The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Atlantic made Rahm Emanuel a contributing editor. Then, suddenly, he wasn’t.

Rahm Emanuel sits for an interview with The Washington Post in his office at City Hall in Chicago on April 24, 2019. (Youngrae Kim/For The Washington Post)
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Last May, the Atlantic announced that Rahm Emanuel, who’d just left his post as Chicago mayor, would be joining the magazine as a contributing editor. “The Atlantic will be the primary home for Emanuel’s writing, with the former mayor contributing frequent essays to The Atlantic’s Ideas section,” read the announcement on Emanuel’s accession. He had already written for the magazine while serving as mayor, opining on such topics as beating Trump and education reform.

Then his archive runs dry. His last piece for the Atlantic is the one that kicked off his contributing editorship: “It’s Time to Hold American Elites Accountable for Their Abuses,” in which he points to the importance and righteousness of middle-class anger over elites skating away from consequences.

What happened?

A strongly worded letter happened, that’s what. A group of black staffers at the Atlantic sent objections to Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg and other Atlantic leaders. The letter made clear that the staffers’ objections were in no way partisan, nor were they lodging a wider complaint about the organization’s leadership. “Rather, the unique circumstances of Mr. Emanuel’s conduct and hiring demand a response,” it read.

Those unique circumstances relate to Emanuel’s handling of the murder of black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by white Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke on Oct. 20, 2014. Just after the shooting, Chicago police described a scene of menace: “An officer shot him in the chest when the teen didn’t drop the knife and continued to walk toward officers, police said,” read a breaking-news account from a Chicago TV station.

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A different story — the truth, that is — would eventually emerge, but only after a fight. It was a “cover-up,” in the words of Columbia University professor Bernard E. Harcourt, who in a 2015 New York Times op-ed blasted Chicago leaders for blocking from public examination the incriminating cruiser dashboard footage of the McDonald killing, among other acts of suppression. A settlement with McDonald’s family included a clause to keep the video under wraps. It took a ruling by a Cook County judge to force the video’s release. Van Dyke would later be convicted of second-degree murder.

In a December 2015 address to the Chicago city council, Emanuel apologized. “I am the mayor. As I said the other day, I own it,” he said. “I take responsibility for what happened because it happened on my watch. … If we are going to fix it I want you to understand it’s my responsibility.”

The letter from Atlantic staffers took issue with Emanuel’s mea culpa: “This passive language obscures the extent of Mr. Emanuel’s responsibility for what occurred. It did not simply ‘happen on his watch;’ as mayor, he consciously used his authority to prevent the public from knowing what occurred.” More from the staffers:

The proper bounds of free inquiry and racial justice are subjects of constant contention in a free society, and we do not hope to settle those questions here. What is plainly true is that Mr. Emanuel used the conditions of a financial settlement with a grieving family to cover up the details of murder of a black teenager by a white police officer. Mr. Emanuel’s conduct defiles both principles beyond recognition and is the kind of behavior that news organizations of any ideological stripe expose rather than reward.

The staffers weren’t attempting to smother any freelance contributions from Emanuel, but rather to secure his removal from the masthead. “The status of contributing editor is conferred with the honor accrued by an august institution such as this one, and, to the public, it is not distinguishable from staff positions,” the letter read. “The Atlantic’s own description of its 162-year history states that ‘honest reporting and analysis, and the integrity they represent, are what matter most to us.’ The Atlantic can either uphold this standard or it can hire Mr. Emanuel, a former government official who used his power and authority to bury evidence of the murder of a teenager by a police officer. It cannot do both.”

The letter reads a bit like the Atlantic’s powerful pieces of recent years on race. Former Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2014 wrote the national-brain-stretching “The Case for Reparations.” Jemele Hill has blanketed the fertile ground where race and sports hang out.Vann R. Newkirk III has covered voter suppression and the theft of land from black farmers. Adam Serwer has penned perhaps the most devastating portrait of Trump as white nationalist.

Working swiftly on the logic before him, Goldberg ended the contributing editor arrangement, according to sources. Along the way, the Atlantic ended the prestige farm that was the “contributing editor” entry on the masthead, which last May featured the following names: Marc Ambinder, Peter Beinart, Ian Bogost, Kate Bolick, Bianca Bosker, Mark Bowden, David Brooks, Eliot A. Cohen, Michelle Cottle, John Dickerson, Ross Douthat, Gregg Easterbrook, Garrett Epps, Caitlin Flanagan, David H. Freedman, Lori Gottlieb, Rosie Gray, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Shadi Hamid, Robert D. Kaplan, Mary Louise Kelly, Ibram X. Kendi, Toby Lester, Charles C. Mann, Moisés Naím, Jonathan Rauch, Jeffrey Rosen, Hanna Rosin, Reihan Salam, Kori Schake, Eric Schlosser, Jeffrey Selingo, Burt Solomon, James Somers, Alison Stewart, Sage Stossel, Jeffrey Tayler, Matt Thompson, Dominic Tierney, Chuck Todd, Jerry Useem, Robert Vare, Alex Wagner, Emily Yoffe, Ben Zimmer.

Those dozens of contributing editors were doing an uneven amount of contributing and no editing to speak of. They weren’t on the payroll, nor was Emanuel. (Padding the masthead with big names who do little for the publication is an old trick in the magazine business, one expressed quite ably by the Washington Monthly.) So Goldberg & Co. changed the entry to a smaller list of “contributing writers.”

In a statement, Goldberg said:

Last spring, several of our colleagues came to us with concerns about this appointment. We met and discussed their concerns, and I thought that a number of their arguments were persuasive. This conversation quickly led us to a broader discussion about the confusing masthead category of “contributing editor" — who qualifies for the title, what it actually means, and whether the title (which is unsalaried) should even exist. In September, we replaced that title across the board with “contributing writer," to more accurately convey to readers the nature of the role, and we decided to examine carefully to whom we were granting that title. One of the persuasive arguments I heard concerned the appropriateness of granting masthead titles to former elected officials. I agreed with my colleagues that this is something we should rarely, if ever, do.
I’m glad that, from the outset, our colleagues recognized that The Atlantic is meant to be a big tent for ideas and opinion, and that the issue was not whether Rahm Emanuel or other former and current elected officials should have their work considered for publication, but whether they should be granted titles on the masthead. Emanuel remains free to pitch us ideas for publication like any non-staff contributor.

Following his departure from office, Emanuel had no trouble finding journalistic homes. It was just days after his last day as mayor that ABC News and the Atlantic announced arrangements with him. In addition to his time as Chicago mayor, Emanuel served in the House and as an aide in the Obama and Clinton White Houses. His work as Chicago mayor, however, drove criticism of his accession to the world of punditry:

Discussion of Emanuel’s suitability for the Atlantic masthead tilts at a broader issue in journalism. The news has become inseparable from former politicos opining on it, especially on television: Take your pick of Joe Scarborough (former congressman, now MSNBC morning host and Post contributor), Jason Chaffetz (former congressman, now Fox News contributor), Paul Begala (former Clinton aide, longtime CNN voice), John Dean (former Nixon White House counsel, now CNN contributor), Jen Psaki (former Obama aide, now CNN contributor), Jennifer Granholm (former Michigan governor, now CNN contributor) or tens — hundreds? — of other folks who’ve either made the jump or continue straddling the fence between politics and commentating. Roles can blur in unproductive and scandalous ways, as when it emerged that longtime Democratic operative/CNN contributor Donna Brazile had shared debate/town hall questions with the Hillary Clinton campaign. (She’s now with Fox News.)

Two considerations account for this trend: First, TV news has expanded from a nightly 15-minute affair in the early 1960s to a 24-hour grind-a-thon with the rise of cable. Second, news outlets discovered that partisan debates translate into good ratings.

The drawbacks are too heavy for a flatbed truck: Investigative reporting gets crowded out, facts get shrouded by partisan talking points and real journalists have to share quarters with the people they’re charged with covering. If only journalists at more news organizations had the success of the Atlantic staffers in resisting this trend.

As a matter of disclosure: Following Emanuel’s flirtation with the Atlantic masthead, he has done some freelance opinion columns for The Post, including a Wednesday piece on the politics of impeachment. Wesley Lowery, a reporter on the news side, raised concerns last July with Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt about allowing Emanuel a platform in The Post’s pages. “I appreciated Wes coming to me, and I take his concerns seriously,” notes Hiatt in an email. “I also think that our readers have benefited and will continue to benefit from Emanuel’s political and policy insights, informed by his years in Congress, the White House, and beyond.”

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