When Atlantic Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg in March introduced writer Kevin Williamson via memo, he noted that the National Review veteran was “incredibly prolific.” As it turns out, a bit too incredibly prolific, by a tweet and a random offensive comment or two.
“I have come to the conclusion that The Atlantic is not the best fit for his talents, and so we are parting ways,” wrote Goldberg in a Thursday memo.
That was brief. The last time that a high-profile national publication bailed so quickly on a supposedly provocative writer was, well, just a couple of months ago: The New York Times in February hired-then-fired journalist Quinn Norton in part over controversial tweets that it had failed to properly vet. “Despite our review of Quinn Norton’s work and our conversations with her previous employers, this was new information to us. Based on it, we’ve decided to go our separate ways.”
So, did the Atlantic just fail to vet Williamson? That’s a complicated question. In introducing the hire — who was to feed the Atlantic’s new ideas section, along with Ibram X. Kendi, Annie Lowrey and Alex Wagner — Goldberg appeared to be almost apologizing for his personnel action, with disclaimers like this one:
I was also aware of Kevin’s judgmental, acerbic, polemical style, and when we started talking about writing possibilities at The Atlantic, I raised my concerns about the trollish qualities of some of his writing and tweeting. A couple of months ago, in one of our conversations, I mentioned some of his more controversial tweets, and in the course of that conversation, he himself came to the conclusion that Twitter was a bad place for him to be, and he spiked his account. I took this to be a positive development and a sign of growth.
And this one:
I don’t think anyone should try to defend Kevin’s most horrible tweet. I expect that Kevin will explain this tweet himself when he gets here. He will also have the opportunity to explain other controversial aspects of his writing. But I don’t think that taking a person’s worst tweets, or assertions, in isolation is the best journalistic practice.
And this one:
It is my mission to make sure that we outdo our industry in achieving gender equality and racial diversity. It is also my job … to make sure that we are ideologically diverse. … If we are going to host debates, we have to host people who actually disagree with, and sometimes offend, the other side. Kevin will help this cause.
That “most horrible tweet” is a patent reference to the time in 2014 that Williamson endorsed “hanging” on Twitter for women who get abortions. It’s apparent that Goldberg hired Williamson with the understanding that such an endorsement wasn’t a core conviction of the writer. “Late yesterday afternoon, information came to our attention that has caused us to reconsider this relationship,” wrote Goldberg in his Thursday note. “Specifically, the subject of one of Kevin’s most controversial tweets was also a centerpiece of a podcast discussion in which Kevin explained his views on the subject of the death penalty and abortion. The language he used in this podcast—and in my conversations with him in recent days—made it clear that the original tweet did, in fact, represent his carefully considered views. The tweet was not merely an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post, as Kevin had explained it. Furthermore, the language used in the podcast was callous and violent. This runs contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace.”
That “information” is an apparent reference to this post from Media Matters for America, which excavated a 2014 podcast — titled “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” — at the National Review in which Williamson said that he “would totally go with treating it like any other crime up to and including hanging.”
To follow Williamson’s logic, abortion is murder; capital murder is punishable by death — even though Williamson himself said that he’s “squishy about capital punishment in general” — and hanging is one way of putting away capital offenders. Credit Williamson for refraining from soft pedaling his views. The advocacy of hanging may clarify what’s at stake when it comes to Roe v. Wade.
But hold on here: Goldberg’s hiring of Williamson appears predicated on the notion that the “hanging” comment was an “impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post.” That’s a common misperception about tweets — that when they’re written in haste, they don’t represent the real thoughts of the Twitter user. Perhaps the opposite is true — that the medium is something of a truth serum that extracts genuine feelings and opinions. In any case, Goldberg suggests that he was misled about the matter: “The tweet was not merely an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post, as Kevin had explained it.”
Asked about what qualifies as an Atlantic-admissible view, a spokesperson for the company responded, “This isn’t about individual views, as Jeff explains in the statement. The issue is not what is believed but what was said and how it was said. As Jeff writes in his memo to staff, he is open to all views, including those he and others disagree with. He addresses this when he writes: ‘We are striving here to be a big-tent journalism organization at a time of national fracturing. We will continue to build a newsroom that is, as The Atlantic’s founding manifesto states, ‘of no party or clique.'”
The invocation of “clique” is particularly appropriate in 2018, as the Atlantic and other big-tent outlets have struggled with the conservative side of their writerly ledger. The landscape is fractured. Williamson, for example, is a Trump critic who has penned some powerful accountability stuff on his brethren. For example: “Trump and his apologists have failed to learn the sad lesson of Hillary Rodham Clinton: When people have come to assume that every other word out of your mouth is a lie, it becomes very difficult to tell the truth effectively. If Mrs. Clinton had had a good and true explanation for her email shenanigans, no one would have believed her. If Trump has a genuine ‘win’ to talk about, all thinking adults will treat his claims with skepticism. Even his allies and members of his staff know better than to take him at his word,” he wrote in February.
“That’s a problem for the president in particular, but it also is a problem for the conservative movement, which has become infected with Trump’s dishonesty.”
Exactly right: That’s why outlets such as CNN and others have struggled with pro-Trump voices. Anyone remember the arguments of Jeffrey Lord, the tremendously civil and affable Trumpite who compiled a cable-news world record for short-circuiting panel discussions with wacky and abstruse historical references? So what happens when you learn more about your Never Trumper’s commitment to hangings?
Apparently this: You bail quickly and pledge to do better next time. “In light of this week’s events, we’ll obviously take even greater care in reviewing the work — articles, videos, interviews, social posts, podcasts – of the journalists we consider to join our staff,” says an Atlantic spokesperson. Good luck! Social media is aging — with both Facebook and Twitter dating to the last decade. With each passing year, mid-career journalists like Williamson compile more and more material connected to their bylines. There’s a lot to rummage through. As for that “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” podcast? There are about 200 episodes on the National Review’s website.
Expect more journo-vetting debacles down the pike.
Asked whether the Williamson decision was driven by Goldberg’s apparent feeling that he was misled, an Atlantic spokesperson replied that Goldberg’s statement speaks for itself.