The saga of Bari Weiss’s tortured tenure at The New York Times neatly encapsulates a much broader problem. Donald Trump’s election has indeed proven to be a turning point for the press. The industry, however, pivoted 180 degrees in the wrong direction and lost all ability to turn back.
Media bias long predates Trump’s political career. Conflicted about his presidency, I remember waking up on Nov. 9, 2016, thinking it would at least shock the press into a course correction. If the host of “Celebrity Apprentice” defeating a former secretary of state in a presidential election couldn’t persuade the media to do better, nothing could. That formulation is, at least, still accurate.
At the time, most signs pointed to improvement. When Weiss, a centrist by any fair standard, resigned from the Times on Tuesday, she reflected on joining the paper three years ago in a letter to the publisher. “I was hired,” Weiss wrote, “with the goal of bringing in voices that would not otherwise appear in your pages… The reason for this effort was clear: 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. Dean Baquet and others have admitted as much on various occasions.”
Baquet was hardly alone back in 2016, when the shell-shocked corporate media briefly flirted with the concept of acquainting itself with the rest of the country. There were long-overdue admissions of coastal bias and insularity aplenty—and from some of the top offenders. “Since Tuesday night, there has been a lot of handwringing about how the media, with all its fancy analytics, failed to foresee Donald Trump’s victory,” John Cassidy observed in The New Yorker. Trump, wrote Chris Cillizza, had “proven that the political polling and punditry industries need a deep re-examination.”
Brian Stelter himself cited, “Groupthink. Acela corridor bias, which is a specific subset of liberal media bias. Some wishful thinking. A failure of imagination,” as explanations for the media’s failure in a Nov. 10 interview. “This was a rural roar, and journalists on the coasts had a hard time hearing it,” Stelter said. Flash forward to 2020 and a purportedly objective anchor at his own network laughed along as a guest mocked Trump supporters as “credulous Boomer rubes.”
The corporate media’s interest in self-reflection turned out to be fleeting, and gradually gave way to a growing Smart Person consensus on the evils of “bothsidesism.”
“In the Trump era, ‘both sides’ (or ‘bothsidesism’) has become shorthand for a journalistic philosophy that many media critics consider to be broken, especially in its Democrat v. Republican iteration,” a writer for the Columbia Journalism Review explained last December. “Its rules, critics say, make things that aren’t the same seem the same, and allow bad actors to launder disinformation.”
This is the progressive-or-bigot binary we’ve written so much about in recent weeks. (I traced the academic roots of the phenomenon in a lecture here.) Weiss’s colleagues relentlessly targeted her until she resigned because even a bisexual Jewish centrist falls into the bigot category should she question leftist dogma.
This explains the backlash to the Harper’s letter last week. It explains the breathless attacks on J.K. Rowling. It explains white protesters shouting at black police officers. It explains the uproar over Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) column in the Times last month. It explains Andrew Sullivan’s departure from New York magazine this week. It explains why a Boeing executive revealed to have penned an op-ed against women in combat 30 years ago was pushed to resign.
Finally, it explains the elite backlash over “bothsidesism.” When one side is bigoted, why should they be given a platform that effectively legitimizes their ideas as perspectives within the range of reasonable beliefs? When the definitions of terms like racism and white supremacy are expanded to encompass 90 percent of the population, their ideological leanings will necessarily come to have no representation in the media.
The resultant left-on-left and left-on-conservative-strawman debates are 1) counterproductive and 2) will send more and more people to shows like Joe Rogan’s, where Weiss is a repeat guest.
“Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery,” Weiss argued in her resignation letter. To be clear, she was not fired. But she was absolutely subjected to regular public and private attacks from colleagues.
It’s actually a wonder Weiss lasted as long as she did. Under Trump, the media has gone from grave concessions of coastal bias to open embraces of it. On the Federalist Radio Hour in March, Times columnist Ross Douthat attributed the intensified panic endemic in media institutions to what he describes as the “emergency spirit of the Trump era that pervades upper-middle class liberalism.”
Things have only gotten worse. That’s not just internal media chatter masquerading as news of national importance, it’s a terrifying reality about the public’s primary access point to our politics.
All this is to say, in my naïveté four long years ago, I was at least right about one thing. If the host of “Celebrity Apprentice” defeating a former secretary of state in a presidential election can’t persuade the media to do better, nothing will.
The only path forward is for the corporate press to drop entirely its pretense of objectivity and level with readers. These are outlets for the cultural left and fiscal center. As Weiss’s resignation underscores, it is now impossible for them to be anything else.