When The Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg hired Kevin Williamson – a columnist known for his controversial ideas about abortion (women should be hanged), and for once comparing a black child to a primate – a PR shitstorm of epic proportions ensued. After the backlash, Goldberg claimed he made the hire in an attempt to “balance” their content and publish opinions from both sides.
He issued a memo to staff explaining his decision: “I don’t think that taking a person’s worst tweets, or assertions, in isolation is the best journalistic practice. I have read most, or much, of what he has written; some of his critics have not done the same. I would also prefer, all things being equal, to give people second chances and the opportunity to change. I’ve done this before in reference to extreme tweeting (third chances, too, on occasion), and I hope to continue this practice.”
This memo had more than a few people wondering, “what about a first chance for someone more deserving? Why do white men with dangerous and degrading ideas about women and people of color always get so many chances?”
The most vocal writers on Williamson’s hirings were two women; Jennifer Ashley Wright, the political editor-at-large for Harper’s Bazaar, and Jessica Valenti, a feminist author, and creator of Feministing Blog. For the next two weeks after Williamson’s hiring, Wright and Valenti created a dialogue on Twitter and called for an investigation into his other ideas, which resulted in his firing. Here’s how it went down.
Jennifer Wright announces his hiring to her over 50,000 twitter followers. He deletes his account over criticism of his tweets.
Jessica Valenti digs up his tweets about abortion and writes an opinion piece about Williamson’s hiring for The Guardian. It goes viral.
The next few days is a storm of tweets from readers and writers demanding an explanation from editor Jeffrey Goldberg. He tells staff that there will be an in-office Q&A with Kevin Williamson so staffers can air out any grievances they have.
Jessica Valenti reaches out to The Atlantic about her piece for The Guardian. She publishes their answer, which further defends their claim of balance and “fairness.” She calls their answer (seen below) “troubling.”
Valenti and Wright start reaching out to male columnists and journalists, asking them for support. Meanwhile, Williamson makes statements to the media saying that tweets should not be taken seriously, and should be considered with low regard.
Several days later, Media Matters tweet a link to a podcast in which Kevin Williamson reiterates his belief that women who have abortions should be executed by hanging. This time, Goldberg and supporters of Williamson’s work can no longer say they’re “just tweets.”
On April 5th, less than two weeks after Jennifer Wright’s first tweet, Goldberg announces that Williamson will not be joining The Atlantic as a columnist. His memo:
After leading the public in a Twitter-based discussion about opinion versus hate speech, and after encouraging publications like Media Matters to investigate Williamson’s past, writers like Jennifer Wright and Jessica Valenti are ensuring a safer media landscape for the future. Not only that, but they helped show that hate speech should not be covered by freedom of speech.