At a company-wide town hall-style event in early April, Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic, and his star writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates engaged in some candid public soul searching about how it is the venerable magazine, founded by abolitionists over 150 years ago, had hired (very briefly) a writer who advocated state-sanctioned hanging of women who abort pregnancies, and compared a small black child he encountered on a reporting trip to “a three-fifths scale Snoop Dogg” who gestured like a “primate.”
An Atlantic employee surreptitiously recorded the event, which leaked to Huffpost Thursday, giving the public unique insight into how journalists are grappling internally with both Donald Trump’s presidency and the lengthy campaign the conservative movement has undertaken to discredit mainstream media among fellow travelers.
The weeks in between have been as revealing about the nature of that movement as any since Trump announced his candidacy. Conservatives spent much of spring championing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the most corrupt cabinet official in modern history, and a man Kevin Williamson, the fired Atlantic columnist, praised as a “true believer, who’s “serious about this rule-of-law stuff,” because Pruitt is a friend of industry and a climate-science denier. They are currently fretting that the coal baron Don Blankenship, a viciously racist felon who cost 29 of his miners their lives, will win the GOP Senate primary in West Virginia—not because the Republican Party objects to nominating bigoted criminals to run for high office, per se, but because they worry Blankenship is likely to lose in the general election. Perhaps the central objective of the movement at the moment is to discredit the FBI and the Department of Justice so that Trump’s supporters don’t abandon him and the GOP if and when Special Counsel Robert Mueller concludes Trump obstructed justice, or conspired with Russian intelligence to subvert the 2016 election, or laundered money, or multiple of the above.
Not every conservative supports every facet of this agenda, of course, including Williamson, whose one big ideological heresy as a conservative is his opposition to Trump. But every facet of it flows from the same wellspring of right-wing contempt for modern culture, and for sources of neutral authority (science, law, journalism) that get in the way of conservative objectives.
Trump’s presidency is a logical outgrowth of that value system, which poses a challenge to leaders of these mediating institutions, because a third or more of the people in the country have embraced it. Goldberg and Coates came closer than any eminent journalists I’ve observed to grappling with this problem forthrightly. Still, at no point did they touch the third rail by asking whether conservatism itself, rather than the sensitivities of practicing journalists, is to blame for the difficulty media companies have had showcasing the full range of opinions in American politics. Their colloquy reduced the Williamson conundrum to a matter of specific forbidden viewpoints, suggesting that a less trollish version of Williamson, or one who held softer views about abortion, might be compatible with The Atlantic’s mission. That some conservatives are too extreme, and some are too centrist, but in between some are just right. Williamson just wasn’t one of them.
As Coates framed the problem, the source of the tension is that as The Atlantic and other media companies become more diverse and gender-balanced, right-wing views that are hostile to change or pluralism will fall out of the center of respectable debate within their newsrooms. “Some of those things that I would argue should be out of bounds, actually a large number of Americans actually believe,” Coates acknowledged.
In this telling, Williamson disqualified himself not because he’s a movement conservative but because he’s a particularly extreme and pugnacious conservative. I think there is a more basic incompatibility at work here that’s rooted as much in the right’s views about society as in how they seek to advance those views. The editors who have responded to Trump by opening their platforms to more conservatives, while trying simultaneously to uphold the standards of their institutions, have repeatedly seen their best intentions run aground because most conservatives don’t share those standards. There is no Goldilocks conservative up for hire and there never will be.
The Williamson debacle unfolded in the first place because Goldberg was trying to reconcile two goals: First, to make The Atlantic a hub for robust-but-good-faith argument, without calling into question fundamental values like reason as the basis of persuasion, and the equal dignity of all people. Second, to set forth The Atlantic as a staging ground for the full sweep of American political debate, and thus make it inclusive of writers who emerge from a movement that doesn’t share those values.
Goldberg allowed that the goals are in tension with one another—he called it “the tension of being The Atlantic”—but at this moment in American history, they are practically irreconcilable.
It is worth noting that multiple conservative writers already work for or are affiliated with The Atlantic uncontroversially—but none is a member in good standing of the conservative movement. As a stridently anti-choice conservative who detests Barack Obama and Obamacare, and embraces the entire conservative catechism, Williamson would’ve brought a bunch of Trump-y views with him into The Atlantic’s tent, notwithstanding his particular distaste for Trump himself.
Keeping Williamson on staff would have made the tent bigger, but at the expense of a commitment to humane ideals and empiricism. That’s not because Williamson is particularly bad, but because he is a creature of the movement. His hiring boomeranged the way other conservative hires at centrist outlets have boomeranged not because only liberals are welcome, but because writers steeped in conservative-movement politics are poor fits at institutions that embrace the professional standards of mainstream journalism. The New York Times has employed Ross Douthat and David Brooks for years through occasional passing controversies. It opened itself up to more sustained criticism when it hired Bret Stephens from the Wall Street Journal, who introduced himself to readers with a column deriding the “overweening scientism” of environmentalists, and claiming they overstate the risks of climate change to mask hidden “ideological intentions.”
Stephens, another anti-Trumper, is less strident than Williamson, and tends to steer clear of culture war flashpoints, but is nevertheless a bad fit for a mainstream opinion page.
There are a small number of conservatives out there who will argue in good faith that the government shouldn’t try to mitigate climate change because taxes and regulations represent a greater injustice, or who will acknowledge that the government should cut taxes and welfare spending because downward redistribution is immoral. Stephens is not one of them. Like most movement conservatives he begins with fixed ideological commitments and reverse engineers arguments to justify those commitments. Williamson adds to that flawed rhetorical style a thick layer of contempt for millions of women and poor minorities.
In theory, competent editors could scrub Stephens’ and Williamson’s articles until they met acceptable standards of argumentative rigor and decency, but that would set back the goal of ideological diversity they were hired to advance in the first place. Conservatives enjoy Williamson because he’s Williamson. Bringing him in to the big tent only to censor all the things the right likes about his work would serve no faction’s purposes well.
And yet all this stretching and compromising to represent more viewpoints, and present an olive branch to Republicans, has largely served to advance the careers of NeverTrump conservatives who represent a minuscule fraction of the American right, and buy no good will. To truly mirror the full range of American political ideas, publications like The Atlantic or the Times would have to hire genuinely pro-Trump writers, who would excuse away or deflect from Trump’s racism and dishonesty and contempt for competing institutions with propaganda.
This hasn’t happened precisely because all the key decisionmakers understand Trumpism is beneath the best standards of opinion journalism. During and after the election, CNN hired a slate of pro-Trump commentators to appease Trump, and succeeded only in debasing itself. But Trumpism is the political style of the overwhelming majority of conservatives in the country. Most journalists have not reckoned with what that means for their industry, which is committed to values like empiricism and reason, but also to demonstrating neutrality toward America’s mainstream ideological movements. To the mission of the vocation, but also to accommodating people and ideas that are fundamentally hostile to that mission. Yet clearly one commitment or the other has to give
At one point in their conversation, Coates and Goldberg appear to reach agreement that The Atlantic can avoid more Williamson-style fiascos by recommitting to basics. “If we publish kick-ass stories, very little of this will actually matter,” Coates said, leading to a brief discursion about the importance of reporting as a method: Reporting makes opinion journalism more persuasive and enduring by weeding out bad assumptions and other nonsense.
They’re correct about this, but they never grapple with why: Why is it that holding writers to strict standards of empiricism, logical rigor, and broad-based information-seeking will clear out the Williamson-style landmines editors like Goldberg have stepped on? Why do conservatives run either too hot, or too cold, but never just right? The answer is there. It may be the single most important thing to know about American politics today, and Donald Trump made it plain for all to see. But few journalists can bring themselves to say it out loud.