How Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss have taken the NY Times’ campus concern trolling to new heights in just 2 years

The two were brought over from the WSJ to bring a bold new perspective to the paper. Instead, they’ve been amplifying its most played-out talking point.

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

In April 2017, The New York Times announced the hiring of Wall Street Journal columnist and Pulitzer winner Bret Stephens. In a memo sent to staff, editorial page editor James Bennet wrote that Stephens would “bring a new perspective to bear on the news” as part of the newspaper’s plan to “continue to broaden the range of Times debate about consequential questions.”

Hiring Stephens was a controversial move given his history of denying the reality of human-caused climate change, engaging in Iraq War revisionism, and disputing the existence of the campus-rape epidemic. And Stephens did little to assuage critics of his hire; his debut column for the Times was an error-riddled op-ed misrepresenting the state of climate consensus in the scientific community. That article was later held up by Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt to defend his personal skepticism of climate science.

Stephens was joined at the Times by fellow Wall Street Journal alum Bari Weiss. At the Journal, Weiss wrote about things like “campus rage,” “the PC police,” and “social justice warriors” who were supposedly outraged over the film Sausage Party. In another memo to staff, Bennet announced that Weiss would “be writing and commissioning the kinds of quick-off-the-news pieces that are such a critical part of our efforts to amplify the section’s already important voice in the national conversation.”

More than two years into Stephens’ and Weiss’ tenures at the Times, it remains unclear how Stephens -- or Weiss, for that matter -- has broadened the range of debate on the paper’s pages.

Instead, it seems their presence has served mostly to intensify the focus on topics like campus speech and social justice activism -- namely, arguing that liberals are overstepping their bounds in both arenas. From reading Stephens and Weiss, you'd get the impression that some of the most pressing issues in the country are the conduct of protesters demonstrating outside a Ben Shapiro speech -- where he’s no doubt busy CRUSHING a question about atheism and DESTROYING the argument for trans rights -- and runaway PC culture on college campuses, which poses an existential threat to democracy itself.

Weiss appears to delight in shining a light on minor campus controversies such as the one that erupted at Evergreen State College, when a professor was challenged by student activists for his views on a proposed “day of absence” protest. Similarly, she has shown a particular interest in stories about speakers being “no platformed” at universities.

In a piece titled “We’re All Fascists Now,” Weiss bemoaned Lewis & Clark Law School students’ protest of a speech by American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Sommers. On Twitter, Weiss called this incident “a 21st-century auto-da-fe,” referring to public executions carried out during the Spanish Inquisition. But far from the teeming masses her article made the protest out to contain, video shows only about a dozen demonstrators in total.

Weiss also took issue with students’ characterization of Sommers as a “fascist,” noting that she is “a self-identified feminist and registered Democrat.” As this piece illustrated, Weiss has a tendency to give incomplete and often inaccurate descriptions of her stories’ protagonists. In this case, Weiss failed to note that Sommers was a prominent voice in the anti-diversity “GamerGate” movement, has joined panel discussions alongside the likes of neo-Nazi sympathizer Milo Yiannopoulos and far-right troll Steven Crowder, has appeared on Fox News to argue against perceived liberal causes, and has been a guest on white supremacist YouTube channel Red Ice TV’s Radio 3Fourteen. The original version of Weiss’ article also referred to libertarian talk show host Dave Rubin as “a liberal commentator” who was supposedly “denounced as an ‘Anti-L.G.B.T. fascist’ and a ‘fascist lieutenant’ for criticizing identity politics.” But those criticisms of Rubin came from a parody Twitter account, and the references to him were later removed.

In May 2018, Weiss published a piece about the so-called Intellectual Dark Web, a “collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now.” As Weiss framed it, the IDW is made up of freethinkers who dare to speak uncomfortable truths that exist outside the liberal mainstream. In reality, the IDW is a collection of trolls, harassers, and some outright bigots. Her pieces on the issue often feature many of the same rotating cast of characters. In the May article, Weiss namechecked Sommers and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (who was also referenced in her “We’re All Fascists Now” article). Additionally, there’s Bret Weinstein (who was the subject of Weiss’s story about Evergreen State College), Rubin (again), Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro (who she profiled in a fawning piece in September 2017), Joe Rogan, and others. Weiss paints these speakers as outcasts “in our new era of That Which Cannot Be Said,” but the truth is that these are some of the most watched and listened to commentators in the world.

Since joining the Times, Weiss has cheered on cultural appropriation, written repeatedly of the perceived overreaches of the #MeToo movement, and made a laughably inaccurate prediction that “liberal lion of Hollywood and prominent donor to Democratic politicians” Harvey Weinstein would remain welcome in progressive circles following reports that he sexually abused numerous women.

On Twitter, Weiss has made a habit of sharing stories by other authors related to college controversies. “The new normal on campus,” Weiss tweeted earlier this month, sharing a Commentary article by Jonathan Marks about the status of a pro-Israel student group being denied recognition at Williams College (the school did eventually recognize the group). Last June, Weiss shared a story by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic warning of the “potential excesses of policing sex on campus.”

Stephens has remarkably similar positions on political correctness and campus speech. While Weiss has tended to pull from her Intellectual Dark Web rogues’ gallery for stories about campuses, Stephens takes a slightly more macro approach and often focuses on what college liberals could be doing instead of protesting what he invariably sees as a wasted cause.

In a February 2018 piece, Stephens chided liberals for not focusing their ire at Venezuela’s Maduro regime instead of whatever it is they’re protesting these days. He wrote:

Every generation of campus activists embraces a worthy foreign-policy cause: Ending apartheid in South Africa; stopping ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; rescuing Darfur from starvation and genocide. And then there’s the perennial — and perennially unworthy — cause of “freeing” Palestine, for which there never is a shortage of credulous campus zealots.

Then there are the humanitarian causes young activists generally don’t embrace, at least not in a big way. Cuba’s political prisoners. Islamist violence against Christians in the Middle East. The vast and terrifying concentration camp that is North Korea. Where are the campus protests over any of that?

“Waiting on campus progressives everywhere to take bold stance against Malaysia….” Stephens tweeted in January, quoting a post about an anti-Semitic statement made by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Stephens’ list of campus complaints isn’t limited to student protests. In the month following his hiring, Stephens published the transcript of a commencement address he delivered at Hampden-Sydney College titled “Leave Your Safe Spaces.” In it, he referenced a 2014 mini-scandal at Brown University in which a student offered counter-programming for sexual assault survivors during an event in which the subject of sexual assault would be debated elsewhere on campus. Stephens criticized this move, writing that “if a college or university should accept the principle of a ‘safe space’ in a single designated room, why should that same principle not extend to the classroom, the lecture hall, dormitories, college newspapers, chat rooms, social media and so on?” He took that a step further, writing, “And if it is not O.K. to say certain things, anywhere, should we even think them?” In the span of just a few paragraphs, Stephens distorted the idea of giving people a space to relax for an hour into an Orwellian attack on free thought, making aggressive use of the slippery slope fallacy along the way.

Stephens lauded the Trump administration (something he will be the first to say that he is loath to do) for its September 2017 decision to roll back Obama-era Title IX guidelines on campus sexual assault, calling the original Obama move “Exhibit A in the overreach of an administrative state pursuing a narrow ideological agenda through methods both lawless and aggressive.”

In “America’s Best University President,” Stephens cheered University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer’s defense of the school’s stance on “trigger warnings” and school speakers. Again, Stephens invoked Orwell in making his argument for a campus speech free-for-all:

If you can’t speak freely, you’ll quickly lose the ability to think clearly. Your ideas will be built on a pile of assumptions you’ve never examined for yourself and may thus be unable to defend from radical challenges. You will be unable to test an original thought for fear that it might be labeled an offensive one. You will succumb to a form of Orwellian double-think without even having the excuse of living in physical terror of doing otherwise.

On Twitter, Stephens called a recent heckling of AEI’s Sommers “leftist fascism,” and he sneered at critics who protested conservative author Charles Murray at Middlebury University as “leftist enemies” of free speech.

There wasn’t some glaring absence of articles about supposed anti-speech liberals on college campuses before the Times hired Stephens and Weiss.

In 2014, Times columnist Ross Douthat compared the culture of “hypersensitive political correctness” on American college campuses with Kim Jong Un and the North Korean response to the movie The Interview. The following year, Douthat wrote, “I have little sympathy for the goals of these new activists,” and the Times’ David Brooks denounced what he called “a form of zealotry” among student activists. Timothy Egan capped 2015 by cheering, “Campus free-speech censors are on the run. Across the political spectrum, people have had enough of pampered college students who are afraid of words and ideas that offend them.” Douthat continued his campaign against liberal fragility on college campuses following the 2016 election, publishing a piece comparing campus protests to “religious revivalism.”

And it’s not as though the Times’ other columnists have softened up since Stephens and Weiss came on board. In April 2017, Brooks wrote a piece that partly blamed “fragile thugs who call themselves students” for creating a “crisis of Western civilization.” That August, Douthat penned a column referencing the “fainting-couch politics of recent campus and online progressivism.” Brooks wrote a November 2017 article comparing “campus social justice warriors” with the gun lobby, and he would later heap praise upon New York University professor Jonathan Haidt and Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker for “bravely stand[ing] against what can be the smothering orthodoxy that inhibits thought on campus.”

Not even the Times’ more liberal-leaning columnists can resist getting in a jab at campus liberals. In August 2017, Thomas Friedman wrote, “Political correctness on college campuses has run ridiculously riot.” Frank Bruni questioned whether colleges should adopt some sort of campus affirmative action program for conservative instructors, wrote an entire op-ed responding to a college newspaper’s opinion piece criticizing whiteness, slammed “illiberal liberalism” on college campuses, interviewed a professor who said, “The student became the customer who’s always right," and penned a somewhat sympathetic piece about Yiannopoulos, writing, “There’s too much policing of indelicate and injurious language and too little recognition that the wages of fully open debate are ugly words and hurt feelings."

Not all cases of campus censorship are created equal, apparently.

With so much going on right now in the world, you would think that there’d be less focus on a handful of college students at one campus or another protesting a speaker. At very least, you might expect that instances of conservatives shutting down progressive speakers would be discussed with the same regularity as those about liberals.

Instead, readers are treated to a full-on case of free speech hypocrisy.

One example of this involves progressive Jewish political cartoonist Eli Valley’s recent trip to Stanford University. Days before his scheduled appearance, the Stanford College Republicans posted flyers around campus containing some of Valley’s work alongside clippings from Der Stürmer, a Nazi-era German newspaper known for publishing vicious anti-Semitic propaganda. The group acknowledged that it did this in retaliation because posters for one of their events were covered up by posters of the group sponsoring Valley’s appearance.

The groups bringing Valley to campus, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, took some of the blame for the backlash. In an op-ed for The Stanford Daily, the groups apologized for including Valley’s work, which is meant to be a grotesque and provocative political criticism, without the proper context. In response, The Stanford Daily published an opposing op-ed comparing Valley’s work to the propaganda of Joseph Goebbels, writing, “To apologize for the flyers but insist on continuing with the event is equal parts absurd and appalling.”

This seemed like precisely the kind of campus controversy that would grab the attention of Weiss, Stephens, and the rest of conservative media: Here was a student group trying to intimidate a speaker out of appearing on campus as scheduled. On the principles of free speech and academic freedom, taking a stand for Valley seemed to be the obvious call. Instead, Weiss praised the article calling for Valley’s cancellation on Twitter, thanking its author.

“Bari Weiss's attempt to get me de-platformed at Stanford, and her smear that my celebration of non-Zionist Jewish culture, politics, and art is tantamount to Nazism, should put an end to the myth that she is interested in a free exchange of ideas,” Valley said in a Twitter direct message. “She is interested [in] silencing the Left and in mainstreaming far-right ideology.”

Valley’s view of Weiss is in line with her own history of activism and protest against pro-Palestinian Columbia University professors during her time at the school. Far from a proponent of across-the-board freedom of expression, she and the Times’ other columnists have been extremely selective about which stories get heard.  

The idea that no-platforming and other efforts to control campus speech are tactics carried out primarily by students on the left is almost undoubtedly the result of outlets like the Times’ opinion section giving such incidents excessive amounts of coverage -- while essentially ignoring the many examples of conservatives trying to shut out speech they don’t like. You’re unlikely to read Bret Stephens’ take on the efforts of conservative students to use the court system to cancel a panel discussion about Palestinian rights at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. David Brooks isn’t likely to weigh in anytime soon on the University of Arizona students who were arrested on campus for criticizing Border Patrol agents. Ross Douthat didn’t churn out an article to condemn the Nebraska GOP for using its political influence to call on Creighton University to rescind its offer to have former-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-NE) deliver its graduation speech.

The New York Times has been publishing stories about a supposed campus speech crisis for more than 100 years.

“Is free speech an essential part of the American college and university system? This question, never for long obscured, has again become of major importance,” wrote Ralph Thompson in the Times in 1935, quoting a school administrator saying that harmful political movements “will reveal themselves more evidently in the light of open discussion than in the obscurity of whispered argument.”

The entire piece could have just as easily been written in the past couple of years, demonstrating that the moral panic surrounding campus speech is far from a new phenomenon. In fact, examples of Times articles about academic liberty and freedom of expression date back more than a century.

In 1903, French sociologist M. Léopold Mabilleau decried the state of American higher education as a restrictive nightmare void of freedom of speech or expression. “It is necessary that the professor be able to think and speak as he chooses, even though his ideas be contrary to the opinions of the Trustees,” he told The New York Times, speaking of his experience lecturing at the University of Chicago. “This liberty does not exist in many of your American universities, many of which are founded by private individuals.”

In 1970, the Times published an article warning that “leftist student agitation” in France was “contributing toward the rebirth of extreme rightist student movements of a fascist and antirepublican nature.”

“The rightists are campaigning against Marxist dictatorship in the faculties and for ‘freedom of expression.’ The far leftists — followers of Mao Tse-tung and Trotsky for the most part — rally students against fascism. Each extreme feeds on the other,” reads the piece -- a line that wouldn’t sound at all out of place in today’s paper.

If the idea behind hiring Stephens and Weiss was to expand the conversations unfolding in the Times opinion pages, their excessive focus on this specific topic gives little reason to believe this was a successful move. Repeating the same talking points that have peppered the paper’s opinion pages since 1903 isn’t some sort of bold expansion at all, but rather a retreat into what is essentially a “safe space” for milquetoast defenses of the status quo. Yes, the Times publishes work by many authors who aren’t on-staff columnists, and there certainly is some variety in their opinions. But if the paper of record wants to break new ground, its columnists will need to look further than the local campus for their next stories.