Kevin Williamson’s Firing Isn’t About Free Speech

Yesterday, The Atlantic fired Kevin Williamson, a conservative writer who believes that women should be hanged for having abortions and that Guantanamo prisoners should be shot, not tried in court. I can’t think of a reason to be sympathetic. Journalists can be and are fired for expressing any kind of opinion, not just opinions unfit for democratic deliberation, and they are fired often because of conservative accusations against them.

Dave Weigel was pushed out of  his job as a political reporter at 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, who effectively said he was still tainted. (Weigel is now back with the Post and, in my view, fully redeemed.)

Linda Greenhouse’s legendary career at the New York Times covering the Supreme Court and legal affairs nearly came to an end after a 2006 lecture in which she lamented how the Bush administration “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 often conflicts with partisanship, giving the impression that the journalist as truth teller is biased, rather than truly informed.

Conservatives don’t always cause firings, but fear of being seen as biased has historically made editors very sensitive. My friend Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic, was shepherded out the door at 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, up to and including overdose.” Tim is now a professor of music at USC. My point is he didn’t even cover politics, but the Post couldn’t tolerate his personal political opinions.

I don’t know enough about Kevin Williamson to offer a balanced judgment of his politics. All I know is what I read about his firing this week shortly after The Atlantic hired him. What I do know is that his defenders are flat out wrong in saying this is a matter of free speech and that conservatives are being silenced in the mainstream. Over the last 40 years, Conservatives have shaped the entire gestalt of American journalism, so much so that good talented journalists have been unjustly chased away.

This is changing, thank God, in no small part thanks to Donald Trump’s presidency and growing awareness among journalists that they are the gatekeepers responsible for the guarding the public square against lies, distortion, propaganda, and fake news.

As Greenhouse noted in her new book, Just a Journalist: “They have to see themselves as participants in the ongoing democratic project of arming fellow citizens with the information they need to make informed choices.”

That’s the kind of bias we need.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.