April 9, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Kevin Williamson’s Firing Isn’t Chilling
What's chilling is 40 years of conservatives harassing and intimidating journalists, and sometimes getting them fired.
The Atlantic fired last week a conservative opinion writer who believes women should be hanged for having abortions or prisoners of war should be shot. I can’t think of a good reason to sympathize with Kevin Williamson. Journalists are regularly intimidated or even fired for expressing any kind of opinion, not just opinions unfit for democracy, and when they are fired, it’s often due to conservative accusations.
Dave Weigel, the superlative political reporter, was pushed out of the Washington Post in 2010 after it was revealed he thought gay-marriage opponents were bigots and Rush Limbaugh was nuts. That he said these things before joining the Post was irrelevant to his employer at the time, who said something to the effect that he was tainted goods. (Weigel is again with the Post and in my view fully redeemed.)
Linda Greenhouse’s legendary career at the New York Times covering the US Supreme Court and legal affairs was in jeopardy after a 2006 lecture at her alma mater in which she lamented how the US government “had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and others places.” This was entirely true, but telling the truth can conflict with partisans interests, giving the impression that the journalist as truth teller is actually biased, rather than truly informed.
Conservatives don’t always cause firings, of course, but they have created over the decades a climate of fear in Washington so that news editors are very sensitive. My friend Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic, was shepherded out of the Post in 2007 after emailing this to a local spokesperson: “Must we hear about it every time this crack addict attempts to rehabilitate himself with some new—and typically half-witted—political grandstanding? I cannot think of anything the useless Marion Barry could do that would interest me in the slightest.” Tim Page is now a professor at USC’s Thornton School of Music. My point is he didn’t even cover politics, but the Post couldn’t tolerate his personal political opinion.
Opinions need not be political to be controversial. A personal account: I was “fired” in 2007 after putting my two weeks’ notice as a culture reporter at the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News. After tendering my resignation, I wrote a piece for my new employer in a new city in which I excoriated Savannah’s arts scene. It was harsh but fair. But that was too much for the old-school editors at the Morning News who believed opinions should be suppressed. So they hastened my already planned exit.
I don’t know enough about Williamson to offer a fair judgment of his politics. All I know is what I read about: his firing shortly after The Atlantic hired him. What I do know is that his defenders are wrong in saying this is a matter of free speech and that conservatives are being silenced in the mainstream. Conservatives have shaped for the last 40 years the entire gestalt of American journalism, so much so that good talented journalists of all political persuasions have been unjustly chased away.
In 12 elections since 1972, baby boomers voted for the Republican every time except once. “In constant dollars, today’s old are 92 percent wealthier than yesterday’s old, while today’s young are 29 percent less wealthy than yesterday’s young.” Check out the rest of Paul Taylor’s must-read essay.
Donald Trump can’t find good legal counsel because being associated with the president is now close to disreputable. Let’s hope this pattern prevails on the elites who shape American public opinion so that Trumpism, and the political forces that created him, becomes so marginal as to be embarrassing.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.