Bari Weiss is one of those oddly uninteresting personalities that The New York Times loves to elevate to the status of a columnist because her opinions reflect a certain strain of not quite hip but sufficiently arrogant trendiness that The Times finds marketable to its readership. Weiss conforms to the newspaper’s ideal of a personality with superficially interesting but deeply unprovocative things to say that are framed in such a way as to appear provocative. The MVP in this sport and in many ways the model for the others is Thomas Friedman. But The Times has other champions, generally in a lower weight class, such as David Brooks and Ross Douthat.
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Weiss recently had the privilege of being invited to the Joe Rogan podcast where, on one occasion last year, she allowed him to allow her to make a fool of herself. To express her gratitude for that honor, she not only dedicates a new op-ed to the latest news about Rogan, but she also calls him “a friend of mine.“ The news she refers to is the $100-million deal Rogan got to move his podcast to Spotify.
Weiss got her “friend” on the phone to talk about his new deal. Explaining the uniqueness of his approach, Rogan tells Weiss: “Right or wrong, in podcasting you’re getting that very pure, individual perspective. On my show, it’s my opinion and the guest’s opinion. That’s it. On network, it’s a focus-group collective idea of what people are going to like or not like. You don’t get anything wild. You don’t get anything that will get you fired.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
When applied to human discourse, unadulterated by contrary ideas or invasive distractions, such as reality
Rogan is right. His offering corresponds to the ongoing exacerbation of the longstanding trend toward extreme individualism at the core of US culture. In a nation founded by Puritans, the idea of the purity of an individual’s identity remains a quasi-theological ideal. Weiss might have explored this fascinating dimension of Rogan’s success, but as a Times op-ed writer, her job is to focus on conveying her own feelings and expressing a few random insider thoughts.
Given her own experience of being made a fool of, one of her remarks sounds almost comical: “When you are sucked into a conversation with Rogan, it can go sideways, fast.” At one point in her awkward conversation with Rogan last year, she called then-Democratic presidential primary candidate Tulsi Gabbard “Assad’s toadie,” referring to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. When Rogan asked her what she meant by “toadie,” she replied, “I think that I used that word correctly.” When Rogan asked her to explain, she blurted out, “that’s proven” but then shifted to “that’s known.” In other words, it’s hearsay.
Rogan then asked Weiss what Gabbard said “that qualifies her” to be called a “toadie.” Weiss replied, “I don’t remember the details,” avoiding admitting that there were none. Then, Weiss threw out the kind of unfounded pronouncements that qualify her to be a Times opinion writer when she called Gabbard “the motherlode of bad ideas.” When challenged again, she protested, “I’m pretty positive about that.” Some might object that there are no degrees of positiveness.
Suddenly unsure of herself, she backtracked and said, “maybe I’m wrong,” but then doubled back with “I don’t think I’m wrong.” A bit later, she asked, “Am I crazy?” and then returned to claiming to be “almost positive.” Totally at sea, Weiss finally proposed a kind of truce: “I can come back on when I know more about this.” Better than anything else, this reveals how she approaches her writing for The Times as well. Weiss simply needs to feel “pretty positive” about the personal opinion she wants readers to adopt and then launch it assertively, hoping others will follow without asking the embarrassing questions Rogan did.
Weiss has her admirers. In 2019, Evgenia Peretz wrote a dithyrambic profile of the columnist for Vanity Fair in which she explained the “almost positive” side of Weiss’ propension to make irresponsible statements and then retreat. Peretz reveals that “she’s been known to do something amazing—change her mind.” Traditional journalism considered it a virtue to research a subject before having to retract any unfounded assertions. That doesn’t apply to op-eds, of course.
Weiss’ column on Rogan avoids examining the truly interesting question that Rogan himself raises about the surreal commercial logic that now dominates news and entertainment media. Rogan’s success demonstrates the failure in US media to distinguish between the two, a serious theme Weiss could have explored. She might also have followed up on Rogan’s own suspicion that there may be something perverse about his success story. Commenting on the amount of money, he said: “It feels gross. Especially right now, when people can’t work.”
Instead of exploring the uncomfortable relationship between news, opinion, entertainment and money or the deeper sociological question of the trend that keeps pushing US individualism further and further toward the celebration of solipsism, Weiss focuses on her own feelings, reactions and trendy observations. That’s what New York Times op-ed columnists are expected to do. She draws on her own experience of Rogan: “As a guest, no show is more intimidating. But as a listener, it’s why I tune in.”
She appears to admit that podcasting is threatening the livelihood of her employer, The New York Times: “That unpredictability, that willingness to take risks with topics, tone and guests, is one of the reasons podcasting is eating our lunch.” How can The Times compete with the “pure, individual perspectives” of Rogan’s guests and of Rogan himself? Individualism trumps collective effort. That’s the new American reality. It’s all about individuals who dare to blurt out what they think. Social reality beyond that simply has no authority, no weight, no reason to exist. It can’t compete and, of course, there’s no reason to ask why that may be the case. That’s just the way it is.
Bari Weiss accurately identifies one of the reasons why the media she represents is failing in its competition with podcasts. “The prestige press has become too delicate, worried about backlash on Twitter and thus shying away from an ever-increasing number of perceived third rails,” she writes. This was the case even before Twitter and has been for at least the past 70 years. But it was less due to the fear of backlash than to the media’s active role in instilling the values of the corporations that fund it and defending their interests.
Various serious commentators have been trying to explain Joe Rogan’s new $100-million price tag. They speak about the evolution of the media over the past decades. And they all seem fascinated, if not troubled by the fact that Rogan has secured a $100-million contract just for talking to people. There may even be a note of envy, similar to what people feel about Warren Buffett. If Rogan can get that kind of money just by talking to people, why can’t I? And if Buffett can be a multibillionaire just by choosing stocks, why can’t I?
Rogan’s market value reflects and confirms two great historical trends in US culture: an ever-increasing focus on individualism and the fascination with celebrity. Rogan claims to reveal the “pure” individual, the one who, in his presence, can speak freely and revealing their authentic worth. Americans want more than ever to believe in the myth of the talented individual who rises above society and breaks free from it.
Then there is the “American dream.” It has always been about achieving success. It used to aim at achieving economic independence, founding a family, buying a house and being respected in the community. Celebrity culture has transformed that aspiration. Success is never enough unless it reaches celebrity status.
Most people nevertheless realize they will never become famous, so they seek some form of intimacy or at least familiarity with those who are famous. Rogan’s conversations leave listeners with the impression that they are spending casual time with a person they admire. They listen for hours, not in a quest for the celebrity’s ideas or insights, but simply because that famous person for once sounds as ordinary as they are. That realization is reassuring to those who know they will never attain the celebrities’ fame or fortune. And that’s certainly worth $100 million.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.