martyr. That self-aggrandising defence only added to the rage of her critics, but new readers rallied to her.
Over the next two and a half years, Weiss existed uneasily at the New York Times. Her detractors did not just dislike her views, they did not respect her as an antagonist.
“All of these top-of-the-class Brooklyn lefties,” says one New York journalist, “were furious that this person they intimately recognise as a dumber version of themselves was being given all these [column] inches to say that her generation think what their parents think” – on race, gender and Israel, another issue on which Weiss clashed with her contemporaries. (“All of our hip friends were into fashionable anti-Zionism. She had the political views of my dad,” says one of them.)
The journalist names a Twitter ringleader who regularly assaults Weiss online. “He’s a nobody and a failure, and she’s a success, although he has all the ‘correct’ opinions. It’s really personal for people like that. He’s basically impoverished and will never have a proper career. They claim they’re socialists or whatever, but all I ever see is them viciously attacking people.”
[See also: Why Twitter has profound impacts on society]
In the summer of 2020, as the social justice movement boiled over, Weiss quit the New York Times with an open resignation letter that she grandly addressed to the paper’s owner. “That letter went off like a bomb in American media,” says a friend. By the time she left, Weiss was being openly attacked in company-wide Slack channels, with co-workers demanding she be fired. She did not want to be hounded out of the New York Times, but when she was, she saw an opportunity.
“I started my own thing,” Weiss said in December, “to close the gap between the reality that people can see with their own eyes and ears, and the insistence on putting the narrative, whatever it is that given day, over reality. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do with the Free Press.”
In her resignation letter, Weiss claimed that, “intellectual curiosity is now a liability at The [New York] Times.” Self-censorship, she wrote, had become the norm. “If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome. Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets.”
The Free Press, Weiss’s attempt to cover the stories that she thinks are being ignored, did not begin when she left the New York Times. It took six months for her to launch a site on Substack, a newsletter platform, at her wife’s suggestion; a move she initially saw as weak. Who leaves the New York Times to start a blog? But Substack has opened up another world for Weiss. In two years, she has acquired 30,000 paying subscribers – an audience the size of an established magazine.
“She wants to build a rival to the New York Times,” one of her friends tells me, preposterously; the paper has 9.6 million subscribers. “Her ambition is not small.”
Yet it is Weiss, not the New York Times, who has scored some of the most sought-after interviews in recent months. When Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power as Israel’s prime minister in November, he spoke to Weiss, not America’s newspaper of record. And this month the Free Press has released an audio series with JK Rowling, who has not granted any other outlet an interview since becoming a lightning rod in the debate over sex and gender during the summer of 2020 – when Weiss’s site did not yet exist.
The New York Times, meanwhile, continues to be riven over how to cover Rowling and the issue of sex-based rights. The hate once reserved for Weiss is now directed at another columnist, Pamela Paul, who wrote a column last week defending Rowling. (“I should’ve thrown up on Pamela Paul at the Miami Book Fair when I had the chance,” tweeted one podcaster. “What good is food poisoning for if not for activism?”)
It is as an editor that Weiss has succeeded on Substack . Her site, which was initially known as Common Sense, has built much of its audience on the accounts of whistleblowers. Two pieces Weiss published in 2021, by a teacher and parent concerned with the new teaching around race in New York schools, went viral, while the site’s most recent scoop was written by a case manager at a paediatric gender clinic.
The core insight behind Weiss’s success, a friend suggests, is “that there has been this ideological capture of the institutions. And they are rotten with it.” One remembers thinking Weiss’s view was misplaced in the 2010s. Russia, China, Trump, climate change – these were the things that mattered. “Actually I was wrong,” he reflects now. The ideas Weiss was concerned by “have taken over American workplace culture”. Weiss, they think, has understood “a few key things about this world, while a lot of intelligent people are lost.”
It was the conservative New York Post’s coverage of Hunter Biden’s leaked emails that was suppressed by Twitter in 2020 (other media outlets immediately questioned the veracity of the emails). And it is the Post, rather than the New York Times, which Weiss now sees as the best guide to the average American reader. Polling suggests that the ideological beliefs of Post readers are closely aligned with the median voter in the US, yet the typical New York Times journalist is likely to consider the views of Post readers beyond the pale. That is the gap Weiss sees in the market.
Why did Weiss’ most vicious critics hate her? She was the apostate in New York media, suggests a friend. She was “meant to be on their team”. As another observer puts it, “National Review writers, Trump supporters and evangelicals are just written off” by Weiss’s critics, “essentially for class reasons”. But Weiss was part of their social world. She was of their class. She was a writer at the New York Times – the pinnacle! The height of media success! And she was blaspheming in their generation’s name. They tried to make an example of her, but Weiss is increasingly eclipsing them all, although in their world her success means nothing.
Something still was lost. One acquaintance remembers a different Weiss, before she was vilified, before she won. They remember a young journalist who wanted to be Nora Ephron, who hosted literary parties for the New York media in her flat on the Upper West Side; always trenchant in her opinions, but care-free. “She hadn’t yet paid a price” for her views. “There was a lightness to her.” Weiss lost that life. And built another.
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission