The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one of the largest newspapers in the Midwest, has dropped George Will's syndicated column, calling the conservative pundit's recent commentary on sexual assault “offensive and inaccurate” and apologizing for its publication.
In a June 7 column, Will disputed evidence that 1 in 5 women on U.S college campuses experience sexual assault, and claimed that efforts to fight what he called “the supposed campus epidemic of rape” have made victimhood a “coveted status.” The Post-Dispatch called Will's comments “offensive and inaccurate,” and in a June 18 editorial, it announced it would no longer publish Will's syndicated column:
The change has been under consideration for several months, but a column published June 5, in which Mr. Will suggested that sexual assault victims on college campuses enjoy a privileged status, made the decision easier. The column was offensive and inaccurate; we apologize for publishing it.
As Media Matters has reported, Will's column has drawn significant criticism from women's rights activists, writers, and several U.S. senators. Women's rights group UltraViolet launched a petition drive calling for Will's ouster from the Washington Post. National Organization for Women President Terry O'Neill agreed, saying "The Washington Post needs to take a break from his column, they need to dump him," adding that columns like Will's are “actively harmful for the victims of sexual assault.”
As the backlash against Will's claims began to heat up, the Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt defended Will in a statement to Media Matters, saying his comments were “well within the bounds of legitimate debate”:
George Will's column was well within the bounds of legitimate debate. I welcomed his contribution, as I welcome the discussion it sparked and the responses, some of which we will be publishing on our pages and website. This is what a good opinion site should do. Rather than urge me to silence a viewpoint they disagree with, I would urge others also to join the debate, and to do so without mischaracterizing the original column.
The Post-Dispatch noted that the move to drop Will's column had “been under consideration for several months,” but Will's column on sexual assault “made the decision easier.” This isn't surprising, given that Will's contributions to public debate have a problematic history of denying facts. According to Discover Magazine, Will has helped to “muddle our collective scientific literacy” by grossly distorting climate data -- a trend that the Los Angeles Times has similarly dubbed “mystifying.” Will has also misrepresented the effects of the Voting Rights Act to claim that it has given “a few government-approved minorities ... an entitlement to public offices” and has come under fire for claiming that President Obama owed his success in the 2012 presidential election to his race.
UPDATE: Washington Post reporter Erik Wemple interviewed Post-Dispatch editorial page editor Tony Messenger, who said he made the decision after seeing “the reaction and intensity of the hurt” of readers and people on social media to Will's column. From Wemple's article:
In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Messenger said that the apology was the first note of contrition that the paper had passed along to its readers. The two-week lag, says Messenger, gave him space to assess the column: “Sometimes thoughtful analysis takes some time,” says Messenger. “Seeing the reaction and intensity of the hurt in some of social media and the reaction of women I know and talking to people who really were offended by the thought that sexual assault victims would seek some special victimhood -- it helped seeing that response and it informed my opinion.”
Negative backlash to the Will column came from readers in the St. Louis area, as well as from national sites and commentators. “Women readers in particular -- many of them were offended,” says Messenger.