Narrowing the Debate

Benjamin L. Woodfinden
April 23, 2018
In newsroom vernacular, the decision to kill a story is called “spiking”. It happens for various reasons including inaccuracy, irrelevance, dullness, and defamation. Writers get spiked too, for all those reasons and more. The superb former National Review essayist Kevin Williamson, for example, got spiked this month just as he was about to start a new gig at The Atlantic. Furious vilification by progressives over an intemperate tweet pre-empted his move from the conservative confines of NR into the mainstream liberal media. Williamson is no outlier, contends Ben Woodfinden, but rather the latest victim of “no-platforming” by leftists bent on banishing the right from public discourse.

Narrowing the Debate

Benjamin L. Woodfinden
April 23, 2018
In newsroom vernacular, the decision to kill a story is called “spiking”. It happens for various reasons including inaccuracy, irrelevance, dullness, and defamation. Writers get spiked too, for all those reasons and more. The superb former National Review essayist Kevin Williamson, for example, got spiked this month just as he was about to start a new gig at The Atlantic. Furious vilification by progressives over an intemperate tweet pre-empted his move from the conservative confines of NR into the mainstream liberal media. Williamson is no outlier, contends Ben Woodfinden, but rather the latest victim of “no-platforming” by leftists bent on banishing the right from public discourse.
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The remarkable empathy and generosity shown by Canadians in the wake of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash has provided a heartwarming silver lining to the tragedy. But there was one startling exception to the national outpouring of grief and financial donations for the victims. It came from Canadian progressive writer and activist Nora Loreto, who tweeted: “I’m trying not to get cynical about what is a totally devastating tragedy but the maleness, the youthfulness, and the whiteness of the victims are, of course, playing a significant role.” Not surprisingly, Loreto immediately became the target of a furious, and often vicious, online backlash.

Loreto’s writing has appeared in Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, and The Walrus, among other print and online publications. Her Humboldt tweet sparked demands for her banishment from Canadian journalism, including from Maclean’s, which prompted the magazine to issue a statement explaining that “Loreto has never been an employee of Maclean’s. She is a freelance writer who published one article on our website a few months ago. We had nothing to do with her extraordinarily inappropriate tweet regarding the Humboldt tragedy.” Loreto responded by doubling down on her allegations of race and gender bias, tweeting: “Media so white so I guess it’s obvious. Thanks, Maclean’s for feeding this. Your women staff should be horrified and afraid to tackle anything that’s even slightly controversial.”

Neither Maclean’s nor any other of Loreto’s other freelance outlets went so far as to banish her outright. While it may be a while, if ever, before they consider publishing her again, none of them declared her persona non grata. Which is as it should be. Loreto should ultimately be judged on the quality of her work, not by one or two insensitive tweets. And despite her evident malice towards white males, her comments don’t obviously cross the legal threshold of hate speech. Still, the episode raises a legitimate question: if someone less “woke” than Loreto had tweeted something equally inappropriate, would their byline ever appear in mainstream journalism again?

Consider the circumstances of the much better, and much better known, American writer Kevin Williamson. A few weeks ago, Williamson departed the conservative confines (and comparatively small readership) of National Review for The Atlantic, thereby joining a mainstream media bastion of American liberal arts and culture writing since its founding in Boston 161 years ago and immediately tripling the size of his audience. The move triggered an online backlash far bigger than the Loreto tempest because Williamson, an unabashed pro-lifer and congenital literary provocateur, tweeted that “the law should treat abortion like any other homicide.”

Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg initially defended the hire, and in a memo to staff said “I don’t think that taking a person’s worst tweets, or assertions, in isolation is the best journalistic practice.” But after progressive media watchdog Media Matters uncovered a podcast in which Williamson reaffirmed his belief that abortion is murder and expressed a preference for hanging as capital punishment, Goldberg bowed to the mob. “The tweet was not merely an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post, as Kevin had explained it,” he wrote in a second memo announcing Williamson’s termination. “Furthermore, 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.”

The caterwauling over Williamson’s hiring and firing was as loud and ugly as it gets in today’s pathologically partisan, go-for-jugular media miasma. Slate called Williamson  a “verbose and hateful troll.” “Hang[ing] women who have abortions is not a view that’s fit for public debate,” wrote Jessica Valenti in The Guardian. She went on to chastise The Atlantic for hiring Williamson because they “knew they would be forcing the women at the magazine – some of whom we can assume have had abortions – to sit in an office with a man who wanted them dead.”

Indeed, that might have created some awkward tension in the office. Perhaps even some arguments. Over abortion and much else that Williamson has written. And chances are he would have been uncomfortable, or disputatious, sitting next to Atlantic star correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates. In his autobiography, Coates expressed his feelings about (white dominated) government in the United States with these comments about 9/11 first responders: “They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could – with no justification – shatter my body.” (Coates has elsewhere admitted to being a frequent reader and fan of Williamson’s writing.) It’s also odd that The Atlantic could not abide Williamson’s views on abortion but has published glowing work about philosopher Peter Singer, despite his notorious advocacy of infanticide for disabled children.

Williamson’s case is not an outlier. Writers who offend politically correct orthodoxy often become targets of progressive pogroms. The New York Times was hammered last year for hiring conservative Bret Stephens because, according to Vox, he is a “climate change bullshitter”. The Times also faces continuing demands that it dump Israel apologist Bari Weiss. To the Old Grey Lady’s credit, the paper keeps publishing these writers along with its leading conservative columnist Ross Douthat, even though he’s routinely pilloried as a devout Catholic and “white supremacist”.

When the Washington Post hired libertarian columnist Megan McArdle, she was the target of an energetic progressive delegitimization campaign because she is “a shallow, mean rich kid hired by billionaires to abuse poor people” and “a lifelong friend to the Koch empire”.

It’s absolutely fair game to ask people to defend controversial positions they hold. It’s reasonable to ask someone who believes abortion is murder what they believe a legal regime that treats abortion as such should do with people who have or perform abortions. Williamson takes this position to a cold, dark, and uncomfortable place. But this is part of what makes him such an interesting writer. For the record, Williamson later clarified in an interview that “I am generally against capital punishment, I am generally against abortion, I am always against ex-post facto punishment and always against lynching.” Agree or disagree, the strength of a writer is in their capacity to captivate their audience, which Williamson undeniably does.

In his National Review sayonara Williamson confessed that his departure was driven by a desire to be an “apostle to the gentiles,” to reach readers who would never read NR. Journalistic success, and influence, is measured by the size of one’s audience. The mass-circulation mainstream media aspires to reach as many readers as possible. Ideally, it does so by disseminating a wide spectrum of ideas and opinions, which theoretically links a healthy media industry to a healthy democracy. But the purging of Williamson, and the relentless attacks on other conservative journalists, suggests that progressives now view the mainstream media as “their” space, in which there is no legitimacy for dissenting voices from the right.

Of course, the mainstream media industry is anything but financially healthy today, and whatever that implies for healthy democracy, there is exponentially more and philosophically diverse news and opinion available to consumers today, if they have the wit and energy to seek it out.

As Vancouver’s J.J. McCullough writes in National Review:

“…poking around the websites of The Atlantic, or Slate, or Breitbart, or wherever, is not the equivalent of flipping through the pages of a hometown paper – surfing the entire Internet is. In this enormous amalgamation of human opinion, specific publications, or at least their opinion sections, are perhaps best considered the 21st century equivalent of what a single column used to be decades ago: a consistent, reliable space for a certain sort of commentary, unpredictable or unorthodox on occasion, but overall relatively stable. Those genuinely curious in their search for truth understand this, and know that browsing a diverse range of journalistic websites is every bit as critical as listening to a diverse array of voices within them.”

In a world as politicized and polarized as ours, it seems only natural that media will self-sort itself along these lines. But there will still be a big, powerful mainstream media that disproportionately influences public debate and opinion. Increasingly it appears that conservatives will struggle to  be a part of it.

If progressives monopolize the mainstream, some on the right will claim persecution and join U.S. President Donald Trump on the “fake media” warpath. But even moderate conservatives, including Trump skeptics, may find themselves marginalized not because they move further right, but because the mainstream moves away from them. The “Overton Window” is an academic term used to describe the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse. By monopolizing outlets that are still seen as intellectually diverse, progressives can narrow the Overton Window by making it seem as though only their viewpoints are acceptable, because only their viewpoints are “mainstream.”

Furthermore, if conservative views can only be found in conservative intellectual ghettos, the only people who get exposure to these views will be those who actively seek them out. McCullough is right that intellectually curious people have access to virtually unlimited diversity of news and opinion, but how many actually go out of their way to have their beliefs challenged? Confirmation bias is in our nature, and as the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once remarked, humans have “lynx-eyes for everything that confirms [our beliefs] and makes us blind to everything that contradicts it”.

If conservatives don’t see their views in mainstream media they will retreat ever further into an intellectual echo chamber. This spiral of marginalization will no doubt be cheered on by the triumphal left.

“No-platforming” is already a powerful phenomenon on university campuses. This is a tactic of the student left which denies anyone deemed hateful or bigoted a public platform from which to speak. The crusade that pre-empted Williamson from joining the mainstream media, among other campaigns, suggests that no-platforming is gaining traction outside academe.

Some on the right allege that the handful of mega-corporations that dominate the dissemination of news and opinion online – Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – are conspiring to stifle political and philosophical diversity. During his recent testimony before Congress, Mark Zuckerberg claimed Facebook is close to having Artificial Intelligence that can automatically detect and remove hate speech. There are already worrying examples of Facebook censorship. And Twitter already has a policy of removing problematic users, partly developed in response to pressure from progressive activists.  After the firing of Google employee James Damore over his “thought-crime manifesto” criticizing the company’s “ideological echo chamber”, it is hardly inconceivable that Google’s search algorithms might (deliberately or accidentally) end up denying users equal access to non-progressive viewpoints.

Humans often retreat into ghettos because they seem safer than the outside world. But history shows that such communities can become the “other,” distinct, different, and estranged from society. If those who dissent from progressive heterodoxy retreat from the mainstream, willingly or not, they will likely become less moderate, less reasonable, and less acceptable. We are all better off for having diverse intellectual platforms, where the Loretos of this world can be published alongside the Williamsons, and it is urgently important that we vigorously defend these platforms, even if it seems like there is only one side today who sees the merit in this diversity. Ubi dubium, ibi libertas.

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