July 15, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The intellectual fraud of Bari Weiss
She's part of a larger project to warp American politics.
The New York Times suffers from the same problem all elite institutions suffer from—its own elite status. I know that sounds silly, but remember that being elite comes with the immense burden, absurd as it is, of keeping up appearances. A consequence, when it comes to hiring op-ed contributors, to pick a totally random example, is not quite recognizing talent and intelligence that does not already fit into the elite view of what “talented” and “intelligent” mean. Being elite means excluding all but the “best.”
The result of this narrow-mindedness—an accurate word—is homogeneity of a kind. This is not to say bad or boring, but good and interesting are not enough for an institution keeping up appearances. Independent of attacks from partisans inside and outside the institution, the institution’s own elite status demands diversity of thought, especially when, as the Times does, it claims to be “the paper of record.” Being vulnerable to its own status, however, means being vulnerable to intellectual frauds.
Exploiting the Times’ vulnerabilities for political gain.
Intellectual frauds, though commonplace, are identifiable when they are not obscured by an artificially constructed media apparatus in which intellectual dishonesty is not only tolerated and encouraged, but rewarded financially and handsomely. This is what happened, starting about half a century ago, when very “conservative” and very rich Americans looked at Republican Barry Goldwater’s extremist campaign for the White House and thought it made perfect sense. Moreover, they believed Goldwater failed to beat the Democratic incumbent, not because he was too extreme, but because the Washington press corps was too liberal. So they set out to manufacture an alternative.
The result of this investment, decades in the making, is a media climate in which people can commit their entire professional careers to telling very “conservative” and rich people what they want to hear while also appearing scholarly, detached and dispassionate for those whose interests are contrary to the interests of the very “conservative” and rich. An ambitious person fresh out of college can go straight to Breitbart or the Daily Caller before jumping to legacy outlets like Commentary or the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, with speaking gigs over time at the American Enterprise Institute or the Manhattan Institute as well as chances to write books for Regnery and Center Street. You can live your whole life in this bubble and never face serious criticism, because free and responsible inquiry isn’t the point. The point is telling very “conservative” and rich people what they want to hear, and making their views respectable to people whose interests conflict with those of your bosses.
It’s worth repeating that this apparatus is not dedicated to determining facts, as the press corps is. It’s not committed to realizing profits, as the Times’ publisher is. Its reason for being is warping politics so that a tiny cohort of Americans—the very, very rich, who pay for the apparatus—have vastly more influence in a democratic republic than it would without it. And the general means for pulling that off is convincing as many people as possible that the profit-making mainstream media is either too liberal or not telling the truth. In other words, it’s conventional rightwing propaganda.
The power of this propaganda has grown over the decades so that one Republican president got caught stealing and spying (Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace) while another got away with treason (Donald Trump, as you know, is still president). Moreover, this media apparatus is where elite institutions turn when they are attacked for being too liberal while also being trapped by their own elite status. When the Times hired Bari Weiss, for instance, the paper thought it was diversifying its roster of opinion writers with a veteran of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages. What it was really doing, however, was importing, and therefore laundering, intellectual fraud.
“Fraud” should have been the first word on people’s minds when news emerged that Weiss quit. In her letter of resignation, which she made public, she said that she experienced, as a consequence of her conservative views, “unlawful discrimination, hostile work environment, and constructive discharge.” If that were true, she should have filed a lawsuit. Instead, she posted her resignation letter to her personal website. (Moreover, she made it a section of her website, giving it prominent play.) In doing so, Weiss was creating the appearance of “evidence” that rightwing media had been right about the Times. It’s liberal, but also illiberal, intolerant of the ideological diversity it claims to value. And as if on cue, the president wrote this this morning on Twitter: “Wow. The @nytimes is under siege. The real reason is that it has become Fake News. They never covered me correctly—they blew it. People are fleeing, a total mess!”
Weiss can deny having set out to discredit a newspaper that daily makes the president look bad by telling the truth and making money doing it. She can deny enabling the president’s authoritarian attacks on the free press. She can deny giving the impression to white GOP voters that the Times, and by extension the Democratic Party, is just as bad as the president, so they may as well vote for a Republican. All she’s doing, after all, is fighting for free speech. She’s not, though. Neither are her peers inside and outside the rightwing media apparatus. The point isn’t the free and responsible search for knowledge. It’s warping politics, making bad things look good, perverting public morality, and exploiting the inherent vulnerabilities of elite institutions like the Times.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.