In the Venn diagram that is my professional world — journalism, Jewishness and New Yorkiness — the red-hot overlap belongs to Bari Weiss, until recently a writer and editor on The New York Times opinion pages. Before coming to The Times in 2017 as a putative “contrarian” voice, Weiss, now 35, cut her teeth on pro-Israel activism and Jewish journalism. When she announced her resignation earlier this month, it was a sensation among journalists, but also among Jews on the right and the left.
The Jewish right reviles The Times’ Israel coverage. They lamented the loss of what they consider one of its few pro-Israel voices (Weiss, the author of a recent book on anti-Semitism, claimed that her colleagues mocked her for writing too often about Israel) and a bulwark against political correctness. In her scorching public resignation letter, Weiss accused her bosses and colleagues of liberal groupthink.
Her liberal Jewish critics have accused her of sloppiness, hypocrisy and disingenuousness, saying she promoted discredited conservative ideas under the guise of free speech, blurred distinctions between anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric, and sought to “cancel” writers with whom she has tussled.
From where I sit, rarely did the things she write and commission deserve the attacks she attracted (only among New York Twitterati, many suggest, would her centrist views be seen as far right). Even when I disagreed with Weiss, I looked forward to reading her. I’d rather argue animatedly over something she wrote than nod with boredom over someone I always agree with. But she courted and welcomed controversy, and often her words and assignments seemed calculated to provoke exactly the reactions she now decries.
The Weiss affair is tied up in current debates over “wokeness,” free speech, liberalism and, in Weiss’ case, gender and Israel politics. But one thing her resignation is not about is the “death of American journalism,” despite people’s efforts to portray it that way. “Journalism” is not the latest social media argument over this or that op-ed or tweet and whether it should have run or been written. Journalism is rarely what they are doing on cable news after 8 p.m., when panels of like-minded people agree to agree.
The New York Times’ opinion section is journalism, of course, but only of a singular, if highly influential, kind. Like the paper itself, it tends to overshadow the more typical work of the thousands of reporters, editors and broadcasters who are trying to provide us with the diet of information that is essential to a healthy, functioning society.
So what’s journalism? It’s the small-town reporters who write up “the day’s events, hold officials accountable and capture those moments — a school honor, a retirement celebration — suitable for framing,” as Dan Barry recently put it. That these reporters are disappearing is a bigger blow to our democracy than the resignation of a celebrity pundit.
Journalism is the solid, dogged investigative work being done by nonprofits on everything from toxic chemicals in the environment to the opioid crisis to what it means to live on the minimum wage.
Journalism is about gaining access — for us, the citizens — to a massive federal database on coronavirus cases, and describing what it reveals about racial inequalities, as The Times did earlier this year.
Journalism is exposing a government’s typically misleading statements, as Vox did in determining that U.S. Park Police did indeed use tear gas to disperse a crowd protesting outside the White House.
Journalism uncovers the true story behind a Republican president’s complex and deceptive finances (again, The Times) — and behind a Democratic-led city’s failed efforts to help its Black residents deal with the pandemic (The Washington Post, in an exposé about its hometown).
It’s the kind of storytelling that makes you take an interest in something — through delightful writing and deep reporting — that you never, ever thought you’d care about. In other words, every issue of The New Yorker.
And at the risk of bragging, it’s the deeply knowing ethnic reporting done by my indefatigable colleagues at The Jewish Week, whether it is exposing sexual abuse in our community, chronicling the American-Jewish response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or helping readers find essential services and solace in the midst of a global health and economic crisis.
That’s not to say every medium is firing on all these cylinders every day. Mistakes and biases sometimes creep into news stories, or newsrooms don’t always treat their staff as they should.
But journalism is essential to our reeling republic. Luckily there are lots of good people still in the game, going out there and finding the facts and shining light in dark corners. They do their jobs well, and often without fanfare, and sometimes at great risk to their own lives, and we are a better society for it. Don’t let Twitter tell you any different.
The July 31 issue of The Jewish Week will be the last in print while we explore our options, digital and otherwise, going forward. To all the readers who have written to mourn the loss of print, I’ll say this: I agree with you. But given our growing deficit and shrinking revenues it would have been irresponsible to continue publishing a print edition. We will use our hiatus to create a new model that will satisfy our loyal readers and find new audiences as well. In the meantime, thank you for supporting a storied Jewish newspaper, and welcome to the next chapter in Jewish journalism.