Ex-NYT opinion writer Bari Weiss is a martyr to her own bullsh*t

... farewell, for now, to the most self-pitying columnist in the world.

The secret of comedy is…

…timing.

The secret of flouncing out of a media organisation is also timing. Make sure you leave before you’re fired. Make sure you leave at the point that will lead to the maximum publicity for you, and when you know precisely where you’re headed next.

That’s what Bari Weiss, an opinion writer/editor at the New York Times who might, at best, be charitably described as ‘controversial’, has done. Her resignation letter is a magisterial flounce. She is still big. It is the op-ed columns that have got small.

Like me, Bari Weiss is 36 years old, but while I’ve worked as an editor, reporter, and straight-up media grunt, her course through the press has been a little more starry.

Here’s a little primer on Bari Weiss:

A Pennsylvania native, a graduate of Columbia, and a former Wall Street Journal Barley Fellow and Dorot Fellow, she founded the Columbia Coalition for Sudan while still a student and was the co-founder of student pressure group Columbians for Academic Freedom. The latter group said professors intimidated students who advocated for Israel in classroom decisions.

Weiss claimed to have been intimidated by a Palestinian professor, Joseph Massad. He was cleared by a Columbia committee which said it believed there was “no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could be reasonably construed as anti-Semitic.” The New York Civil Liberties Union argue that Weiss’ group threatened academic freedom by attacking Muslim professors and seeking for others to be fired for criticising Israel. Massad was also defended by some other students who attended his classes.

In her 2019 book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism, Weiss said her campaign against Massad was an example of when “[she] had a front-row seat to leftist anti-Semitism.”

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After university, Weiss became a news and politics editor for Tablet, before moving on to become Book Reviews editor at the Wall Street Journal, finally landing at The New York Times as an editor in the Opinion Section in 2017. In 2018, she attacked the MeToo movement, saying that she did believe Brett Kavanaugh was guilty of sexual assault as a teenager, but that the actions should not make him ineligible to join the Supreme Court. In 2020, she characterised the New York Times as a publication riven by a left/right divide mainly along generational lines:

Weiss positioned herself against ‘the Wokes’ (who didn’t themselves march under the standard she sewed for them). Weiss describes herself as “left-leaning and centrist”. Others including Haaretz and The Times of Israel class her as a conservative.

One NYT staffer told me: “I will miss her, I really like her, though we agree on little in content or practice.” Similarly, she managed to charm a Vanity Fair reporter assigned to write a profile of her:

“Therefore it’s disorienting to meet Weiss and discover that she’s neither an aspiring sex symbol/bomb thrower, à la Ann Coulter, nor a defensive Ivy League know-it-all. When she walks into Cafe Luxembourg on the Upper West Side, blocks from her fifth-floor walk-up, you might peg her as a kindergarten teacher—she’s petite, with hair parted down the middle and pulled back in a low ponytail, big glasses framing a cherubic face. She’s effusive and warm, immediately popping out with one eager question after another before I can successfully steer the conversation around to her. Her minor insecurities are blurted fodder for making a connection. “I have pen marks on my boob. I was like, ‘I’m going to meet a Vanity Fair writer and I have pen on my boob.’ I was really embarrassed. Also, I’ve been sweating a lot.” She says that her father has been urging her to freeze her eggs. “Should I do it now?” she asks, sincerely searching for an answer. This isn’t some dopey act intended to charm. Weiss seems genuinely fueled by curiosity, the desire to connect, to cross boundaries and try out new things. As she sums up her outlook, “I just want to gobble the world.”

Though most of her friends are liberals, she sometimes socializes with conservatives too. According to friends, she loves to spar not just to hear the sound of her own voice but because she might learn something. After listening to someone else’s point of view, she’s been known to do something amazing—change her mind. Given the current climate, in which everyone seems to be retreating to angry and angrier corners, those who meet her find this expansiveness refreshing. Jennifer Senior, an op-ed columnist for the Times, disagreed with some of Weiss’s political opinions (she’s to the left of Weiss on Israel, for example) but was curious about this new co-worker, who was, as Senior puts it, “steering the aircraft into a cloud of flak.” So Senior introduced herself. “She was so adorable! I wanted to wrap her up in tissue paper and take her home with me.” Young writers, such as Tariro Mzezewa, who’ve worked under Weiss in her capacity as editor, attest that she’s consistently enthusiastic about ideas she may disagree with, even nurturing.

Accused, anti-Semitically, by Andrew Sullivan of being “an unhinged Zionist”, she replied that she “happily plead guilty as charged.”

Her resignation letter — which she has given a spot on the main menu of her website — she positions herself as a heroic jumper in the culture war. This is the same woman who struggled to know if, when she herself used the word ‘toadie’ on the Joe Rogan Show, it was a) actually a word and b) if she was using it correctly. Compare that with the high-handed egotism at work here:

Part of me wishes I could say that my experience was unique. But 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.

Weiss builds a case for arguing she has escaped the horrible confines of the New York Times and is now free to scream as loudly as Peter Finch in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. I am unconvinced that Weiss, who has almost become the memified definition of a contrarian, is the righteous voice she believes she has become. I think she’s a bit of a toddler. She’s had a relatively easy ride to a prominent position — never really being a reporter or doing any of the grunt work of journalism — and complaining all the way along. She can certainly write powerfully, she’s just squandered that power over and over.

Let’s see where she goes yet. I’m willing to bet it’ll be somewhere undeniably right-wing that’s willing to pay her handsomely. Onscreen at Fox News? Don’t bet against it.