Bari Weiss says her publication on Substack, Common Sense, is meant to be “the newspaper for the 21st century, ultimately. I’m starting it out as the op-ed page that I want to read.”
One year after quitting The New York Times, Weiss has not drifted off into obscurity, as detractors hoped she would. Quite the opposite: She has amassed more than 100,000 subscribers, including enough paying supporters to hire a staff. “I’ve made a lot more money than I ever thought was possible in journalism,” she remarked to me, “but I’m making less because I’ve hired four, about to be five, people, So I’m reinvesting all of it because I really, really, really believe in this model.”
I recently interviewed Weiss about her business model; about free speech; and “woke orthodoxy.” The full interview is now up on the “Reliable Sources” podcast, and it will be featured on air at CNN Sunday morning.
Listen to the podcast here:
In her pitch for Common Sense, Weiss wrote, “There are tens of millions of Americans who aren’t on the hard left or the hard right who feel that the world has gone mad.” So how has the world gone mad? That’s one of the first things I asked her.
The ‘self-censorship’ problem
“Thought crimes” are top of mind for Weiss. Her concerns have to do with “self-censorship” triggered by small but vocal groups and powerful but cowardly leaders. “You and I both know, and it would be delusional to claim otherwise,” she said, “that touching your finger to an increasing number of subjects that have been deemed ‘third rail’ by the mainstream institutions and increasingly by some of the tech companies will lead to reputational damage; perhaps you losing your job; your children sometimes being demonized as well. And so what happens is a kind of internal self-censorship.” Here are four of her key points:
–“What’s going on is the transformation of this sense-making institutions of American life. It’s the news media. It’s the publishing houses. It’s the Hollywood studios. It’s our universities. And they are narrowing, in a radical way, what’s acceptable to say and what isn’t. And you and I both know there doesn’t need to be an edict from the C-suite in order for people to feel that. All they need is to watch an example.”
— “As we have learned from the Trump administration, institutions are just people. Institutions are just people. And so if an institution — whose job it is to uphold, let’s say, liberalism broadly defined — decides not to do that anymore, why should it be a surprise, then, that that institution becomes illiberal?”
— Leadership is key: “All of this would change if the people that are charged with upholding, you know, the mission of these institutions, which took decades and decades, sometimes longer than that to build, stood up and said ‘No.’ Stood up and said, ‘if you think an op-ed literally causes violence, maybe journalism isn’t the right career for you.’ Until we see that happen, I think we’re going to continue to see a lot of these institutions hemorrhaging the people who don’t fall in line with the new woke orthodoxy.”
— “Let’s note the fact that there is a chasm right now between what people are willing to say in their kitchen tables, in the comfort and the trust of their most loved ones, their family — and then what they’re willing to say on Twitter. Oftentimes, it’s literally two different personas. Or at least that’s what I’ve found. I’m trying to say ‘No. Let’s have those private conversations in public.’ The only way that the culture changes is if we have the courage and the bravery to do that and to show people that you can do it and you can survive and not just survive, you can thrive. And I’ve never felt freer or more excited about my work than I do right now.”
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