Misinformer Of The Year: George Will

George Will, a cartoon by Rob Tornoe

"[W]hen they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate." 

This single phrase has followed George Will for the last six months. The syndicated conservative columnist, considered by many a thoughtful intellectual rather than a bomb-thrower, severely damaged his brand when he wrote a June 2014 column dismissing efforts on college campuses to combat the epidemic of sexual assault and suggesting that women who say they were raped receive “privileges.” The column has sparked hundreds to protest his public appearances, challenges from U.S. Senators and women's rights groups, and the dropping of his column from a major newspaper. 

Will's 2014 misinformation was not limited to attacking and dismissing rape victims. Throughout the year, Will failed to disclose several major conflicts of interest in his columns, and his tangled relationship with political entities backed by Charles and David Koch was cited by the outgoing ethics chair of the Society of Professional Journalists as the kind of conflict journalists should disclose in their writing. His history as a prominent denier of climate change also helped further undermine his credibility, with more than 100,000 people signing a petition demanding the Washington Post stop printing the science misinformation he and others regularly push in its pages.

Will has written a column for the Post since 1974, which is syndicated in over 450 papers. He started his career as a Republican Senate staff member and speech writer before moving into the ranks of the conservative press, contributing to The American Spectator and working as the Washington editor for the National Review for a time. He has become a fixture in the right-wing think tank infrastructure, serving as a board member of the Bradley Foundation, which funds conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Federalist Society. But Will was always careful to keep one foot in the mainstream -- in addition to his Post column, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977, he served as an ABC News commentator for three decades and was even a featured interview in several Ken Burns documentaries.

Yet late last year, he left ABC to join Fox News as a political contributor, cementing his increasingly conservative and counterfactual tendencies. Some of his politics -- such as his longstanding climate change denial -- seemed to fit in at the network. But at the time, Media Matters wondered if an association with Fox's more angry and crude fare would ruin the brand of the staid conservative pontificator, shifting his erudite elitism towards the hard-edged style of misinformation for which Fox is better known. Will's accomplishments in 2014 revealed our suspicions were well-founded.

Media Matters isn't the only organization to recognize the damage Will's commentary did to the discourse this year. When PolitiFact awarded its 2014 Lie of Year to “exaggerations about Ebola,” they cited Will as a prime example. Will used his Fox News platform to spread lies about the disease, falsely claiming that it could be “spread through the air.” As PolitiFact noted:

Will's claim that Ebola could spread through the air via a cough or sneeze shows how solid science got misconstrued. The conservative commentator suggested a thought shift about how the virus could spread. In reality, Will simply misunderstood scientists' consistent, albeit technical explanation.

Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood, vomit and diarrhea. Coughing and sneezing are not symptoms.

Will has a long history of pushing misinformation, but it finally caught up with him in 2014, tarnishing the reputation as a public intellectual he had spent decades cultivating. He started the year one of the most respected members of the conservative media elite, and ended it with hundreds protesting his speeches. For this reason, Media Matters recognizes George Will as the 2014 Misinformer of the Year.

Past recipients include CBS News (2013), Rush Limbaugh (2012), Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. (2011), Sarah Palin (2010), Glenn Beck (2009), Sean Hannity (2008), ABC (2006), Chris Matthews (2005), and Bill O'Reilly (2004).

Attacking Sexual Assault Victims

Will Dropped By St. Louis Newspaper

No Will commentary had a bigger effect on his reputation than his June 2014 column, which dismissed “the supposed campus epidemic of rape, aka 'sexual assault,'” argued that the definition of assault was too broad because it could include “nonconsensual touching,” and included his now-infamous line implying that individuals were pretending to be assault victims because efforts to combat the problem have made victimhood a “coveted status that confers privileges.”

The backlash was swift. Just a few days later, four U.S. Senators -- Richard Blumenthal, Dianne Feinstein, Tammy Baldwin, and Robert P. Casey, Jr. -- condemned Will's comments for “trivializing” sexual assault. A twitter campaign under the hashtag #survivorprivilege, started by writer and activist Wagatwe Wanjuki, trended online and sparked increased media coverage. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one of the largest papers in the Midwest, dropped Will's syndication permanently, calling his column “offensive and inaccurate” and apologizing for publishing it. Groups that advocate for women's rights, including UltraViolet and the National Organization for Women, urged the Post to drop Will entirely.

Rather than reconsider his position in light of the mounting criticism, Will doubled down. He refused to apologize, explicitly saying he wouldn't take any of his words back, and responded to the senators by claiming he takes “sexual assault much more seriously” than they do. 

In the column, Will had used the story of a young woman from Swarthmore College who told Philadelphia magazine about her rape. Despite the fact that she explicitly did not consent, Will implied he didn't believe her experience qualified as an actual incident of assault. The woman's name was Lisa Sendrow, and as the criticism against Will grew, she decided to speak out. In an interview with Media Matters, she blasted the conservative columnist.

“I absolutely have not received any privileges from sexual assault,” she said. “He has clearly never experienced the fear of sexual assault. He clearly has no idea how hard it is to sleep, to walk around, thinking at any moment this person that you live down the hall from could come out.” Sendrow told Media Matters that she received death threats and was diagnosed with PTSD following her assault and the media coverage of her, and found Will's dismissing rhetoric harmful. “You can't really heal if people are telling you that it's your fault,” she said, “But that's what Will did.”

Assessing the backlash against Will for this column, Post media blogger Erik Wemple noted that only men were involved in editing and vetting Will's column prior to publication.

Will's refusal to back down reflected just how seriously he takes this dismissive position towards many people who say they have been raped. 2014, after all, was not the first time he had written on the subject, though it was perhaps the most extreme example. Over two decades ago, in 1993, Will mocked what he termed the “victimization sweepstakes” which featured “rape crisis feminists.”

In 1994, Will declared that a study of campus sexual assault was nothing more than a “feminist fiction.” In fact, the past twenty years have featured Will mocking everything from “battered woman syndrome” (which he claimed reinforces images of women as “frail” and “easily unhinged”) to the concept of hostile work environments and “yes means yes” consent.

The criticism against Will continued to build throughout the year. In October, Will was uninvited from a speaking engagement at Scripps College, after the school's president said Will had “trivialized” sexual assault cases, including one “that reflects similar experiences reported by Scripps students.” The next month, hundreds showed up to protest a speech Will gave at Miami University in Ohio.

Students protesting a George Will Speech at Miami University

And just this past week, students and faculty protested Will's commencement address at Michigan State University, with some holding an alternate commencement ceremony and others turning their backs to Will as he spoke. Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow criticized the school's decision to host Will and give him an honorary doctorate, while both undergraduate and graduate student government associations passed resolutions denouncing Will's involvement in their graduation ceremonies.

During the Miami University protests, Will was reportedly asked by a student who identified herself as a victim of sexual assault whether he felt it was “worth it” for her to have received treatment for her trauma. He reportedly said it was, but only for “real victims of real sexual assaults.”

This captures what appears to be the crux of Will's argument: that there are real rape victims, and fake ones -- women whose stories he doesn't believe are bad enough to qualify under his own definition of the term, but who reap (unidentified) benefits by pretending to be victimized. Will believes he is qualified to determine what is and is not “real sexual assault.”

When Republican Todd Akin was condemned for saying that victims of “legitimate rape” could prevent pregnancy, the Post editorial board wrote that “To suggest there are different categories of rape -- some real and awful and others that are not -- is loathsome.”

But when Will's sexual assault column was first published in June, The Washington Post stood by the long-time columnist. Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt told Media Matters he thought the column was “well within the bounds of legitimate debate.” 

Ethical Lapses

George Will at Americans for Prosperity

When the Society of Professional Journalists announced this September that it was overhauling its Code of Ethics for the first time in 18 years, outgoing SPJ ethics chair Kevin Smith cited Will as one of the “most noted examples” of disclosure failures by journalists in 2014.

Will's work with GOP candidates and right-wing money groups has long made disclosing his myriad conflicts-of-interest an issue. Back during the 1980 presidential campaign, for example, Will came under fire when it was discovered that “he'd secretly coached Republican candidate Ronald Reagan for a debate,” and then immediately after Reagan's face-off with President Jimmy Carter appeared on ABC's Nightline to praise the Republican's debate performance, without disclosing his role advising the candidate. Will himself admitted in 2005 that his participation in Reagan's debate preparation was “inappropriate,” but the revelation did not appear to end Will's questionable behavior.

Will continued to cross ethical lines with his media commentary for years, and 2014 was no different.  

This summer, Will reportedly appeared as part of an “exclusive group of major donors and VIPs” at a summit for the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity (AFP). He had previously spoken at the gathering in 2008 and was honored in 2010 with the group's “George Washington Award.”

Without disclosing his connections to AFP, Will routinely used his column throughout the year to promote Koch-favored candidates and issues, including North CarolinaSenator-elect Thom Tillis, unsuccessful Michigan senate candidate Terry Lynn Land, and Illinois Governor-elect Bruce Rauner.

Despite Will's regular promotion of Koch-backed candidates, Will, AFP, and his syndicator all refused to tell Media Matters whether he had been paid for his appearance (or compensated for travel and lodging) at the 2014 AFP conference.

Apparently ignoring the criticism from the SPJ and others, Will forged ahead with using his Post platform to help Koch-backed candidates. Weeks after appearing at the AFP conference, Will penned a column praising the “ebullient” Joni Ernst (and attacking her then-opponent, Bruce Braley). Though AFP had spent millions supporting Ernst, Will did not disclose his connection to the group.

Will's 2014 ethical lapses weren't limited to his undisclosed connections to AFP. In late July, Will gave the keynote address at lobbying group National Retail Federation's Retail Advocates Summit. A few weeks later, Will published a column lamenting the “distracting crusade against the minor and sensible business practice called 'inversion,'” adding that a “sensible corporate tax rate would be zero.” The NRF summit listed “lower business tax rates” as one of its “key issues,” and the group had previously pointed to inversions as evidence the U.S. needs to reform its tax policy.

Earlier this month, Will's Washington Post colleague Erik Wemple called him out for another “out-and-out conflict of interest.” As Wemple explained, Will had written a November column promoting the efforts of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) to fight against increased oversight of the state's private voucher schools. Unmentioned by Will in the column was the fact that Will sits on the board of directors for Wisconsins' Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which had granted major money to WILL in recent years.

Will defended the omission to Wemple, claiming, “I see no reason -- no service to readers -- to disclose my several degrees of separation from the program: My tenuous connection has no bearing on what I think about what they do. There comes a point when disclosure of this and that becomes clutter, leaving readers to wonder what the disclosed information has to do with anything.”

Climate Change Denial

George Will

To round out his 2014 misinformation campaign, Will returned to one of his most infamous topics: climate change denial.

Will has long denied that climate change is a real, manmade problem that has drastic consequences. But in 2014, he took this doubt further, disputing that scientific consensus even exists on the matter. When told that 97 percent of scientists who have studied the topic agree that warming trends are influenced by humans, he demanded to know “who counted” the scientists. “Who measured?” he asked Fox News' Bret Baier. “Where did that figure come from? They pluck these things from the ether.”

NASA's website offers several studies and scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences, to confirm the scientific consensus on climate change. Several peer-reviewed studies examining scientific publications on global warming have found that approximately 97 percent of academic papers taking a position on the matter supported the consensus position that human activities are driving global warming.

Will's clumsy and misleading approach to scientific facts over the years also helped spark a petition in 2014, signed by more than 100,000 people, urging the Post to banish climate misinformation from its pages. 

Their concerns were well-founded; a review of Will's contributions on the topic over the years reveals gross distortions of data and scientific literature. For instance, back in 2009, Will cited the Arctic Climate Research Center to claim that global sea ice levels hadn't changed for thirty years. The Center responded, noting that they had in fact found the exact opposite -- sea ice levels were shrinking. “We do not know where George Will is getting his information,” they wrote, adding, "[i]t is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts."

Later that same year, Will claimed that data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) revealed the world was cooling, not warming. Then-WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud wrote that this was "a misrepresentation of the data and of scientific knowledge." Instead, Jarraud explained the data showed the “unequivocal” fact that global warming existed, and was accelerating.

And a few years later, Will claimed that there was scientific consensus around so-called “global cooling” back in the seventies. Once again, scientists disagreed. A peer-reviewed study by the American Meteorological Association debunked this “pervasive myth,” explaining that “In fact, emphasis on greenhouse warming dominated the scientific literature even then.”

Unlike Will, the Post's editorial board recognizes that climate change is “an existential threat to the planet,” and this year devoted a full week to publishing a series of climate change editorials aimed at sparking action against this threat. In an interview with Media Matters, Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said he viewed this as a moment “when the debate could begin to get unstuck.” If that is the Post's goal, they may need to look at the role their columnist plays in keeping the debate stuck squarely in the past.

“Robust Debate”

George Will

It seems that no matter how many times senators, scientists, experts, activists, and others call out Will's misinformation, Editorial Page Editor Hiatt and the Post respond with the same defense.

Back in 2009, when Will's discredited sea-ice column made headlines, Hiatt claimed Will was simply making “inferences which you disagree with” and suggested others “Debate him” rather than silence him. This year, when thousands asked the Post to stop publishing climate change denial, Hiatt again argued that Will and the other writers in its pages pushing this misinformation were merely contributing to a “robust debate.” And when Will was criticized for his sexual assault column claiming victims enjoy a “coveted status,” Hiatt again defended the column as falling “within the bounds of legitimate debate.”

But this longstanding claim that Will is merely contributing to a “debate” is increasingly false. As the Post's ombudsman pointed out all the way back in 2009, in response to criticism of Will's shoddy sea-ice column, opinion writers are free to choose facts to help them bolster an argument, but they “aren't free to distort” those facts. This is precisely what Will has done, repeatedly, for years. Whether it's survivors who come forward with their personal life experiences, or scientists defending their research, Will distorts, disputes, and dismisses reality in favor of the only authority he believes: himself.

Ben Dimiero contributed research.

Image of Miami University protest courtesy of the Facebook page of the school's Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program.