UPDATE, April 5, 2:30 p.m.: Multiple sources reported that Kevin Williamson was fired from The Atlantic. As Atlantic Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in a memo to staff, referencing more evidence that had arisen in recent days, “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 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.”
After the mainstream media failed to predict the election of Donald Trump, journalistic institutions doubled down on coverage of white men: powerful white men or angry white men enraged by their supposed displacement in a changing country.
Last week, The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg took this obsession with white male America one step further when he hired internet troll and National Review columnist Kevin Williamson, who in 2014 tweeted that women who have abortions should be hanged and compared a 9-year-old Black child to a primate.
To many observers, the hire seemed out of character for The Atlantic, a center-left publication known for fostering intellectual political and social debate. Despite criticism, Goldberg clung to the cult of objectivity and cited the value of pluralism in publishing. He defended his decision in the name of “ideological diversity,” which, in this case, condones hateful stereotypes and threats. It’s like when white supremacists marched on Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us,” then murdered a counter-protester, and President Trump responded that there are good people on both sides. Never mind if promoting Williamson’s “ideological diversity” means creating a hostile work environment for the women and people of color who are trying to thrive in an industry that’s still predominantly controlled by white men.
“It is my mission to make sure that we outdo our industry in achieving gender equality and racial diversity. It is also my job is to make sure that we are ideologically diverse,” Goldberg wrote in a memo to his staff, which Slate published in its entirety. “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.”
“Offend the other side” assumes there are sides to take, that there is a logical, worthy debate to have over whether women who have abortions should be executed in a particularly horrible way banned by most U.S. states. Statistically speaking, it’s very likely that there are women who work at The Atlantic who’ve had abortions. Are they “the other side?” Is believing that women deserve equality and should be allowed to exercise their constitutional rights just “one side” of a healthy intellectual debate? Apparently for Goldberg, the answer is yes.
Back in January 2017, Goldberg joined other top editors across the country when he sent a memo to his staff saying that editorial employees at The Atlantic were not permitted to participate in the upcoming Women’s March. Judging by the memo he sent to staff, Goldberg apparently values diversity in the form of Williamson’s objectionable views, but draws the line at employees standing up for their basic human rights:
Our strengths are journalistic fairness and dispassion; to the extent that we express our political views, we do so within a strictly journalistic framework. Of course, editorial employees will sometimes be assigned to cover protests and marches, as they are assigned to cover other political activities.
This was a hotly debated topic at the time with most mainstream publications erring on the side of not marching. The Women’s Marches were organized as a response to Donald Trump’s election. Many were angry that a man who had bragged of sexual assault on camera, whose former wife accused him of raping her, who wanted to send his female opponent to jail, and who on the campaign trail said women who have abortions should be punished, lost the popular vote but still beat his female opponent. But it wasn’t just an anti-Trump rally. It was a march for gender equality. Now those women who were not allowed to march are being told that if they want to stay at The Atlantic, they have to work with someone who wants them dead.
Goldberg and others who support Williamson’s hire say that a Tweet is just a Tweet, and should not disqualify Williamson from a job at The Atlantic. “I don’t think that taking a person’s worst tweets, or assertions, in isolation is the best journalistic practice,” Goldberg wrote in the memo.
But anyone who was conscious during the 2016 presidential election knows that being an internet troll is highly political. And if Twitter wasn’t a problem, then Williamson wouldn’t have deleted his account while negotiating the position with Goldberg. As Goldberg noted in the memo:
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.
Would Goldberg hire a woman who had said that all men who exercised a legal right should be dead? Maybe if she was ideologically diverse enough, but it’s unclear what this really means. It’s fine that Williamson personally opposes abortion, but arguing for the execution of a quarter of the female population isn’t just ideological diversity. It’s extremism, and it has no place in mainstream media.
Women are not a special interest group. We are half of the population. It’s time for newsrooms to reflect that, but editors like Goldberg put in place conflicting policies about objectivity that seem to only apply to the people who historically have been kept out of newsrooms like his, or who are joining those people in the fight for equality.
Former Associated Press reporter Shaya Tayefe Mohajer wrote in support of journalists participating in the 2017 Women’s March for the Columbia Journalism Review, saying that barring journalists from standing up for their own rights essentially keeps marginalized people out of newsrooms.
“I abided by this rule for as long as I worked in newsrooms that enforced it .… I felt I hardly had a choice; it was a matter of working or not. I learned the rule … from a respected elder of my field who also happened to be a white man.” Mohajer writes. “It’s time to recognize the effects of this harmful rule and rewrite it.”
Mohajer cites a lack of fairness as one of its harmful effects. How could a newsroom report fairly if it refuses to come down on the side of equality? If newsrooms let theoretical ideology and “alternative facts” (see also: lies, misinformation campaigns, and propaganda) obscure the truth, then they are doing so at the price of fairness and accuracy, which are much more measurable and defined than objectivity. Often when mainstream publications cover abortion, the facts are not reported or are falsely equated with religious ideology. The most important facts that every journalist must work with when covering abortion in the United States are that it is safe, legal, and common.
Goldberg knows that there is a problem with gender bias in the media. His magazine has reported extensively on it. “Male dominance in global media is well documented, and has been for many decades,” Adrienne Lafrance wrote in a 2016 Atlantic article, “I Analyzed a Year of My Reporting for Gender Bias (Again).” “Both in newsrooms and in news articles, men are leaders—they make more money, get more bylines, spend more time on-camera, and are quoted far more often than women—by a ratio of about 3:1. I notice male biases in journalism all the time. Which means I know that readers of The Atlantic do, too.”
Yes, readers of The Atlantic have noticed gender bias, and they’re watching it happen right now. They’re watching it as they read a publication where only 36 percent of bylines in 2016 came from women. And they’re seeing it now when the publication insists that a man who believes that one-fourth of women should be executed can objectively cover anything about this country.
Part of why gender bias is so pervasive is because our society was built on the assumption that women are not equal. In fact, the only people fully protected by the U.S. Constitution were land-owning white men. So it must follow that the media, especially one that is still dominated by white men, would be inherently biased in favor of their viewpoint. If newsrooms continue to bar people for participating in events demanding basic human rights and hire those who make clear their contempt for women and people of color, newsrooms are showing preference for white cisgendered men.
One way to combat that bias is to change the newsroom so that the people reporting and writing stories of national interest reflect the U.S. Census. Hiring a man who compared a 9-year-old Black child to a primate and said that all women who have abortions should be hanged is not a way to attract women and people of color to your newsroom, and it’s certainly no way to retain them. If Goldberg takes anything from the #MeToo movement it should be that newsrooms, and workplaces in general, can be hostile places for women.
It’s not enough for editors like Goldberg to hire women and people of color, pat themselves on the back for their efforts, and then treat them as if their humanity is up for debate. As Jessica Valenti wrote in a piece she published on Medium last week, “There are women who work at The Atlantic — or in other media spaces — who will not be able to scream or cry or vent their fury and sadness. They know that the men who treat their lives as talking points and debate fodder are the same ones they’ll need to ask for jobs one day.”
In the #MeToo moment, Goldberg probably wouldn’t knowingly hire a man with a history of sexually harassing women. So why does he think it’s OK to hire one who publicly announced that he wants women dead? Goldberg will probably continue to defend his decision to hire Williamson, believing himself to be a hero fighting for all kinds of diversity. But a newsroom full of white men who think women should be dead isn’t diverse. It’s archaic.