Acton Institute Powerblog

Bari Weiss and a lesson in media literacy

In June, Columbia University’s Teachers College Center for Educational Equity and a group called DemocracyReady NY issued a report that called for New York state to take “immediate and decisive steps to require media literacy education in K-12 schools throughout the state.”

With that in mind, here is a proposed media literacy lesson.

First, read the resignation letter of Bari Weiss, an op-ed editor at the New York Times. Discuss these key insights from her letter:

1. 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.

2. My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m “writing about the Jews again.” Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. 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. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are.

3. Part of me wishes I could say that my experience was unique. But 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 4,000th op-ed arguing that Donald Trump is a unique danger to the country and the world? And so self-censorship has become the norm.

For our next question: Why did Michael Bennett, op-ed editor of the New York Times, resign? What is a “woke scold”? Please define.

Now let us turn to Michael Goodwin’s column in the New York Post titled, “Bari Weiss exposes how the Times has gone astray.” Goodwin wrote: “Bennett’s sin was to publish an op-ed from Sen. Tom Cotton that said President Trump was right to consider using the military to quell riots in American cities. In a shocking breach with tradition, more than 800 Times staff members, the vast majority from the newsroom, signed a petition denouncing the piece and pushed for Bennett to be fired.”

Discuss why Times newsroom staffers believe that James Bennett had “sinned.”

Next, read Michael Barone’s “The most dishonest, biased news coverage of our lifetimes — and it’s about to get worse,” also in the Post. Discuss how President Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore was characterized by many in the media as “dark and divisive,” “dystopian,” and aimed at “amplifying racism.

Read Joel Kotkin’s essay in The American Mind, a publication of the Claremont Institute, titled “Triumph of the Oligarchs.” Define oligarch. Discuss the passage below from Kotkin’s essay:

Perhaps the most terrifying development has been the tech elite’s decision to move beyond profitable snooping toward controlling content. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults now get their news through social media like Facebook or Google. This is even more true among Millennials. As the publishing industry has shrunk – between 2001 and 2017 it lost 290,000 jobs or 40% of all its jobs – Facebook and Google dominate the only growth area, online advertising.

The oligarchs have further expanded their domain by purchasing much of what is left of the mainstream media, including the New Republic, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and long-distressed Time magazine. Ownership of this media increases the oligarchs’ ability to promote their own progressive views – on gender, race, and environmental issues, for example. But, curiously, they are somewhat less enthusiastic about challenges to the concentration of oligarchical power, as the Washington Post’s long-running conflict with Bernie Sanders so amply illustrates.

Thought control on the part of tech giants is proceeding with astonishing speed. Rather than being directed by party cadres, our media is increasingly controlled by staffers at Google, Facebook, and Twitter who seek to “curate” content on their sites. This usually means eliminating conservative views, according to former employees. These firms increasingly use algorithms intended to screen out “hate groups,” but the programmers often have trouble distinguishing between “hate groups” and those who might simply express views that conflict with the dominant progressive culture of Silicon Valley activists.

In his newly published book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter Books), Kotkin writes:

Today the news media are inclined to promote a single orthodoxy. One reason for this is a change in the composition of the journalistic profession: working-class reporters, many with ties to local communities, have been replaced with a more cosmopolitan breed with college degrees, typically in journalism. These reporters tilt overwhelmingly to the progressive side of politics; by 2018, barely 7 percent of U.S. reporters identified as Republican, and some 97 percent of all political donations from journalists went to Democrats. Similar patterns are found in Western countries too. In France, as two-thirds of journalists favor the socialist left, and sometimes spend considerable effort in apologizing for anything that might offend certain designated victim groups. The political left in journalism has been intensified by a geographical concentration of media in fewer centers – especially in London, New York, and San Francisco.

Question: How does this concentration of media viewpoints on the political Left affect our understanding of politics, culture, religion, economics, and other important questions?

Let’s close our discussion this way: Finally, discuss why Prager University, an online educational platform, said YouTube needlessly put age restrictions on videos about the Ten Commandments and other lessons. Does this show that YouTube has a “clear political bias,” as PragerU charges? And do you believe that that Ten Commandments are “controversial”?

Class dismissed.

(Photo credit: pio3 / Shutterstock.com.)

John Couretas

is Editor-at-Large for the Acton Institute.