Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ
On Thursday, Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg announced that the publication had cut ties with conservative columnist Kevin Williamson just a couple weeks after hiring him. Williamson’s move from the conservative National Review to The Atlantic -- a magazine whose commentators typically straddle the center-left and center-right -- was controversial from the first. Critics highlighted Williamson’s disparaging remarks about people of color and transgender people. But the debate quickly focused on 2014 tweets in which the writer argued that women who have abortions should be punished as murderers, with penalties that could include death by hanging. In a March 27 memo, Goldberg defended his decision to hire Williamson, suggesting that the writer’s tweets about abortion were an example of impulsive, bad behavior on Twitter, rather than an expression of a carefully considered worldview. But after Media Matters on Wednesday resurfaced audio in which Williamson reiterated and defended that abortion position, Goldberg issued a second memo stating that the magazine had cut ties with Williamson.
Goldberg’s announcement triggered a wave of enraged reactions from other conservative commentators, with some describing the decision as an unfair silencing of Williamson’s views and part of a broader effort to ban conservatives in general and those with pro-life views in particular from mainstream publications.
This position ignores a number of key points: the right of editors to determine what views they want represented by their staff, the difference between Williamson's views and the majority of those held by pro-life commentators, and what appear to be the specific facts surrounding Williamson's brief tenure at The Atlantic. And most importantly, it inaccurately inflates a highly specific hiring controversy at a single publication into a larger campaign to purge mainstream opinion writing of conservative thinkers.
The Atlantic’s editor has the right to decide which views are represented by its writers.
The editor of every magazine or newspaper opinions section makes decisions about which views are acceptable for its writers, making determinations about how to draw those lines based on the particular intellectual project of the outlet.
Williamson’s former National Review colleague Jonah Goldberg argues for a distinction. “Editors or owners should have absolute authority to control what appears in the pages of their magazines,” he writes, but what “editors should not have any control over is what their writers are allowed to think.” The Atlantic’s editors would have been within their rights to turn down a pitch from Williamson calling for harsh punishments for women who have abortions, under this rule, but not to fire him for making the argument in other venues.
This is not how that principle is generally applied, including at National Review. In April 2012, Rich Lowry, the magazine’s editor, dropped longtime columnist John Derbyshire and contributor Robert Weissberg over racist commentary they issued in other venues. Lowry fired Derbyshire after he wrote an essay for another magazine in which he recommended that parents tell their children to be wary of black people, and said he would no longer publish Weissberg after he gave a speech at a white nationalist convention in which he explained how zoning laws and other methods could be used to create "Whitopias" in the United States.
In both cases, Lowry specifically stated that he was dropping the commentator for his comments in other venues. In announcing he was cutting ties with Derbyshire, Lowry said that while the columnist was “a deeply literate, funny, and incisive writer,” his essay had been “so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation.” Lowry concluded: “It's a free country, and Derb can write whatever he wants, wherever he wants. Just not in the pages of NR or NRO, or as someone associated with NR any longer.” He likewise stated that he would no longer publish Weissberg due to his “noxious talk.”
Lowry decided that he did not want Derbyshire’s or Weissberg’s racist commentary associated with the magazine he edited, even though they had not made those arguments at National Review. Jeffrey Goldberg has the same right to say that Williamson’s views fall outside the bounds of The Atlantic’s intellectual project and bring discredit to the magazine. We can argue about whether that magazine is making a wise decision in which views are permissible, but it’s simply inaccurate to suggest that the editor’s behavior is unusual -- even on the right.
Williamson’s abortion comments were extreme and outside the bounds of current debate.
Williamson was “Fired From The Atlantic For Opposing Abortion,” according to a headline at the right-wing website The Federalist. Nonsense. Several conservative writers in mainstream opinion sections oppose abortion (The New York Times’ Ross Douthat and The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, to name two). They represent the sizable minority of Americans who share that view.
But Williamson argued not merely against abortion, but in favor of punishment up to death for women who have abortions. How far outside the bounds of typical debate is that view? Douthat and the conservative orthodox Christian commentator Rod Dreher -- both pro-life writers who oppose Williamson’s firing -- each describe it as “extreme,” with Dreher adding that “Kevin is the only pro-lifer I know who believes this — and I didn’t know he believed it until it came out after his hiring was announced.”
Most anti-abortion groups and politicians also reject Williamson’s position. After Trump floated the idea of “some form of punishment" for women who have abortions, March for Life issued a statement calling the comment "completely out of touch with the pro-life movement and even more with women who have chosen such a sad thing as abortion." There are a few rare and disturbing cases in which conservative candidates have suggested punishing women for having abortions. But those proposals are outliers and have made little headway, suggesting that they're of limited value even in conservative political spaces.
We can argue about whether the current bounds of debate should have been stretched to allow oxygen to the notion of hanging women who have abortions. But that’s what the debate is about, not whether “opposing abortion” is suddenly a position that is verboten at mainstream publications.
Williamson appears to have been fired for misleading Goldberg about his abortion position. If he hadn’t done so, it’s unlikely he would have been hired.
Williamson’s supporters want to portray him as a free speech martyr, the victim of a cowardly editor who refused to stand up to the anti-abortion mob. “Williamson's views are not a surprise to anyone and he was hired despite those views until they became inconvenient for Goldberg,” writes The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson.
It’s impossible to reconcile that claim with Goldberg’s two memos, in which The Atlantic editor-in-chief strongly suggests that he always considered the belief that women should receive punishment that could include the death penalty unacceptable for a writer for his publication.
In his first memo, Goldberg suggested that Williamson had been hired in spite of the “most horrible” abortion tweet, which he described as indefensible and unacceptable but aberrant. In the second, we get a sense of why Goldberg was so willing to overlook the tweet. In his telling, Williamson had misled him, explaining the tweet as “an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post,” not as representative of “his carefully considered views.” The public resurfacing of audio in which Williamson defended the tweet, along with comments Goldberg said Williamson had made to him after being hired, convinced Goldberg that Williamson did actually hold the position indicated by his tweet. This destroyed the argument Goldberg made in support of hiring him despite the tweet, leading to Williamson’s firing.
Goldberg deserves no credit for this affair -- he failed to properly vet Williamson’s work. If Goldberg believes that writers at The Atlantic should not hold a particular view, it is his responsibility to ensure that they don’t before he hires them.
Goldberg represented himself in his first memo as an authority on Williamson’s work, in contrast to those who were arguing against his hiring. “I have read most, or much, of what he has written; some of his critics have not done the same,” he wrote.
If Goldberg had done his due diligence on Williamson, then based on his own standards for the magazine he never would have hired him. But his effort apparently amounted to taking Williamson’s word that his tweet was an anomaly; it was Media Matters that found the podcast proving otherwise, leading to the termination.
Liberals are not trying to ban all conservatives from mainstream opinion sections.
Many on the right are sounding the alarm following Williamson’s firing. “Conservative thought is more and more relegated to a ghetto and should any prominent conservative try to leave the ghetto, the leftwing mob will take action to destroy them,” warned Erickson in a piece representative of this sentiment.
The concern that liberals seek to indiscriminately “destroy” any conservative commentator who dares land a job at a mainstream outlet is dramatically overblown.
By my count, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic have hired eight conservative or libertarian commentators to contribute opinion pieces since the 2016 election. If the theory Erickson espouses were true, each would have been greeted with denunciations from across the liberal commentariat and calls for the firings of the newly minted columnists. But if you consider the reaction to each hire individually (acknowledging that on the Internet, you can always find someone making any argument), that did not happen.
The only recently hired columnist whose backlash approached Williamson’s was Bret Stephens at the Times -- and the loudest voices against them came from different factions of the left: women’s rights groups in Williamson’s case and climate activists in Stephens’ case. The hirings of four -- Hugh Hewitt, Gary Abernathy, and Max Boot at the Post and Reihan Salam at The Atlantic -- were almost entirely ignored by progressives. And the treatment of the Post’s Megan McArdle and the Times’ Bari Weiss fell somewhere between these poles (with criticism of the latter largely coming in response to particular things she wrote after joining that paper). None of these other columnists have faced any serious threat to their employment.
So no, there isn’t a liberal conspiracy to ban every conservative writer from the public sphere: There are a series of cases in which different liberal activists have responded differently to the hirings of different conservative writers based on their work. The conservative media’s incentive structures do encourage bigoted and extreme commentary that is not acceptable in more mainstream venues, but the record of the last few years demonstrates that right-wing thinkers who eschew or avoid the worst tendencies of their colleagues can escape that fate.
Williamson should be a cautionary tale to other writers on the right -- but not for the reasons many of them think. Kevin Williamson’s problem wasn’t a climate of censorship in mainstream publications. In the end, it was Kevin Williamson.