Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Atlantic’s new opinion columnist, Kevin D. Williamson, fired two weeks after controversial Tweets and podcast interview unearthed – Washington, D.C. – April 2018

Washington, DC

After joining The Atlantic as a columnist on March 22, 2018, conservative writer Kevin D. Williamson was let go two weeks later, when a podcast from 2014, in which he elaborated on his previously expressed hard-line anti-abortion views, was revealed by Media Matters, a nonprofit group that says it monitors “conservative misinformation” in U.S. media.

Key Players

Kevin D. Williamson is a journalist who wrote for National Review, a right-leaning magazine, for 10 years, until he was hired by The Atlantic as an opinion columnist. His critics discovered bigoted tweets and other offensive comments in his prior record.

Jeffrey Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, who made the contested decisions to hire, and subsequently to fire, Williamson. In a March 22 memo sent to Atlantic staff, Goldberg explained his rationale for hiring the polarizing writer. On April 5, Goldberg wrote another memo, saying “The Atlantic is not the best fit for his [Williamson’s] talents.”

Further Details

Having served for a decade as roving correspondent for National Review, Kevin D. Williamson joined The Atlantic in March 2018 to contribute to a new section on “ideas, opinions, and commentary.”

In an internal memo obtained by Slate, Goldberg explained his rationale for hiring Williamson, saying that “I have disagreed with him more than I have agreed with him,” but that he was impressed with Williamson’s thoughtful, witty, and clear writing style — and that Williamson would be an asset to the organization’s ideological diversity. “If we are going to host debates, we have to host people who actually disagree with, and sometimes offend, the other side,” Goldberg said. “Kevin will help this cause.”

Many disagreed, however. Following Williamson’s hire (and the one article he managed to publish on April 2, 2018), liberal critics lambasted Goldberg and The Atlantic through Twitter posts and newspaper editorials. Journalists pointed out Williamson’s track record of publishing racially charged and misogynist essays. Abortion rights group Naral Pro Choice America started a Twitter campaign (#FireKevin) and complained to The Atlantic about his having been hired.

Criticism was also directed at tweets that Williamson had posted on September 28, 2014, in which he asserted that women who had abortions were, in fact, committing murder, and could be charged with homicide. When questioned in online comments whether he thought the appropriate punishment for those who had elective abortions would be life without parole, he clarified that, “I have hanging more in mind.”

The next day, Williamson brought up and defended his position on “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” the podcast he co-hosts with National Review editor Charles C. Cooke. He would later clarify these remarks in a March 26, 2015, speech at Hillsdale College, saying that he is “generally against capital punishment,” “always against ex-post-facto punishment,” and “always against lynching.”

Conservative Williamson supporters, worried that his history of inflammatory comments would put him at odds with The Atlantic and its audience, warned in March 2018 that firing him would be tantamount to silencing him, and thus hamper his Free Speech. But when Media Matters, a progressive nonprofit watchdog group, published transcript evidence of Williamson’s remarks from the 2014 podcast, Goldberg could no longer withstand the uproar.

According to The Huffington Post, Goldberg told Atlantic staff in an email that he was firing Williamson. He said that, although he thought Williamson’s tweets in 2014 had simply been “intemperate,” the podcast discussion proved that they actually represented Williamson’s “carefully considered views.” Goldberg further explained, “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.”

Outcome

Kevin D. Williamson fired from columnist position for the Atlantic

Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg fired commentator Kevin D. Williamson only two weeks after he was hired. Williamson responded by publishing numerous opinion pieces, including in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. “…in this case, I obscured the more meaningful questions about abortion and sparked the sort of hysteria I’d meant to point out and mock,” Williamson wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “What matters more is the issue of how the rage-fueled tribalism of social media, especially Twitter, has infected the op-ed pages and, to some extent, the rest of journalism.”

External References

The Atlantic Cuts Ties with Conservative Writer Kevin Williamson. New York Times.

Why Would the Atlantic Hire Kevin Williamson? Slate.

Kevin D. Williamson’s Tweet about Capitall Punishment and Abortions. Web.archive.org.

The “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” Episode in which Williamson Doubles Down on His Comments. ricochet.com

The End of Rational Public Discourse – Kevin Williamson’s Speech to Hillsdale College. Youtube.com.

Kevin Williamson also said on his podcast the people who’ve had abortions should be hanged. mediamatters.org.

Atlantic Fires Kevin Williamson After Suddenly Realizing He Believes The Things He Says. The Huffington Post.

When the Twitter Mob Came for Me. Wall Street Journal.

Prepared by Gustav Honl-Stuenkel ‘20

Uploaded August 20, 2018