Just two weeks after hiring conservative pundit Kevin Williamson, The Atlantic announced it was firing him. Editor Jeffrey Goldberg cited his repeated assertions that women who abort their fetuses should be held responsible for murder and hanged as the primary reason.
Williamson came under fire largely due to a single tweet and podcast appearance in 2014 where he expressed these views. At first, Goldberg let him off the hook because he believed Williamson’s stance was isolated, but he later addressed a pattern he saw that went against The Atlantic’s values.
“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,” Goldberg emailed to his staff.
Williamson has not publicly responded and has since taken down his Twitter account. Nevertheless, the media had a field day in determining how to cover his dismissal.
Kirsten Powers at USA Today felt that his firing was just. But, her opinion stretched beyond the bounds of his controversial views. Powers expressed her belief that Williamson couldn’t completely consider himself “pro-life” if he felt it was proper to hang women that abort their pregnancies.
Most of the reactions, though, were disparaging toward how The Atlantic handled the situation. At The Daily Beast, Erin Gloria Ryan penned an opinion piece on how the responsibility lies more on The Atlantic for hiring him than Williamson for his views.
“It’s not completely Williamson’s fault,” Ryan said. “From the moment Williamson was hired in late March, critics were quick to point out that Williamson has said some wild nonsense in the past, about black people, about trans people, about women. Those warnings should have prompted the powers that be at The Atlantic to move quickly to at least look into some of his comments and assess whether they wanted him to be a part of their brand.”
Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic shared how divided his newsroom was over the firing of his short-lived colleague. Friedersdorf stood against Williamson’s views, but he made a point to say that he was also against the decision to fire Williamson.
“I dissent from the way that Williamson was dragged, regardless of his position,” he wrote. “That dragging would be a small matter in isolation, but it is of a piece with burgeoning, shortsighted modes of discourse that are corroding what few remaining ties bind the American center. Should that center fail to hold, anarchy will be loosed.”
Responses from most major news outlets that defended Williamson took the same position: His views are horrible, but so was The Atlantic’s decision to cut the cord with him so quickly. However, the issue raises a thought-provoking question: how important is the distinction between diverse views and hateful rhetoric?
Williamson’s biggest detractors were steadfastly against him for reasons not too different from those against Megyn Kelly’s interview with InfoWars’ Alex Jones last summer. Anyone giving Williamson a platform to discuss his highly controversial – and, according to some, bigoted – views should never have done so in the first place.
In Paul Farhi’s Washington Post piece, he illustrated the pattern of other news agencies that have severed ties with controversial columnists, including The New York Times and Quinn Norton–whose employment there lasted mere hours. He does not posit, though, whether the right answer is to listen to arguably discriminatory views or not to give them a voice in the first place.
It’s practically the same conundrum that media organizations faced when Donald Trump initially announced his run for president. Trump obviously won the presidency because his base agreed with his views.
Whether or not the American popular vote agreed, enough of a percentage of voters felt those views needed political representation. It may not be the popular decision, but as Trump’s base’s voice continues to grow louder, its influence on mainstream media may grow larger, too.