Jeffrey Goldberg, editor at The Atlantic joined me this morning to discuss the coming and the going of Kevin D. Williamson at the magazine, which Kevin wrote about here.
HH: One of the controversies of April quickly forgotten in the press of news, but important for it having occurred, was the coming and the going of Kevin D. Williamson at The Atlantic. He was hired by The Atlantic, and then promptly fired, and he wrote about it on the Saturday essay at the Wall Street Journal this past Saturday. I’m joined by Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor who hired him and then had to let him go at The Atlantic. Because Jeffrey’s a longtime friend of the show, I wanted him to come on and talk about what Kevin had written eloquently about, per usual. Kevin’s one of the more talented conservative writers in America. Good morning, Jeffrey, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
JG: Thanks, Hugh.
HH: What was your reaction to Kevin’s piece?
JG: My reaction to Kevin’s piece in the Journal?
JG: I mean, you know, one of the things, one of the things, one of the reasons I’m happy to talk to you now is you know, these are human resources issues. These are personnel issues. I’d like to keep things private if possible. But Kevin went out and described his side of the story. I thought his piece was, first of all, he is not, I want to make a correction. He’s not one of the most talented conservative writers in America. He’s one of the most talented writers in America.
HH: Well said.
JG: Kevin is, when Kevin is on, he’s really on. I don’t think this necessarily was one of those pieces in which he was on. I don’t feel, again, without going into too much detail, I don’t feel that it was a full and complete recounting of what happened over here. But you know, I’m happy to see him express himself however he wants to express himself.
HH: Now he says in the piece that when you talked about the Twitter mob that undeniably came for him, but the Twitter mob comes for us all at one point or another. And he points out you have been, yourself been the object of the Twitter mob.
HH: …that you had a conversation about it, and you said yes, but Hitchens was “in the family” because Kevin had brought up Christopher Hitchens’ often provocative essays. “You are not.” True quote?
JG: Yeah, well, I explained to Kevin, and I wish that he had, I mean, Kevin and I actually went back and forth about this piece in the Wall Street Journal on email incredibly civilly and fine. No, no, he’s misinterpreting that. What I meant was Christopher Hitchens, let me frame it this way, Hugh. Let’s imagine you have a producer who’s worked with you already for five or ten years and someone surfaces some outrageous or indefensible or ridiculous thing that he’s said. This is the context of that conversation. Hitchens worked for The Atlantic for many, many, many years. And in that context, what I was explaining to Kevin was when you’re in the family already, meaning you’re an employee for several years and then there’s some horrible bump in the road, often, you know, you can imagine a different outcome or a different scenario, because there’s a buildup of trust and a buildup of goodwill that can help you overcome that. This was not a culture, I mean, it’s being interpreted as a kind of cultural commentary. It was not a cultural commentary. It’s a workplace commentary.
HH: Interesting. Okay, so it’s about, “the family” is not the left, center-left. It is the employment…
JG: I mean, Hitchens wasn’t a center-left, I don’t have, I mean, I have people in our family right now who are by no means in the center-left, as you well know. You have them on your show…
JG: …including, by the way, the executive editor of National Review, Reihan Salam, who’s a beloved columnist here.
HH: So tell me what happened from your view, what happened in this controversy?
JG: Yeah, I mean, I put, I don’t want to go further for a set of obvious reasons, including privacy reasons. I don’t want to go further than what I wrote to our staff a few weeks ago when we had to separate. You know, early on, I asked Kevin about that tweet, the hanging women over abortion tweet. And he explained that you know, this was an impetuous kind of in the heat of the moment argument on Twitter, totally decontextualized. And Hugh, you have experience with this as well when you write something and years later, it surfaces and it makes no sense out of context, one of the many dangers of Twitter, obviously. So we talked about that, and I have a great deal of forgiveness for sort of Twitter absurdity, and so I said okay, fine, we’ll just move on. But you know, this is not like your well-considered, deeply-felt opinion, and he said no. And then it comes out a few days into his employment here that he had articulated this theory in a kind of callous, particularly kind of calloused, with callous language, let’s say, in a podcast. And then I think he had talked about it in other places. And you know, I just, I had told our readers, and I had told our staff that you know, these are the kind of, this incident, the first incident, the Twitter incident, represented the sort of danger of all journalism these days, which is you know, people exploding on Twitter than then regretting it, and having somebody use it against you later. I thought that, you know, based on the new information that I had, that you know, I had been led to believe one thing about his views, and then it turns out that there’s a, and the way he expresses those views, and then it turns out that there was another thing. And that’s what made it very difficult.
HH: So let me go out to 30,000 feet and specifically remove Kevin from this.
HH: All right, so you don’t to worry. We’re talking generally now.
HH: That which gets rewarded gets repeated. And the Twitter mob got a scalp and now will…
JG: Yeah, but remember, I didn’t do this because of Twitter. Hugh, remember, remember, I, this had, there had been two weeks of Twitter harassment of us over this. I didn’t care. I don’t care. I mean, as you point out, I’ve been subject to Twitter mobs before.
JG: I really don’t care.
HH: But they, they think they did, Jeffrey.
JG: This was an internal issue.
HH: They think they got a scalp.
JG: Well, I mean, they, the…
HH: The hard left, the extreme people.
JG: Sure, sure. I mean, I can’t control for how they feel, right?
HH: So what is the dilemma that an editor or, you know, anyone has now if the perception is that they won, or that the perception in every controversy is that if you just dial it up and keep it up, you will bleed someone to death with a thousand paper cuts, because that’s what we’re living through.
JG: Yeah, I mean, let’s be, I don’t want, let’s be fair to a lot of the people who had strong objections here. I mean, unfortunately for Kevin, what happened in his discourse about abortion was he conflated it with a separate but not completely unrelated discourse about the death penalty. And because he’s, you know, he fashions himself and is in some ways sort of Menckenish in the way he expresses himself, it came out in ways that were genuinely offensive, by the way, not just genuinely offensive to the people you’re talking about on the left, but to mainstream right to lifers and people who follow the Catholic Church doctrine.
HH: That’s true. That’s true.
JG: You know, there’s nobody, I mean, you know this.
HH: Yeah, I’m pro-life, and you never punish the woman ever.
JG: There are not a lot of people out there who actually want to, you know, hang women or consider the death penalty, or even life imprisonment for women who have abortions, right?
HH: Or any, or a fine, a $10 dollar fine. No. Zero.
JG: No, no, no, no. I mean, so let’s be clear about what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about pro-abortion, anti-abortion. But, so that’s that. I mean, on the larger question of Twitter mobs, it’s just, it’s just very, very important. And I mean, I’ll confess to various failures in this situation, obviously. But it’s very important to do two things. One, block out the noise and block out campaigns. The other is to carefully vet and understand who it is you’re publishing and who it is you’re hiring. We live in an age in which the practices of opposition research that were formerly limited to the political sphere have moved into the journalism sphere, where everything is combat now. And so we all have to recognize that. I mean, it’s ironic to some degree that this is a controversy around The Atlantic, because as you know, I mean, you’re a reader, we do try. We go out of our way to try to represent various viewpoints in our pages and on our website. And I’m very, very cognizant of the danger of becoming totally filtered or, you know, more of an echo chamber than we should be.
HH: So moving completely off of The Atlantic and Kevin, John Podhoretz, whom you admire as I do, has written Twitter has taken a turn for the great worse in the last year, and that it may become too toxic for anyone to use. Do you agree with that, Jeffrey Goldberg?
JG: Well, I mean, John is, John is a practitioner of Twitter combat, so I guess he would know. You know, I find Twitter useful. Twitter is useful for communicating quickly the fact that we have a new interesting piece on such and such topic. You know, if you go into your mentions, and I don’t know how many of your listeners actually care about this. It becomes sort of an inside journalism discussion. If you go into your mentions, yes, there’s a high proportion of people who are there to sort of serve as insult comics.
JG: And to sort of, put it this way, after you spend 10 or 15 minutes on Twitter, you usually don’t feel better about the world.
JG: …than before you went on Twitter, and that’s a problem for the platform, I think. I don’t blame the company. This is human nature that we’re seeing exhibited. It’s not, it’s not something that a particular technology is responsible for. Particular technology enables this kind of quick, hot reaction.
HH: Last, we’ve got less than a minute, Jeffrey Goldberg. Has The Atlantic changed at all after the coming and going of Kevin Williamson?
JG: No, I don’t think so. I mean, you know, sorry to use a journalism cliché here, but only time will tell, right? And I’m holding myself to a standard of ensuring that we maintain all sorts of diversity, the gender diversity and race diversity, but also ideological diversity. So I want to make this a welcoming place for a broad spectrum of people, and I think we’re, we’ve done that so far. And I think we can continue doing it.
HH: Thank you for coming on to talk about this, Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic.
End of interview.