The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kevin Williamson loses Atlantic job after controversy over abortion rhetoric

Jeffrey Goldberg, right, of the Atlantic magazine, is the latest editor to backtrack on a controversial hire. At left is the Watergate building at 600 New Hampshire Ave. NW, Washington, where Atlantic Media is headquartered. (Courtesy of CoStar; Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for The Association of Magazine Media)

The Atlantic magazine fired a controversial columnist on Thursday just a few days after hiring him, making him the latest journalist to take a quick trip through a revolving door after an outcry on social media.

The venerable magazine pushed out Kevin Williamson, whose hiring last week sparked an appalled reaction after some influential Twitter users learned that Williamson had once commented that women who have abortions should be treated as murderers, subject to the death penalty.

Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg initially stood by Williamson, a longtime columnist for the conservative National Review. Goldberg argued that Williamson’s antiabortion comment was made in an isolated tweet and that Williamson should be judged on the body of his work. Williamson wrote his first column for the Atlantic on Monday.

But Goldberg withdrew his support after the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America on Wednesday unearthed a 2014 National Review podcast. Williamson said on the podcast that he was “absolutely willing to see abortion treated like regular homicide under the criminal code,” and that what he “had in mind was hanging” for women who were convicted of it. He repeated the statement later in the podcast.

On Thursday, Goldberg reversed course and announced Williamson wouldn’t be writing for the Washington-based magazine any longer.

“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,” he wrote in a staff memo. “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.”

He added, “This is not about Kevin’s views on abortion. 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.’ We are also an organization that values a spirit of generosity and collegiality. We must strive to uphold that standard as well.”

Williamson could not be reached for comment.

His departure appeared to settle a debate that had flared up on social media about the limits of acceptable commentary, particularly his.

“I still believe Williamson never should have been hired, but I’m so glad that @TheAtlantic is now taking this seriously,” tweeted feminist writer Jessica Valenti on Thursday. “Most of all, I am very relieved for the women who work at the magazine.”

But Noah Rothman of the neoconservative Commentary magazine had a different view: “Kevin Williamson: hired for his talent, fired for his views. This is chilling,” he tweeted.

Williamson’s quick exit is reminiscent of an even quicker exit by Quinn Norton, a technology writer who was hired and fired as an editorial columnist by the New York Times over the course of six hours in February.

The Times announced Norton’s hiring on a Tuesday afternoon; by Tuesday evening, she was out, after criticism of Norton’s hiring erupted on Twitter. Some users dug up old tweets by Norton in which she used anti-gay slurs, retweeted a racial slur and talked about her friendship with a neo-Nazi Internet troll, Andrew Auernheimer.

In 2006, a conservative Washington Post blogger, Ben Domenech resigned after just three days on the job after liberal bloggers turned up several instances of plagiarism by him when he wrote for other publications. Domenech went on to become the founder and publisher of a conservative online journal, the Federalist.

Earlier this week, journalist Kurt Eichenwald acknowledged that he was no longer affiliated with Vanity Fair after conservatives criticized him for attacking a pro-gun rights survivor of the Parkland school massacre. When pundit Ben Shapiro called for a boycott of MSNBC and Vanity Fair — the two outlets Eichenwald had listed as employers on his Twitter bio — Eichenwald said his contract with the magazine had expired. MSNBC also said it had no affiliation with Eichenwald.