Tony Messenger is the editor of the editorial pages of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. He fired George Will today because he found a column Will wrote two weeks ago offensive. Messenger joined me to discuss his absurd decision, and its likely impact on his already almost-dead newspaper –until he hung up on me. Messneger had committed to three segments; he bailed before the end of the second.
HH: Right now, I am joined for the next forty minutes by Tony Messenger. He is the editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Tony, welcome, it’s good to have you on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
TM: Thanks for having me, Hugh. Good to be here.
HH: You’re also the guy who fired George Will, and that’s really what I want to talk to you about. But before that, I always do a little journalist GPS for the audience for the first time when people come on to get you sighted on the map. Before you were at the Post-Dispatch, you were at the Columbia Times, right?
TM: Well, before I was at the Post-Dispatch, I was at the Springfield News Leader in Springfield, Missouri, and then before that, the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri. I grew up in Colorado. I’ve worked at papers in Colorado, Arizona, South Dakota, Nebraska and three different places in Missouri. So…
HH: Are you a graduate of the august University of Colorado? Are you a Buffalo?
TM: I am not. I attended Loyola University of Chicago, though I did not graduate.
HH: Okay, and now on the journalism GPS thing, mandatory, have you read The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright?
TM: No, I have not.
HH: How about Peter Baker’s Days Of Fire?
HH: Okay, now a few obvious questions just to get biography. Are you a Christian or a believer of any sort?
TM: Yes, I am. I’m a Christian, practicing.
HH: Which kind of denomination?
TM: Just independent Christian church, Wildwood Christian Church in St. Louis, Missouri.
HH: And did you vote for Obama twice?
TM: Yes, I did. Ask me the next question.
HH: Did you vote for Bush ever?
HH: You voted for George W. Bush twice?
TM: Yes, I did.
HH: Did you vote for Clinton or Dole?
TM: I voted for, I’m not quite that old. I voted for Perot before I voted for Bush, and now we’re getting into the stage where I’ve got to tell you, I don’t remember exactly, but I voted for Bush twice and Obama twice.
HH: You had to have voted for Clinton once if you voted for Perot once, because then that would have been Clinton/Dole. Maybe you voted for Perot twice, actually. Who knows?
TM: No, I think I just voted for Perot once.
HH: Are you a supporter of abortion rights?
TM: I am anti-abortion.
HH: But are you a supporter of abortion rights?
TM: I think people get caught up in the language. I believe that the law of the land is the law of the land. I am against abortion, and I believe lawmakers should do what they can to stop abortion. I do believe that a lot of what happens in legislatures doesn’t actually reduce abortions.
HH: But for clarity’s sake, if, for example, there was a 24 hour waiting period passed, would you vote for that if you were in the legislature?
TM: No, I wouldn’t, and we wrote an editorial opposing Missouri’s 72 hour waiting period that the legislature passed this year that hopefully, our governor will veto.
HH: So how about an informed consent or a mandatory sonogram?
TM: We already have that in Missouri. I’m not entirely opposed to that. I think abortion should be very rare, and I think that anything that can be done to reduce the prevalence of it within the law, and within protecting a woman’s right to choose as the law allows is reasonable. And I think there’s a lot of area to debate there. I mean, for instance, we had a study here at Washington University on contraception use that showed that it significantly reduced the prevalence of teen pregnancies, and reduced abortion. And I think that’s a great thing to promote in terms of positive public policy that can save lives and be good pro-public health.
HH: And do you support, and Tony, do you support same sex marriage?
TM: Yes, I do.
HH: Are you a supporter of 2nd Amendment rights?
TM: Yes, I am.
HH: How about concealed carry laws?
TM: I don’t have a particular problem with concealed carry. I have written in opposition to it previously, and my view on that has changed over the years. I think concealed carry is a reasonable thing. I think there are limits, and should be.
HH: Did you support the invasion of Afghanistan?
HH: Did you support the invasion of Iraq?
HH: Now you wrote about Mr. Will’s column, and I read all of it last hour to save us time, so the audience could, I didn’t have to read it with you. You wrote, “The change which led to Mr. Will’s column being dropped has been under consideration for several months, but a column published June 5 in which Mr. Will suggested that sexual assault victims on college campuses enjoy a privileged status, made the decision easier. The column was offensive and inaccurate. We apologize for publishing it.” I honestly cannot find a sentence in the column, Tony, that suggests that sexual assault victims on college campuses enjoy privileged status. Where was it?
TM: I believe the implication is clear that that’s what he believes some sexual assault victims are seeking, and what some universities are attempting to bestow upon them. And that is clearly how women, a lot of women, and a lot of men, but based on my email reactions and voice mails today, significantly more women, that is clearly how a lot of women who are deeply offended by it interpreted it.
HH: Now earlier today, you told Erik Wemple of the Washington Post that the reaction of women I know, and talking to people who were really offended by the thought that sexual assault victims would seek some special victimhood, it helped seeing that response, and it informed my opinion. On which social media did you see that opinion voiced?
TM: Primarily Twitter and Facebook, which are the two that I spend time on, but then also just talking to individual women, talking to staff members, talking to people that I know, and receiving emails and calls about it.
HH: And did you resort to any particular website other than Twitter feeds which can be highly selective, as we both know, and Facebook, which can be highly selective? Can you point to any websites that took this position and supported it by any kind of public opinion gathering other than anonymous blogging and Twitter things?
TM: I mean, not particularly. I read a lot of news coverage about it. I couldn’t tell you right now offhand exactly what I looked at.
HH: Do you read Media Matters?
TM: Not very regularly, no. I mean, I occasionally click links into it, but it’s not something that’s on my daily reading material.
HH: Have you read it in connection with this Will story?
TM: No. If they wrote about me, it’s possible I did if they wrote about our decision today. I’ve read a lot of different things that people have written about our decision today. So I may well have linked through to them, but it’s not something that comes up on my radar screen very often.
HH: Did you keep any emails from women objecting to the Will column?
HH: Would you publish those tonight?
TM: Not tonight. I’m on my way to my son’s baseball game. But I mean, we’re going to publish, we’re going to publish on Saturday a whole lot of reaction to our decision. And we have published letters to the editor previously before our decision that both objected to and I believe supported Mr. Will’s column, and we’ll continue to do that. We publish a wide variety of opinions on our pages, including plenty that disagree with us.
HH: Mr. Will made a point that the statistics, the arithmetic, just didn’t add up that 12% go unreported, but one out of five women have been sexually assaulted. Did you disagree with his assessment of the quirkiness of the math cited by the report?
TM: I looked at that, and I believed in, well, not necessarily in the, well, I believed in the column, and in his defense, he looks at an anecdotal example of, if I remember correctly, Ohio State University. And I’m not statistician, but I don’t believe a specific anecdotal example necessarily disproves his math. I’m not willing to say one way or another that he got that part right as it relates to the alleged discrepancy that he charges between two different Department of Justice numbers. I don’t believe those numbers necessarily refer to the same collection of data. But, so I’m not alleging that he got that wrong. But I’m not convinced he got it right, either.
HH: The primary person cited by the White House is Professor Krebs, who has a 2014 paper out called Measuring Sexual Victimization: On What Fronts Is The Jury Still Out, And Do We Need It To Come In, the abstract of which says the measurement of victimization, especially sexual victimization is a topic that has been the source of much debate. A Bureau of Justice statistics is currently exploring one of the best methods for measuring sexual victimization, and he goes on to note that in fact, it’s a field fraught with a great deal of controversy. Do you personally believe one out of five women has been assaulted on college campuses, Mr. Messenger?
TM: I don’t know that I personally believe that that’s true. I would not be shocked if that’s true. I know women who have been sexually assaulted on college campuses.
HH: So do I. I have defended them, actually. I have prosecuted their cases. I know it to be true. But I don’t believe one-fifth of women have been. Do you?
TM: I don’t know that I necessarily believe it one way or the other.
TM: I would not be surprised if that number is accurate.
HH: Okay, we’ll come back after the break and talk about that. Please think about that, and then I want to ask you specifically what was offensive about what George Will wrote. If you’ve got the column in the car, I’d like you to read to my audience what you found offensive.
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HH: Mr. Messenger, did you read the column before it was published?
TM: It’s a little bit unfair to say that I fired him. We switched from one syndicated columnist to another. He’s still a syndicated columnist. He’s just not appearing in our paper. And also, just to be clear, it wasn’t just this column that led to our decision. I know you said that in the first segment, but this one sounded to gloss over that a little bit. But yes.
HH: You did read it?
TM: We read the column before we put it in the paper, and at the time, we, as I explained to Mr. Wemple in the piece that you referenced earlier in the Washington Post, we didn’t pay as much attention to it as we should have. We were not initially as aware as I think we should have been as to some of the problems with it. And clearly, the reaction that happened afterwards had an effect on our thinking.
HH: Now I am concerned that this is pure McCarthyism, that post-hoc outrage, and there is an outrage industry in the United States, can generate charges that I am offended and that it’s inaccurate. I do not know how it’s inaccurate. I don’t believe, and I will look for your explanation at length, as to where it is inaccurate. But what, offensive is in the eye of the beholder, so you could be offended by something.
HH: So tell me if you would, specifically, what was offensive, and specifically, what was inaccurate?
TM: And let me be clear, and I actually wrote an email to Mr. Will’s secretary today explaining the same question. He had a question about the inaccuracy. We weren’t referring necessarily to a factual inaccuracy, but we believed that the very assumption or opinion that sexual assault victims in any way on college campuses are seeking privileged status, or that universities are trying to bestow that status on women, is completely inaccurate, and don’t believe that the evidence shows that that is to be true. And mostly, it’s offensive. It allows, it continues for the victimization of women and diminishes the importance that we should place on the very serious prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses.
HH: Did you, so you are agreeing there is no place where a factual inaccuracy exists in Mr. Will’s column?
TM: To the best of my knowledge, no, there is not, and we did not correct one.
HH: All right, and so the column just offended you and your folks because of the representations it made. Now I have a factual question in your years as an opinion columnist, and you’ve written opinion columns for a long time, haven’t you?
TM: Yes, I have.
HH: Have you ever written an opinion column mentioning Juanita Broaddrick or Kathleen Willey?
TM: To the best of my memory, no, but it just doesn’t ring a bell right now.
HH: Do you know who they are?
HH: They are the women that President Clinton assaulted, at least who alleged that President Clinton assaulted them. George Will once wrote in the Los Angeles Times that he believed President Clinton had actually raped Juanita Broaddrick, though he didn’t use her by name. The Los Angeles Times dropped that reference. They later had to apologize for that. Would you understand how I might see it was something of an odd standard to be upset about a column that I don’t find offensive when you haven’t taken up the defense of women assaulted by the president of the United States?
TM: I guess I could understand that. I don’t, this fascination of comparing everything back to Bill Clinton and how many years ago was that, and now, I’m going to recall what I did or didn’t write about that, I mean, that, to me, that sort of obfuscates the message. But yes, I can understand how some people might believe that a different standard was applied in various cases, whether it’s this case versus a case ten years ago, or a different case. People make that accusation as it relates to politics all the time. And I’m not going to offer a judgment as to whether or not that’s unfair.
HH: What I’m looking for, though, is your standard of being offended, because obviously, you weren’t offended by Bill Clinton. You didn’t write about it at the time. Are you offended by Al Sharpton and his manipulation of women claiming victimhood in the past?
TM: Well, you’re saying I didn’t write about Bill Clinton at the time. I don’t know that I, I don’t believe I wrote about that particular situation. But I was probably a news reporter at the time and not an opinion page editor. So again, I think that’s, you’re making a jump there to a conclusion that is probably unfair.
HH: Well, I don’t think unfair. I think there’s this giant double standard for left wingers. They overlook real sexual assault by people who ought to be named and shamed, and they go after people like George Will who write about a controversial study that’s got quite a lot of academic issues with it having to do with arithmetic. They fire him, you publicly shame him. You call him offensive. But I can’t determine the standard by which you do so. And so I bring up Al Sharpton only because of Tawana Brawley. He manipulated that young woman. Do you agree with that, by the way?
TM: I didn’t study that particular case significantly, so I mean, you know, I’m just going to try to be careful about making judgments about things that happened years ago that I may or may not have written about. I have spent most of my career writing about local and state issues. I have not spent most of my career writing about national issues. And so to say that I didn’t write about something, and then to make that jump to say that I have a different standard, while you incorrectly call me a lefty, I’m just going to be careful about not answering that, because am I offended by some of the things that Al Sharpton has said and done over the years? Yes. Have I necessarily written about it? I couldn’t tell you.
HH: But I think silencing people and shaming them for perceived beliefs…
TM: I didn’t silence anybody.
HH: Oh, you silenced George Will. You have, I mean, you’ve censored him.
TM: I took him out of our paper.
HH: He’s out of your paper. You’ve censored him, right? That’s what censorship is.
TM: No, no, governments, come on, governments censor. Newspapers don’t censor.
HH: No, that’s actually, I teach Con Law. All sorts of people censor. I censor people all the time when I throw them off my show. I mean, I’m a censor.
HH: I make choices. It’s not government censorship. It’s not prohibited by the 1st Amendment.
TM: I made a business decision and chose to publish a different columnist. But I didn’t silence George Will. He’s a big boy. He’s still got a much bigger megaphone than I do.
HH: Let me ask you, and this is, by the way, more of my GPS. You remember Alger Hiss?
HH: You think Alger Hiss was a communist?
TM: I’m not smart enough to give a good response to that. I’m guessing I’m younger than you are.
HH: I’m 58, but I mean, I wasn’t born when he was the Pumpkin Patch Papers, so it’s not really a question of age. It’s a question of reading. You don’t know if Alger Hiss was a communist?
TM: I am not a historian, and you know, I’m just not going to offer a judgment there. I couldn’t tell you.
HH: Do you know if Joseph McCarthy was a good man or a bad guy?
TM: I don’t know if he was a good man or a bad man. I don’t think he was probably a very good Congressman.
HH: He was a Senator. We’ll come back after the break, because I think what we’re getting, I think you’re actually falling into McCarthyism with what you’ve done with George Will, but it’s hard to discuss that if you don’t know who Alger Hiss is, and you don’t have an opinion of McCarthy.
TM: Oh, I’ve got an opinion of McCarthy. I can’t tell you if he’s a good man or a bad man. I didn’t know him. I don’t think he was, I don’t think that what he did in his job was good. I’m not going to make a personal judgment on the man.
HH: But how can you know what he did in his job if you don’t know if Alger Hiss was a communist?
TM: Now we’re getting far afield. Hugh, I appreciate the time.
HH: No, we’ve got five more minutes.
TM: I’ve got to run.
HH: You gave me five more minutes. Don’t go anywhere.
TM: I’ve got to go. Thank you, sir.
HH: You promised me one more segment. Don’t you run away now. You promised me.
HH: Unbelievable. He hung up on me. Another Alger Hiss victim. I’m sorry, America.
End of interview.