Just when you think the American journalism trainwreck can’t get any messier, a New York Times writer breaks all the rules for newspaper departures and sets fire to every bridge behind her.
To say that 36-year-old Bari Weiss limited herself to describing a historic news organization lost in the hormonal pit of Trump Derangement Syndrome when she left The Times would be a gross understatement, although she pretty much made that observation in her resignation letter:
“…The truth is that intellectual curiosity – let alone risk-taking – is now a liability at The Times. 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.”
A conservative Jew, Weiss was brought aboard The Times in the name of diversity. The effort does not appear to have worked out well. That was probably in the cards from the beginning. The newsrooms of today are not the newsrooms of yesteryear where reporters and editors were expected to argue about stories.
Somewhere the make-nice crowd took over, but it wasn’t about making nice. It was about conformity. The subtle, peer-pressure techniques that came into play were similar to those used by cults or employed by the Chinese against American prisoners during the Korean War.
The latter led to charges of “brainwashing,” something that some psychologists would argue is around us in various forms all the time.
To be fair, most of this happened unintentionally in American newsrooms. Most people are inherently more comfortable being around people like themselves than people who are different, making intellectual diversity even harder to maintain than racial diversity.
Race is visible and thus hard to ignore when absent. Not so intellectual differences. Plenty of people want intellectual homogeneity and feel more comfortable when it takes over.
When The McClatchy Company-owned Anchorage Daily News (ADN) was in the throes of the big national push for diversity in the media and everyone was being sent to “diversity training” – itself a form of indoctrination – I remember one of the relatively rare people of color at the newspaper – someone from outside the newsroom – observing that “yeah, they want someone of color who thinks just like them.”
The newsroom was the place that defined the newspaper’s ideology, and by then it was already to the left. Unable to avoid being a smart ass, I once suggested that if the newspaper was really interested in diversity it might be good to hire a fundamentalist Christian.
Though raised a Christian until the age at which I could, like my father, avoid going to church on Sunday in favor of heading afield to hunt or fish, I would have to identify as an agnostic bordering on an atheist with views on Christianity both good – the Catholic church’s involvement in Poland helped start the cascade of dominoes leading to the collapse of the totalitarian Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – and bad – the Inquisition was the same sort of plague on humanity being waged in the Mideast today by radical Muslims, and I am really, really tired of NFL players thanking God for helping them make a touchdown play.
How do they know God, if there is a God, didn’t simply hate the other team more than their team?
Needless to say, the idea of adding a reporter who was a fundamentalist Christian was not well received at ADN although that group of Americans represents about a quarter of the population, according to the PEW Research Center.
There might have been Christians in the newsroom, too. But if there were, they never spoke of it publicly. It would not have been a great career move.
Standards versus standards
“What rules that remain at The Times are applied with extreme selectivity,” Weiss wrote. “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.
“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.”
This is what happens as intellectual diversity fades. The tribe becomes ever more tribal. Narrow views become even narrower.
Weiss blames this on Twitter, but the trend predates the social media soapbox for those who think best in 280-character word bites. Brit Hume caused a bit of stir when he left ABC for an upstart Fox News in 1996 with observations similar to those of Weiss, albeit milder and far less confrontational.
“Through my years as a reporter, it became pretty clear to me that among journalists, there was a sort of an unconscious acceptance of certain views on a whole range of issues and it tends to be to the left,” he said in an interview with a young reporter at his alma mater, the University of Virginia a dozen years later. “Now that doesn’t mean that these are political activists working to advance some political cause. It doesn’t quite work that way. It’s far more subtle than that, but it is a pretty strong consensus.”
Much of the subtleness has vanished in the years since that interview as Weiss’s departure underlines.
Blame Hume for some of this. The idea that Fox could use the news to further a “conservative agenda” left many “progressive” reporters feeling trapped in the closet.
For the record, let it be clear here that this is not about conservatism and classic liberalism. Anyone unclear of the difference between the progressives and liberals can reference The Economists’ call for “renewing liberalism…(a) universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets, limited government and a faith in human progress brought about by debate and reform.”
Progressives are willing to overlook some of those standards in the name of ideology. They are arguably most famous for helping bring Prohibition to the U.S. in 1920. Their intentions were good, but their cure turned out to be worse than the disease leading U.S. voters to in 1933 repeal the Constitutional amendment that created Prohibition.
The absolutism of the progressive movement was largely anathema to the debate-filled newsrooms of old. Open debate, sometimes heated, once shaped the soul of American newspapers.
Yes, they leaned left. Good intentions will do that. But there were those in most newsrooms who weren’t all that left and weren’t afraid to offer differing views. If Weiss is to be believed, that is long gone.
Her letter of resignation rung of shock and dismay at the idea that Times managers ignored online attacks on her character “while simultaneously praising me in private for my courage. Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery.”
True enough. But standing up to a mob – whether you are boss or flunky – requires just a touch of courage, and courage is a rare thing. Reporters write about it in those rare cases in which it surfaces – they sometimes even write about survival in tough circumstances as if it were courage – because courage is about as common as the proverbial man-bites-dog story.
And once the ideologues take over, they write the rules. It’s how the Christians marched into the Inquisition. It’s how Americans followed tail-gunner Sen. Joe McCarthy into the Red Scare.
Weiss expressed confidence, possibly misguided, that the majority of reporters at The Times do not hold the prevailing “views. Yet they are cowed by those who do. Why? Perhaps because they believe the ultimate goal is righteous. Perhaps because they believe that they will be granted protection if they nod along as the coin of our realm – language – is degraded in service to an ever-shifting laundry list of right causes. Perhaps because there are millions of unemployed people in this country and they feel lucky to have a job in a contracting industry.
“Or perhaps it is because they know that, nowadays, standing up for principle at the paper does not win plaudits. It puts a target on your back. Too wise to post on Slack, they write to me privately about the ‘new McCarthyism’ that has taken root at the paper of record.”
As already noted above, courage is rare in journalism, and it’s a lot more fun to hang with the in-crowd than to sit at the table with the nerds. It takes editors of character to maintain diverse newsrooms. There are reasons the ADN allowed former columnist Shannon/Shannyn Moore to build herself a reputation by calling people names.
It used to drive Anchorage Republican activist Frank McQueary crazy that the ADN didn’t hold her to at least a minimal standard of accuracy if nothing else. He put together a whole file on Moore that detailed her conviction for stealing from the Pratt Museum in Homer, the court’s offer of a suspended imposition of sentence (SIS) that would have cleared her record if she paid the Pratt back, her failure to do so, and a rather amazing letter she later wrote to the judge insisting that she should be granted the SIS anyway because the only way she could have repaid the Pratt was to commit a similar crime again.
This history was something no one in Alaska journalism ever mentioned publicly, though many knew, because she was part of the in-crowd. McQueary found out just how in after Alice Rogoff bought the paper and executive editor Pat Dougherty lost his job.
Dougherty became a Twitterati who followed Moore into the ooze. Now he mainly reTweets a stream of news stories from left-leaning publications, but every now and then throws in a Sarah Palinesque spear at favorite target Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska.
He pulled a page straight out of the former Alaska governor’s playbook on Monday with a suggestion someone put a “bulls-eye” on the senator.
Palin, of course, stirred outrage when she sponsored a national campaign ad that put crosshairs on the seats held by a number of national Democrat candidates for Congress in 2011.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle later called for everyone to tone down the attack rhetoric, but that didn’t last. Trump made an art of name-calling during his run for the White House, and it’s been all downhill from there with some old newspaper editors like Dougherty all in.
This is a man who once claimed to be a supporter of civil discourse. This is Dougherty in 2005 writing about the ADN’s move into the digital world.
“Our attempt began well enough. Articulate and well-informed readers posted thoughtful, interesting comments about the news and the newspaper. Some offered astute criticism of our coverage. Of course there were a few lunkheads, but overall the online forums extended and enhanced what we were trying to do in the newspaper. We had readers who wrote to give firsthand information about stories we were covering. A member of the family of a crime victim we hadn’t been able to track down wrote in and helped us flesh out the police account of a tragedy.
“This is good, I thought. A hundred thousand fact-checkers can add a lot to a newspaper’s coverage of a story.
“But it wasn’t long before things started to go bad. A small group of people began to write constantly. They were neither the best-informed nor most thoughtful participants. Instead they were profane, bitter, shallow, racist and relentless. Little by little, their ignorant and mean-spirited comments began to predominate. They were prolific. They didn’t appear to hold jobs or even sleep. Ultimately their words set a tone for the forum that discouraged reasonable, intelligent, considerate voices from participating.
“I couldn’t blame the good participants for dropping out—I would have, too—but their departure further solidified the hold of the snarling pack, reinforcing a downward spiral that eventually convinced me that this particular experiment in involving readers in the paper had gone irredeemably wrong.”
And today, apparently oblivious to how his behavior reflects on former colleagues still at the ADN, Dougherty is in there calling U.S. Marine officer Sullivan a “coward and political hack” (hack being one of Dougherty’s favored words) and organizing a Twitter stream (or arranging for a robot to do so) that is a lefty version of Palin’s old, righty Facebook feed.
They are wonderful sites for the ideologically faithful. Readers will find nothing to challenge their entrenched thinking. It will have been filtered out to make the dogma easier to follow.
If Weiss is to be believed, this is the future of journalism.
“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,” she wrote of The Times. “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.”
There is little doubt The Times has agendas these days.
In the interest of stirring action on climate change, it has reported Alaska salmon are being killed by global warming although warming has brought Alaska salmon harvests never seen in history or recorded in the prehistoric record. That could, of course, change.
The planet is warming, and at some point a warmer North Pacific Ocean could become a problem for Alaska salmon as it appears to have become for Pacific Northwest salmon. But could be is not fact. It is speculation.
There’s nothing wrong with speculation either, as long as it is labeled as such. The Times, sadly, does not always bother with this. And they have never bothered to correct the claims of Alaska’s “dwindling catch” of salmon, although the 2010 decade drew to a close with an annual average harvest of about 180 million of the fish.
The annual average for the 2000s was 167.4 million salmon; for the ’90s, 157.5 million; for the ’80s, 122.4 million; and for the ’70s, 48.3 million. Somehow these facts get lost when viewed from faraway on the other side of the continent.
The Times admittedly has not been alone in reporting the demise of Alaska salmon. The Nation featured a cover story claiming “Bristol Bay is one of Alaska’s few healthy salmon habitats. (Itself a doozy of a mistake.) Can it survive the duel threats of a rapidly changing climate and a massive Trump-backed mine.”
The headline above this claim was even better. It proclaimed “The Last Salmon.”
The reality is that the Bay has been one of the biggest Alaska beneficiaries of warming. It witnessed a record harvest of 62.3 million salmon in 2018, and a record value for salmon in 2019 with the fourth largest harvest in a record going back to 1893. Fishermen netted $306.5 million.
It was the fifth consecutive year that inshore runs topped 50 million fish, an unprecedented string of massive returns. But sometimes these days facts get lost among the agendas or simply ignored as has become a presidential norm in this country.
And dissenting views? Forget about those. They appear in trouble everywhere.
“…We can’t allow questions of science, medicine, and public health to become captives of tribalized politics,” oncologist and author Dr. Vinay Prasad and Jeffrey Flier, a former dean of the Harvard Medical School, pleaded in an April op-ed for Statnews.
“…We are concerned by a chilling attitude among some scholars and academics, who are wrongly ascribing legitimate disagreements about Covid-19 to ignorance or to questionable political or other motivations.”
They didn’t even slow the tribal warfare. Sweden continues to take a beating for following a different approach to the pandemic than the prevailing view.
That is true, but ignores the fact the death rate in Sweden (55.6 per 100,000, according to Worldometer) is now lower than or equal to that of nine U.S. states – three of which have populations bigger than Sweden and two of which are near the same size as Sweden.
Massachusetts is at 121.9, Conneticutt at 123.3, Rhode Island at 93.5, Louisiana at 75.5, Michigan at 63.6, Illinois at 58.9, and Maryland at 55.6. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, is close to Sweden at 55.2, according to the Worldometers tracker.
Sweden, a country of about 10 million people, was reporting 63,303 mild cases and 62 serious cases as of Friday. New Jersey, a state of about 8.8 million people, was reporting 71,488 cases. The number of serious cases was not available.
New York was reporting 177,417 active cases with 765 people hospitalized with 179 of them in intensive care units. But New York is home to about twice as many people as Sweden.
Nearly all of the U.S. states with large death rates have spent a lot of time locked down and masked up. Sweden has not.
This is not to meant to argue Sweden has the right strategy. It is meant to underline that the situation is complicated, and as with so many things the U.S. media covers today the complications get lost in news coverage that takes sides as it moves ever closer to propaganda.