The end of illusions
What Bari Weiss’ resignation from The New York Times tells us about the state of journalism
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I should do a victory dance—and I’m very sad to do it.
When Joel Belz started WORLD in 1986, I was writing a book entitled Prodigal Press: The Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media. He and I did not yet know each other, but we had arrived at the same conclusion: The days of Christians being able to write on the pages of big secular newspapers and magazines were coming to an end.
Lots of Christians criticized our emphasis. Their goal was to train young Christians to get jobs at local newspapers. Over time they would have a positive effect in newsrooms. I proposed a different strategy: Christians should put time and money into setting up Biblically objective publications that through strong reporting could attract audiences.
In my last chapter I mentioned in one sentence a new publication just arrived in the mail: WORLD. I had no foreboding that I’d spend 30 years editing it. But ever since the publication of Prodigal Press some Christians have said I was pessimistic: The old strategy of individual infiltration rather than organizational confrontation could still work. In 2004 I spent several weeks in a van going through Turkey arguing this very point with a good friend.
This week’s doings reveal that my subtitle in 2020 terms should have been the Anti-Everything-Except-Revolution bias. This week The New York Times showed it was anti-Jewish, as an exceptionally fine writer and analyst, Bari Weiss, found it necessary to leave. New York magazine showed that it is anti-gay if the gay is conservative: Brilliant essayist Andrew Sullivan announced Tuesday that his New York column Friday will be his last.
Here’s some of Bari Weiss’ farewell address:
“I joined the paper with gratitude and optimism three years ago. I was hired with the goal of bringing in voices that would not otherwise appear in your pages: first-time writers, centrists, conservatives and others who would not naturally think of The Times as their home. …
“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor. As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences. …
“My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views … My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly ‘inclusive’ one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. …
“The paper of record is, more and more, the record of those living in a distant galaxy, one whose concerns are profoundly removed from the lives of most people … All this bodes ill, especially for independent-minded young writers and editors paying close attention to what they’ll have to do to advance in their careers. Rule One: Speak your mind at your own peril. Rule Two: Never risk commissioning a story that goes against the narrative. Rule Three: Never believe an editor or publisher who urges you to go against the grain. Eventually, the publisher will cave to the mob, the editor will get fired or reassigned, and you’ll be hung out to dry.
“For these young writers and editors, there is one consolation. 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.”
On Friday we’ll see what Andrew Sullivan’s farewell address looks like. This week should go down in journalism history as a week that finally dispelled illusions concerning Goliath Media and its increasing hostility to journalistic Davids. Whether our predominant loyalty is to conservatism or (much better) to Christ, we need to emphasize growing our own publications and competing organizationally, not just trying to place a few people in hostile territory.
But it doesn’t give me joy to report that my dire forecast was accurate. As I recall the debates in Turkey with the good Christian journalist who thought we should strive to write for secular media, the end of John Le Carre’s Smiley’s People comes to mind. British spy George Smiley is proven right. His sidekick Peter Guillam says, “George, you’ve won!”
Smiley responds with melancholy, “Yes, I suppose I have.”
A third of a century ago in the first edition of Prodigal Press, I described four fears some Christian journalists have. The first was “fear of what materialistic colleagues will think of us. … Some materialists will be tolerant of religious belief as long as it is privatized and equated with subjectivity: If it makes you feel good, believe it. … Christians, though, know that subjective feelings are ephemeral. … The Bible always emphasizes reporting of what actually happened.
“Luke began his Gospel by writing, ‘Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account … so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.’ Paul told the Corinthians they should not believe in the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection because it might be comforting for some: The important question was, did it happen? Paul insisted that either Christ rose from the dead, or Christian hope is in vain. … We often describe the Bible as history, poetry, law, and story. It is all of these things, but much of it is careful, credible journalism. …
“Second, Christian journalists must not be afraid of audience. We should not turn inwards, nor be willing to accept a journalistic strategy that churches might find pleasant but the world will ignore. We should not be afraid of picking from the best of the methods of journalism, while always evaluating all means and ends in the light of God’s Word (2 Corinthians 10:5). After all, the authors of the Gospels knew how to produce the same message but with different emphases for those with different backgrounds. Paul, in speaking to the Athenians, was willing to make contact with them by pointing out their worship of an unknown God (Acts 17). …
“Third, Christians must not fear that a new emphasis on journalism will distract from either concern for evangelism or the godly education of those already within the church. That concern is short-sighted, since both evangelism and education become more difficult when both non-Christians and Christians are bombarded by messages on ‘non-religious’ matters that assume materialism is true. Journalism is vital pre-evangelistic work, needed to prepare individuals to accept the reality of God’s grace. Christian journalism also is post-justification work, helping those who have received God’s grace to construct godly lives.
“Fourth, and most subtle of all, is the reluctance even among some Christians to acknowledge that all created things, including our own minds, are twisted by sin (Genesis 3:17-19; Romans 8:20-22). Our minds are not capable of creating a sound set of guidelines from either observation or pure reason. Our only hope lies in learning Biblical principles of thought and conduct, and trusting the Holy Spirit to help us make the right practical applications.
“The Bible teaches that thought independent of God’s special revelation is untrustworthy at best and eventually suicidal. Only the Word of God can give us principles for establishing a life pleasing to God. This vital concept is hard to swallow in a society with strong belief in existentialist creativity: Individuals supposedly develop new ideas and ways of conduct ex nihilo, as if they were gods unto themselves. The Bible, though, stresses God as Creator and man as image-bearer. We cannot create virtue or virtuous ideas apart from God’s thoughts.
“Sometimes, in short, Christians confronted by tough problems are afraid of Biblical truth. Why not abortion when there has been rape? Why not divorce when husband and wife fight? Why write a story that could lose the journalist his job? There are Biblical answers to such questions, but they require hard analytical and practical work. Sometimes even Christians fear the Bible because it does not give comfortable answers.”
A third of a century ago I emphasized growing Christian publications but didn’t totally rule out work at The New York Times or similar institutions. I wrote, “As bad as many public schools are today, a tough-minded, tenacious Christian teacher in the classroom can still be a Godsend to children. Similar considerations apply in journalism. … Strong Christian publications and stations are vital, but salty Christians also are needed within today’s influential, non-Christian media systems. As stories … influenced by presuppositions cross newsroom desks, Christian reporters and editors should be at those desks and willing to speak up.”
Based on Bari Weiss’s experience, it looks like the desks at the Times now have signs: “Biblical Christians and Jews, go home.” Weiss was right to try and right to leave, but since I wrote Prodigal Press for a Christian audience I tried to give some specific advice to Christian reporters who should “realize that even a small movement toward true objectivity might anger an atheistic editor. In such circumstances, firmness is essential. As soon as a worldview conflict becomes apparent, Christian journalists working for non-Christians have to decide which of two roads to potential success to follow: the way of the tough and talented Christian, or the path of the presuppositional sycophant.
“These two roads tend to divide early. A reporter who writes of fundamentalists with appropriate sarcasm will be praised; a reporter who quotes not only Darwinian scientists but creation scientists will be questioned … Christians working for unsympathetic employers can make some practical intellectual and financial preparations while they are on the job. … If God’s providence has put the Christian in a high-paying job, he must immediately calculate what he needs to live on, not what he is temporarily able to live on. Any extra money is a special gift from God and should not be squandered: Some of that money might support the journalist if he is forced to resign.
“Furthermore, the goal should always be to develop skills that will allow the Christian to become his own boss, if the possibility arises. For, in the long run, Christian journalists will need Christian publications. In that long run, it is clear that only news organizations owned and staffed by Christians will be able to practice journalism consistent with strong Biblical faith. Only through independence can Christians make sure that the Bible is taken seriously in journalism.”
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