The Atlantic vs Kevin D. Williamson: Media for the Win?

So, The Atlantic fired conservative writer Kevin D. Williamson this week. Many criticized Editor Jeffrey Goldberg when he hired Williamson last month because of his anti-abortion views – views he expressed clearly in a 2014 Twitter exchange where he likened abortion to any other premeditated homicide deserving of a similar punishment up to and including hanging – but the Atlantic editor defended his choice citing a desire for ideological diversity.

The New York Times reported that in a staff memo dated Thursday, Goldberg said he remained committed to maintaining ideological diversity among his stable of opinion writers.

“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.”

Here here. I’m not on the hitch ‘em high wagon hollering, why did you hire Williamson in the first place? While I might not have made the same editorial choice in this particular case – before my devil’s advocate journalist response kicks in, I tend to believe tweets; knee jerk reactions are often accurate representations of someone’s unconscious beliefs – I do support Goldberg’s defense of his actions that you can’t judge someone by one tweet or even a series of tweets that are years old.

It may not be common, but views do change. People grow up, or they grow period. However, after a podcast emerged where Williamson expounded on his views, Goldberg probably realized that his new hire had told him what he wanted to hear convincingly enough that the editor felt comfortable taking a risk to bring on what he believed to be a prolific and gifted writer.

“The tweet was not merely an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post, as Kevin had explained it,” Mr. Goldberg wrote. “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.”

Boom. I can’t speak with any certainty on his motivations, but Goldberg may have identified a hole in The Atlantic’s coverage that he hoped Williamson would fill. It makes sense, since he clearly positions the decision to fire Williamson as an editorial one when he references the publication’s values. Beyond that, this is nothing more than a leader making a bad hire. I’ve been there.

When I was an editor I made a huge hiring mistake. Looking back, I don’t believe I would have done anything different either. I thoroughly vetted her credentials. I called her references, I carefully reviewed her writing samples, I weighed her against our roster of top candidates, and I had my team take part in the interview process. Further, I did not ever explicitly say, I want this person on our staff. In fact, I made the deliberate choice not to advocate for her because I didn’t want to unduly influence my team. I wanted them to make the choice.

But I did want to hire her because I wanted her in particular to have a chance. Ultimately, I lived to regret it. She turned out to be the worst direct report I’ve ever had. But that wasn’t because she was stupid or without talent. And I say that because nothing I’ve read stated that Williamson was a bad writer. Goldberg obviously saw something promising in the man. Perhaps it was that even though he is conservative, he has been openly critical of the President. The suggests a diverse palette even though he leans toward one ideology.

But this was about something more. This is about an organization standing for something, and rectifying a mistake to ensure that its readership – a readership it values – understands that its core values have not changed.

Don’t get me wrong. Pleasing readers is critically important; it does not, however, have to overrun the need for innovation, non-bipartisan dialogue, alternative viewpoints or whatever you want to call something new, different or potentially painful. You can’t cater excessively. That’s death to good media. That’s advertorial.

Let’s not forget it was the need for new and different, for a more well-rounded basket of opinions, that led Goldberg to hire Williamson in the first place. But there are certain lines that shouldn’t be crossed – like suggesting that a woman should hang for having an abortion – even in a liberal publication.

Goldberg openly said that he made a mistake, which I respect. I understand why he made his choice, and I support his desire to take a risk, even if ultimately things didn’t work out as planned. It’s only politics and The Atlantic’s respected and highbrow position in the editorial landscape that have turned this into a thing in the media. The NYT was on point when it said that this situation falls “squarely into a burgeoning culture war over free speech, gender issues and questions about which views deserve a megaphone as prominent as The Atlantic.”

That’s what’s really interesting about this situation, the public’s response and their possible impact on Goldberg’s decision to let Williamson go. The media can make all the risky calls it wants to about coverage, but ultimately it is the public that calls the shots. I am a member of the media, but I’m also a reader, and readers have considerable influence.

Of course, conservatives are squawking all over Twitter about The Atlantic’s decision, claiming liberals and progressives are criminal in their desire not to debate ideas. “I’m not surprised by the Williamson – Atlantic bust-up. Progressives are authoritarians. Authoritarians do not debate ideas, they do not entertain different views because doing so means they must show tolerance of different thought, which their pride prevents.” @DLoesch

Or, “The Atlantic’s firing of Kevin Williamson is a disgusting and shameful cave to the pressure of fanatics who seek to live in silos that contain no views counter to their own. This only furthers the partisan divide and is to the detriment of all.” @evansiegfried

Yeah, maybe. But I wonder, are these two GOP-friendly tweeters – out of a plethora of similar sentiments littering the Internet – more upset that one of their own was ousted from a position of influence, or that there’s some conversation kicking off related to abortion and free speech? I suppose one never knows…

At the end of the day, the media outlets we respect will take risks. They will also make mistakes because that’s the only way you can try new things, refine them, and use them to enhance your media coverage. Discourse is a complicated thing, and we must have it. Further, you need diverse views. But we, as readers or as magazines, must also understand what we stand for. If you, the reader/viewer/content consumer decide that you don’t like what an organization/media outlet stands for, then thank the Internet, freedom of speech, and a million streaming and cable channels that you have many, many options to redirect your attention to.

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