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Saturday, December 2, 2023

Inside Bari Weiss’s Salon for LA’s Power Cognoscenti and Disenfranchised Liberals

The line outside the old ’20s gothic theater slinked around the corner off Broadway. Not that off Broadway. Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles, at the newly redone Ace Hotel, which, on this night in mid-September, sold out all 1,600 seats. No big musician was performing inside. No television show or movie was premiering (there aren’t any in LA, or anywhere, right now).

The crowds were filing in to watch four women debate whether the sexual revolution has failed. The event, styled as an old-fashioned boxing match—“CLASH OF THE FEMALE TITANS,” the program read. “FIGHT 7pm”—was put on and moderated by Bari Weiss and her new media company, the Free Press, and is the first in a series of such events. The prompt was to be answered by the panel—made up of the singer and Elon Musk ex Grimes and ex-Muslim podcaster Sarah Haider on one side and one half of Red Scare Anna Khachiyan and author Louise Perry on the other—but the very fact that four accomplished women were selling out an evening hosted by a lesbian new media titan (and by the fact that, well, how could you even really argue in the affirmative?) was answered before it started. But the question wasn’t the draw.

The room was filled with throngs of Red Scare girlies and Boomer men in blazers with their bespectacled wives and bros with incel haircuts and, inexplicably, a group of extremely handsome priests, or handsome men dressed like priests, a Fleabag fever dream come to life. Amanda Fortini, Elon Gold, Aella, Dasha Nekrasova, Coleman Hughes, Alex Lee Moyer, Buck Angel, Jessica Reed Kraus. A lot of people whose only unifying descriptor could be “looks like they listen to podcasts.” “This is the Met Gala! For ideas!” one blond in a red blouse declared as she greeted her friend. It could have more likely existed in Bushwick, really. But here they were, in Hollywood, filling red velvet seats, fitted with their own Free Press branded totes (tickets cost up to $165 a piece, merch was sold by the door) as Notorious B.I.G. blasted. Comedian Tim Dillon opened the evening by poking fun at homeless people in Los Angeles, moved into how bored he was by the war in Ukraine, and noted that this is the first generation of kids who will be gifted “cocks and pussies” by their parents. The crowd purred. The room was electrified.

The marquee at The Theater at the Ace Hotel on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023, in Los Angeles, CA.By Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images.

What played out in that theater was the change of guard amongst some of the city’s most esteemed culture players—the land of the elite, Hollywood liberal shape-shifting into a post–#MeToo believe-nothing mindset. In major cities, the upper classes are coalescing around a sense of their own disenfranchisement—a flip of the 2016 script—and a number of self-identifying (or formerly self-identifying liberals) fear that the culture has come for them, with millennial mobs lurking around every corner, like little woke assassins. They feel suddenly afraid to say what they think at a dinner party, never mind on social media or at the office. For all of the hand-wringing about people on the coasts missing what was happening in the middle of the country leading up to Trump’s election, there’s the notion now that people on the coasts aren’t paying attention to this shift within the coasts—an ideological power shift that could shift culture and politics and what’s “safe” to say and who it’s “safe” to say it to. And so a room like the one Weiss pulled together was meant to be a relief. It is the 2023 version of the Wing for the exact opposite kinds of people who would have wished for the Wing. Everyone just waiting to exhale.

This is Weiss’s premise, and business has blossomed. The Free Press has 450,000 subscribers (free and paid combined) to the work of about 25 staffers in offices in both New York and Los Angeles, ostensibly. She’s recorded around 150 episodes of her own podcast, Honestly, on which she has interviewed Benjamin Netanyahu and Kim Kardashian, Eric Adams and Rick Rubin, Bill Barr and Emily Oster, and a handful of 2024 presidential hopefuls. Her network also produced the much-hyped “Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling,” published an account of a pediatric clinic treating trans kids, and, without hesitation, dove headfirst into the center of every culture war. She and her wife, Nellie Bowles, who also cut her teeth at The New York Times before each of them ultimately quit after what Weiss felt was constant bullying from people who disagreed with them, moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2020, and have, in many ways, become toasts of the town. They are intellectuals in a place not known for thinkers. Rooms stand still when they talk. (“We have been at dinners here that never in my wildest…” Weiss joked when I brought this up. “We feel like interlopers. But somehow we get invited [because] we are girls with glasses in LA.”)

The novelty of people like Weiss and Bowles in LA—people who outwardly push boundaries as they do, whose very presence makes those who are too afraid of what they’d call Wrongthink bullying feel at ease and enlivened—has allowed them to build roots and wings for the Free Press. “I don’t think we could have built this in New York even for a day,” Bowles told me the morning of the debate. (Not that there aren’t independent outlets in New York, of course. But perhaps legacy media casts a shorter shadow in LA.) “We’d be surrounded by the negative media world day in and day out and we’d be reactive to that. In LA, politics are relevant but they’re not the core of everyone’s life. It allowed us to build something that’s positive and open and bigger, and let it be a happier experience. There’s truth to the idea that it’s a place that’s really good to build a new thing.”

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