When cancel culture comes to newsrooms
Crusades against certain opinions aren’t new, but now journalists are joining in
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Earlier this month, the big story in journalism was a staff revolt at The New York Times that led to the ouster of the paper’s opinion editor. His decision to publish an essay from a sitting U.S. senator—about an opinion that 58 percent of registered voters share—prompted the revolt.
James Bennet was naïve enough to believe that Sen. Tom Cotton’s argument for using military personnel to quell riots merited consideration. Some Times journalists disagreed. They took to Twitter to drum up outrage, posting, “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger,” under a screenshot of Cotton’s column.
There was some confusion over whether Bennet resigned or was fired, but either way, his tenure at the Times was over.
One of the most notable aspects of the incident: Dozens of people, paid to write at length and in detail about often-complex matters, reiterating the same eight words to convey their objection to a specific proposal. (Seeing the posts scroll by called to mind nothing so much as childhood’s classic resistance tactic—putting your fingers in your ears, chanting “I can’t hear you.”) Also significant: The mutineers couched their disagreement in terms of personal safety.
Perhaps most noteworthy of all was the first act of Bennet’s replacement: She sent out a memo asking any staffer who “sees any piece of Opinion journalism, headlines, social posts, photos—you name it—that gives you the slightest pause” to contact her immediately.
Unfortunately, the news cycle left little time to consider the incident’s deeper implications. Before even the cable news panels had tired of tussling over it, another First Amendment controversy broke out. This time it wasn’t coworker against coworker but news outlet against news outlet.
NBC revealed last week that it collaborated with a United Kingdom watchdog group to report The Federalist to Google for violation of the tech giant’s policy against running ads alongside “dangerous or derogatory content.” This, NBC reported, resulted in Google banning the conservative site from its advertising platform.
Google maintains it gave The Federalist a warning and an opportunity to address the situation. And the violation concerned only comments to articles, not the articles themselves, as NBC implied. NBC amended its story but characterized Google as backtracking.
Either way, what’s not in dispute is that by its own admission, a division of NBC known as the Verification Unit brought the watchdog group and its complaint against The Federalist to Google’s attention. In an election year.
If these were two freak events that happened to come close together, they might raise less concern. But they follow fast on the heels of other clanging alarm bells.
On June 6, a similar situation forced out The Philadelphia Inquirer’s executive editor for running a story with the tone-deaf headline, “Buildings Matter, Too.” The same week, left-wing reporter Lee Fang’s Intercept colleagues accused him of racism for sharing an interview with an African American man who asked, “Why does a black life only matter when a white man takes it?” Again, it was the man who posed the question, not Fang. To keep his job, Fang issued a public apology.
Even famed commentators who built their reputations on iconoclastic views aren’t immune to suppression these days. Earlier this month, Andrew Sullivan tweeted that his popular column for New York Magazine would not appear that week. He offered no explanation, but The Spectator did. It alleged Sullivan’s editors didn’t want to publish his perspective on rioting and looting. Neither Sullivan nor New York Magazine denied it. Sullivan’s next column was titled, “Is There Still Room for Debate?”
This all is just the snapshot of a fortnight. Anyone familiar with the Wizard of Oz–inspired musical Wicked will start to hear strains of the big number from Act 1: “Something bad is happening in Oz.”
National Review correspondent Kevin Williamson saw that “something bad” coming years ago—even before he fell victim to it.
In March 2018, Williamson was already working on his book, The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics, when one of the oldest and most prestigious publications in the country came calling.
The Atlantic Editor Jeffrey Goldberg knew Williamson’s right-wing politics wouldn’t align with his staff’s. He considered this a feature, not a bug. He was interested in Williamson, he said, not because he agreed with him, but because of the “power, contrariness, wit, and smart construction” of the work Williamson had done for National Review.
Williamson, who jokingly refers to himself as a redneck and grew up as the adopted son of a poor family in West Texas, was eager to try his hand outside the conservative ghetto. But it was more than that. Other outlets may have larger audiences, but almost none have been home to the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Still, Williamson tried to hold his enthusiasm in check. “You know,” he told Goldberg, “the campaign to have me fired will begin 11 seconds after you announce you’ve hired me.” Goldberg brushed the warning off. And when the grumbling around the watercooler commenced, he sent out a bright but firm memo reaffirming his commitment to ideological diversity.
That’s when the now all-too-familiar torpedo mission began, complete with a hashtag offensive (#firekevin). Someone uncovered an anti-abortion joke Williamson tweeted in bad taste. Then surfaced a podcast in which Williamson earnestly explained his belief that if abortion is murder (and he believes it is), the law should treat it as homicide. Cool kid webzines like Slate, Splinter, and Paste ran scathing hit pieces with headlines like, “We Need to Talk About Kevin Williamson.”
Best-selling feminist author and columnist Jessica Valenti wrote a piece tying Goldberg’s decision to violence against women: “By hiring Williamson, The Atlantic is sending a clear message: That the worst kind of harassment and intimidation women face—extremism that has been linked to real-life violence—is acceptable.”
Williamson published exactly one piece with his new employer, then Goldberg fired him. The tone of the entire episode might best be summed up with The Daily Beast’s self-serious headline: “The Atlantic Finally Fires Kevin Williamson.” "Finally" apparently meaning after a couple of weeks.
Williamson told me the real issue wasn’t his views on abortion. Those were well-known and well-documented (most of all by Williamson himself) before he took the job. The issue was, “a junior staff of hysterical millennial drama queens.” As he says in his book, his bosses were happy to tolerate unpopular political views, but they couldn’t tolerate someone whose views meant “his presence was disrupting to the Organization.”
Today, while Williamson doesn’t seem to respect Goldberg much, he did express sympathy for the position the editor was in. “It can’t be easy trying to do journalism in partnership with people who hold the work and its values in contempt,” he told me.
Williamson says he was never the real target of the ire. The Atlantic and august institutions like it are: “The New York Times, the universities, the professional associations, and companies such as Google and Facebook. The scalp-hunters take some pathetic satisfaction in inflicting a loss on someone they hate, but the real point is to make an example and by doing so terrorize others into quietism.”
Mobs want to make speech compulsory for the same reason ancient Romans made emperor-worship compulsory: “It’s Totalitarianism 101: the abolition of private life and the individual conscience. Nothing is outside of politics, and there is no sphere of life which belongs to the individual.”
The conduct unbecoming a free people grows graver by the day—a coach offers a hapless mea culpa for wearing a T-shirt with the wrong news logo; one of the largest papers in the world devotes 3,000 words to an anonymous woman’s poor choice of Halloween costume two years ago; a data scientist loses his job for sharing unwelcome data.
We’re cowering under the sick mutation of Andy Warhol’s famed prediction—soon everyone will be canceled for 15 minutes. It’s one thing for cowardly corporations to choose the path of least resistance. But it’s a fresh horror when members of the only profession the Bill of Rights mentions shuck off their solemn responsibility to champion free speech and instead serve silence.
As the Christian journalist understands, Scripture is not indifferent to this subject. Proverbs 18:17 says: “The first to speak seems right until someone comes forward and cross-examines him.”
But what if no one comes forward? What if there’s no Paul willing to risk the enmity of even his fellow apostle to challenge an influential sect heaping legalistic burdens on God’s people? What if there’s no Luther willing to suffer ostracism to show how far we’ve wandered from the text?
The principle of open debate is grounded in a Biblical understanding of fallible human nature. It’s predicated on enough humility to consider we might be wrong. It creates a path for course correction when emotions overrule facts and when we misrepresent facts. As we’re seeing now, when the conversation stops, cruelty and mass delusion rule the day.
Williamson returned to National Review and continues turning out his contrarian ideas, but he thinks educating a new generation (and re-educating an old generation) on the value of free speech is a lost cause: “I do not think that there is much value in trying to educate the majority of the American people about the principles of free speech or religious liberty or anything else, because most of the evidence suggests that they are not educable.”
Christians who care about truth should pray he’s not right.