This 2019 video shows Bari Weiss, who resigned from New York Times in mid-July, 2020.
The open letter of resignation posted by New York Times opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss on her website this week reminds us that journalism is one of numerous American institutions suffering a breakdown that should place us all—including Catholics whose parishes Pope Francis has called spiritual “field hospitals”—on high alert.
There’s no particular reason to present Weiss’s resignation as something of particular interest to Catholics, except for two things: First, her words of frustration are a kind of exposé that assaults values honoring the common good, solidarity, and respect for personal dignity. Second, she is giving testimony that affirms concerns Pope Francis voiced in his 2018 message for World Communications Day; he has been perhaps the leading voice among world leaders urging a values-based renewal in journalism that recommits to the service of community and inclusiveness, conversation and truth-seeking, justice and peace.
Weiss, who said she must depart from a Times newsroom marked by backbiting and bullying. Some individuals are imposing their own ideas of truth through tactics often called the “cancel culture.” She no longer wants to be among the staff members paying a heavy personal price in a losing battle to put forth facts and opinions from perspectives the newsroom’s influencers strive to stifle. Although indications are that those influencers don’t constitute a majority of staff members, they undermine the journalistic tradition of giving the public a spectrum of opinions, rather than a single orthodoxy, so truth emerges in a vibrant marketplace of ideas.
Office bullies and conflicts of opinion are nothing new, but what happens in the Times newsroom raises questions with moral implications for all producers and consumers of news. In a sense, social media and our digital culture are hosting the dominant newsrooms of our times—as well as the “journalistic” practice among professionals and all of us amateur publishers. Too often, the “communities” formed online are not based on freedom of speech, inclusionary attitudes toward people, or a comprehensively curious approach to information. Pope Francis, in those 2018 remarks that need to be heard in the media today, called for education about both the problem-solving value of truth and the compassionate purpose underlying journalism—the potential of personal encounters as described in the beloved Peace Prayer of Saint Francis: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.”
As I have commented during years of blog posts at OnWord.net and in my 2018 book of reflections called When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer?, the Holy Father wisely cautions against the tendency in today’s culture to isolate and reject those who differ from us or retreat into realities that make us more comfortable. Journalism at its best should leave no room for bullying at any point in the flow of information, from generation to consumption to feedback to utilization. Ideally, behavior at all those points can be enhanced by a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, whose story as told in the Gospels drove Saint Francis’ thinking and can guide our ventures in communication today.
That’s what constitutes the moral dimension of Bari Weiss’s revelations from The New York Times about a breakdown in the flow of information at its earliest phases and highest places. Here are some of the quotes from her mid-July website post that seem to deserve pondering among disciples in today’s information marketplace.
- “[A] new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.
- “Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.”
- “[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.”
- “Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets.”
- “Even now, I am confident that most people at The Times do not hold these 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.”
- “As places like The Times and other once-great journalistic institutions betray their standards and lose sight of their principles, Americans still hunger for news that is accurate, opinions that are vital, and debate that is sincere. I hear from these people every day. “An independent press is not a liberal ideal or a progressive ideal or a democratic ideal. It’s an American ideal,” you said a few years ago. I couldn’t agree more. America is a great country that deserves a great newspaper.”
- “[Ideas] cannot win on their own. They need a voice. They need a hearing. Above all, they must be backed by people willing to live by them.”