Those words, writes Messenger, “made the decision easier” to dump Will in favor of Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who grew up in the Post-Dispatch’s back yard. “We believe that Mr. Gerson’s commitment to ‘compassionate conservatism’ and his roots in St. Louis will better connect with our readers, regardless of their political bent,” notes Messenger.
Notification of the switch came with something of a retraction regarding Will’s sexual-assault piece: “The column was offensive and inaccurate; we apologize for publishing it.”
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. For a period of months, says Messenger, he and his colleagues had reached the conclusion that Will had “lost a little bit of speed on his fastball” and the sexual-assault piece expedited the yanking of the columnist. Messenger laments that his unit “fell asleep at the switch a little bit in terms of not paying enough attention” to the Will column. “We don’t edit our syndicated columns but we do maintain the right to express editorial judgment in terms of deciding whether or not to publish something that we got from a syndicated columnist,” says Messenger. “Part of it is just the reality of the news business these days. Nothing gets as much of a look as it used to. That’s our reality and we have to live with that. That’s why it was important to include ‘We apologize’ in that note because we didn’t want readers to think that we were shirking our responsibility.”
So how many readers have called with those classic, rambling, vague threats to cancel their subscriptions over the cancellation of George Will? Three voicemails, says Messenger, who suggests he got that same rigmarole a while back, when he bumped Charles Krauthammer from the Sunday lineup in favor of Will. “I actually had conservatives tell me I was only doing that because Will wasn’t as clear a conservative as Krauthammer was. What they can do is threaten to cancel and what I can do is explain my reasoning and thank them for their business.”