Jeffrey Goldberg | Media Matters for America

Jeffrey Goldberg

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  • Kevin Williamson’s real enemy wasn’t the left. It was Kevin Williamson.

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    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 TimesBari 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.

  • Yes, Kevin Williamson wanted to hang people who've had abortions. Don't let conservatives rewrite history.

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    This week, former National Review writer Kevin Williamson was fired by The Atlantic after 2014 audio proved that Williamson did, in fact, mean it when he said people who’ve had abortions should be hanged. In the resulting conservative meltdown, what right-wing outlets seemed desperate to do is have any conversation other than the one actually at hand. Instead, they chose to cry censorship, bemoan so-called liberal bias, and tried to rewrite history by saying Williamson was fired for holding a general anti-abortion stance.

    But this retelling is fundamentally untrue. Williamson wasn’t fired because he holds anti-abortion views. He was fired because he repeatedly, across multiple platforms, advocated for the criminalization and brutal execution of people seeking abortion care. And the fervor to distract from that truth would be truly astounding, if it wasn’t so eminently predictable. 

    When news of Williamson’s hiring first broke, a number of pundits across the ideological spectrum tripped over themselves to downplay and excuse his statements -- defending a so-called “provocateur” whose cherished turns of phrase include calling attacking transgender people as being “delusional,” and arguing that “it just simply is not the case that young black men are getting gunned down, unarmed, by police officers in any sort of significant numbers.” These writers -- including The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, who initially framed Williamson’s comment as an “objectionable tweet” -- argued that Williamson hadn’t really meant what he said about people who’ve had abortions being executed, and asked us to kindly calm down. “For heaven’s sake,” wrote The New York Times’ Bret Stephens, “it was a tweet.” Others, such as Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum called the rightful outrage over Williamson’s hiring, “weird,” while National Review’s David French implored readers to just “give tolerance a chance.”

    Once Williamson’s meaning proved truly undeniable, leading to his firing, right-wing media outlets raced to reframe the conversation -- ignoring the substance of his remarks to instead cry wolf about perceived ideological intolerance. For example, The Federalist wrote that Williamson “was fired for his opinions on abortion” after “the usual suspects freaked out and proceeded to dig up old tweets and audio.” Washington Examiner published not one, but two, pieces arguing that Williamson was a victim in a larger ideological war. In another example, RedState argued that Williamson wasn’t fired because of his “fanciful views about legal consequences connected to abortion,“ but that he was “kicked out for refusing to back down in expressing that abortion is murder and should be viewed as such even in this current climate.” David French even asked where the respect for Williamson’s tolerance was as he is “the son of a teen mom, born shortly before Roe v. Wade, and narrowly escaped being aborted,” who would’ve been forced to share an office at The Atlantic with people who support abortion access.

    What these defenses, and even Goldberg’s original justification for hiring Williamson, ignore is that statements like Williamson’s send a clear message to the one-in-four women who’ve had abortions in the United States: that their lives do not matter, that they are criminal, and that they deserve (even in hypothetical terms) to be brutally executed for seeking constitutionally protected and sometimes life-saving medical care.

    Williamson wasn’t fired because he’s anti-abortion -- he was fired because he advocated for the brutal punishment of those who’ve have abortions. Even if you grant the premise that Williamson was merely expressing what could happen in a future without legal abortion, that he not only carved out an exception to his overall ambivalent stance on the death penalty for those who have abortions, but also advocated for a method that is considered too inhumane by almost all the states that currently employ capital punishment, takes his comments beyond mere speculation.

    As research from Media Matters has previously shown, the people who are often empowered to shape the conversation about abortion are overwhelmingly men. As a result, these conversations reflect not only an incomplete understanding but also treat abortion as some sort of hypothetical thought exercise or as a political bargaining chip, ignoring real impacts that lack of access has on the lives of real people.

    Furthermore, Williamson’s defense of capital punishment for those who’ve had abortions is extreme but not really that hypothetical. Already, policies at the state level punish people for attempting to access abortion care. As Irin Carmon wrote in 2016: “Just ask Purvi Patel, who is appealing a 30-year prison sentence for her conviction for feticide in Indiana,” or Anna Yocca, Rennie Gibbs, Jennie Lynn McCormack, or Jennifer Whalen. She continued that all these cases all demonstrate how “women have been prosecuted under current restrictions on abortion, at times with major felonies.” Just this week in Idaho, Republican lieutenant governor candidate Bob Nonini was forced to walk back comments that the Associated Press characterized as “women who get an abortion should be punished” including that “that the punishment should include the death penalty.” During the presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (before later backtracking) that he thought there should “be some form of punishment” for people who have abortions. As Robin Marty explained, although the right may claim that punishing people for abortion is merely an “extreme fringe” of the movement, there are already anti-abortion groups and candidates running on platforms incredibly similar to what Williamson advocates. 

    Williamson felt so strongly on this topic that he even confirmed at the time to an anti-abortion publication that he meant exactly what he said. Given that right-wing media outlets have regularly participated in or facilitated anti-abortion harassment, it’s not surprising to see a lack of concern about Williamson’s comments. Conservatives may be desperate to change the conversation, but the fact remains: advocating for the brutal execution of people who’ve had abortions isn’t provocative or tolerant -- it’s cruel.

  • Kevin Williamson also said on his podcast that people who’ve had abortions should be hanged

    Update: Williamson out at The Atlantic

    Blog ››› ››› SHARON KANN


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    UPDATE (4/5): After previously defending the hiring of former National Review writer Kevin Williamson as an exercise in ideological diversity, Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg announced on April 5 that the outlet was “parting ways” with Williamson. In particular, Goldberg noted that Williamson’s defense of his belief that those who have had abortions should be hanged -- made in a podcast uncovered by Media Matters yesterday -- “runs contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace.”

    Original article below. 

    The Atlantic recently sparked outrage after hiring former National Review writer Kevin Williamson -- who notoriously argued that “the law should treat abortion like any other homicide” with punishment including hanging. Although some have tried to make light of these comments, in reality, Williamson both defended and again promoted this belief during a September 2014 edition of his National Review podcast.

    Williamson has a long history of producing problematic articles and commentary on a variety of topics, including on abortion, transgender people, and immigrants. Several of Williamson’s defenders have downplayed his history emphasizing, in particular, that Williamson’s tweets on abortion should not be taken seriously. 

    For example, the National Review’s David French alleged that Williamson was being subjected to “the unbelievably tedious ‘gotcha’ exercise of angry progressives combing through” his articles and “attempting to define” him by pointing to “a few paragraphs, a sentence here or there, or an ill-considered tweet or two.” Similarly, Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum wrote that although he found some of Williamson’s work problematic, he dismissed the severity of his comments on abortion, saying: “Lots of conservatives believe that abortion is murder. Williamson was willing to take this publicly to its logical endpoint -- that women who get abortions should be prosecuted for murder one -- but that act of folly is the only difference between him and every other right-wing pundit.” 

    As Slate reported, in a memo sent to staff at The Atlantic, even Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg argued that he didn’t think “taking a person’s worst tweets, or assertions, in isolation is the best journalistic practice” and that he “would also prefer, all things being equal, to give people second chances and the opportunity to change. I’ve done this before in reference to extreme tweeting.” This sentiment was echoed by The New York Timesmuch maligned columnist Bret Stephens who remarked in his column: “I jumped at your abortion comment, but for heaven’s sake, it was a tweet.” 

    However, as Williamson himself explained in a September 2014 episode of his National Review podcast, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” he had no problem defending his view that he supported capital punishment for those who had an abortion and that what he “had in mind was hanging.” Notably, although Williamson did hedge saying that he was “kind of squishy on capital punishment in general” he was “absolutely willing to see abortion treated like regular homicide under the criminal code.”

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON (CO-HOST): And someone challenged me on my views on abortion, saying, “If you really thought it was a crime you would support things like life in prison, no parole, for treating it as a homicide.” And I do support that, in fact, as I wrote, what I had in mind was hanging.

    [...]

    WILLIAMSON: My broader point here is, of course, that I am a -- as you know I’m kind of squishy on capital punishment in general -- but that I’m absolutely willing to see abortion treated like a regular homicide under the criminal code, sure.

    Later in the same episode of the podcast, Williamson continued that when it came to punishment for those who had abortions, he “would totally go with treating it like any other crime up to and including hanging” -- going so far as to say that he had “a soft spot for hanging as a form of capital punishment” because “if the state is going to do violence, let’s make it violence. Let’s not pretend like we’re doing something else.”

    KEVIN WILLIAMSON (CO-HOST): But yeah, so when I was talking about, I would totally go with treating it like any other crime up to and including hanging -- which kind of, as I said, I’m kind of squishy about capital punishment in general, but I’ve got a soft spot for hanging as a form of capital punishment. I tend to think that things like lethal injection are a little too antiseptic --

    CHARLES C.W. COOKE (CO-HOST): Sure, if you’re going to do it.

    WILLIAMSON: -- quasi-medical -- yeah, if the state is going to do violence, let’s make it violence.

    COOKE: I absolutely agree.

    WILLIAMSON: Let’s not pretend like we’re doing something else.

    [...]

    WILLIAMSON: I think in some ways it’s worse than your typical murder. I mean, it’s absolutely premeditated --

    COOKE: It’s clinical.

    WILLIAMSON: --it’s clinical.

    COOKE: Literally.

    WILLIAMSON: Yes, it’s something that’s performed against the most vulnerable sort of people. And that’s the sort of thing we generally take into account in the sentencing of other murder cases. You know, murdering a four year old kid, is not the same as killing a 21-year-old guy.

  • The Guide To Donald Trump's War On The Press (So Far)

    ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

    Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has an extensive history of attacking the media, and his campaign and supporters have joined in the fight throughout the election. The nominee, his surrogates, and his supporters have called media outlets and reporters across the spectrum “dishonest,” “neurotic,” “dumb,” and a “waste of time,” and until recently, the campaign had a media blacklist of outlets that weren’t allowed into campaign events.

  • Media Widely Condemn Trump's “Mindblowing” Call For The Russian Government To Cyberattack Hillary Clinton

    ››› ››› BOBBY LEWIS

    Media figures are widely condemning Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s remarks in a July 27 press conference, in which he said he “hope[s]” that Russian hackers would “find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Media immediately castigated Trump’s “mindblowing” call for the Russian government to steal his opponent's email to help his bid for president.

  • Journalists And Foreign Policy Experts Call Out Trump's "Completely Uneducated" "Baffling" Foreign Policy

    ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY & CRISTIANO LIMA

    Journalists and foreign policy experts criticized the "unintelligble" foreign policy positions Donald Trump described during interviews with The New York Times and The Washington Post, and called the GOP presidential front-runner's "ignorance" "breathtaking," saying he has "no understanding of the post-war international order that was created by the United States."