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The Atlantic “Parts Ways” With Kevin Williamson Over Women-Should-Be-Hanged Comments

Kevin Williamson
Kevin Williamson at the National Review Institute’s 2017 Ideas Summit.
The National Review

The Atlantic is “parting ways” with conservative grenade hurler Kevin Williamson, after Media Matters surfaced a podcast appearance in which the writer reiterated his stance that women who had abortions should be hanged. In light of this new information, Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in a letter to staff on Thursday, “I have come to the conclusion that The Atlantic is not the best fit for his talents.”

The magazine’s decision last month to hire Williamson as one of its new “ideas columnists” was met with an immediate backlash, thanks to his track record of extreme anti-abortion, racially insensitive, and transphobic commentary. (I personally referred to him as a “verbose and hateful troll,” because his writing often seems aimed at needlessly provoking and demeaning his targets.) Much of the discussion about Williamson’s hiring focused on a 2014 Twitter exchange in which the longtime National Review writer suggested that women who terminate their pregnancies should be hanged. As the controversy spiraled, Goldberg wrote a memo to Atlantic staffers arguing that while Williamson’s comments weren’t necessarily acceptable, he was a talented writer who deserved another chance, and had shown some personal growth by deleting his Twitter account.

“I don’t think anyone should try to defend Kevin’s most horrible tweet. I expect that Kevin will explain this tweet himself when he gets here,” Goldberg wrote. “He will also have the opportunity to explain other controversial aspects of his writing. But 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.”

It turns out Williamson’s women-should-be-hanged comment wasn’t just an offhand tweet. In a 2014 episode of a National Review podcast, Williamson said he was “absolutely willing to see abortion treated like a regular homicide under the criminal code,” adding, “I would totally go with treating it like any other crime up to and including hanging.” He later explained his preference for hanging: “I’m kind of squishy about capital punishment in general, but I’ve got a soft spot for hanging as a form of capital punishment. I tend to think that things like lethal injection are a little too antiseptic.”

In his letter announcing Williamson’s departure, Goldberg wrote that the “language he used in this podcast—and in my conversations with him in recent days—made it clear that the original tweet did, in fact, represent his carefully considered views. The tweet was not merely an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post, as Kevin had explained it. 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.”

Goldberg’s new letter makes no mention of the times Williamson compared a black child to a primate or likened trans women to Voodoo worshipers. “We remain committed to grappling with complex moral issues in our journalism,” Goldberg wrote. You can read his full memo below.

Dear All, 

Last week, I wrote you about our decision to hire Kevin Williamson. In that note, I mentioned my belief that Kevin would represent an important addition to our roster of Ideas columnists, and I addressed the controversy surrounding some of his past tweeting and writing. I expressed my belief that no one’s life work should be judged by an intemperate tweet, and that such an episode should not necessarily stop someone from having a fruitful career at The Atlantic. 

Late yesterday afternoon, information came to our attention that has caused us to reconsider this relationship. Specifically, the subject of one of Kevin’s most controversial tweets was also a centerpiece of a podcast discussion in which Kevin explained his views on the subject of the death penalty and abortion. The language he used in this podcast—and in my conversations with him in recent days—made it clear that the original tweet did, in fact, represent his carefully considered views. The tweet was not merely an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post, as Kevin had explained it. 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.

Kevin is a gifted writer, and he has been nothing but professional in all of our interactions. But I have come to the conclusion that The Atlantic is not the best fit for his talents, and so we are parting ways.

We remain committed to grappling with complex moral issues in our journalism. Some of our colleagues are pro-life, and some are pro-choice; we have pro-death-penalty and anti-death-penalty writers; we have liberals and conservatives. We obviously understood that Kevin himself is pro-life when we asked him to write for us. This is not about Kevin’s views on abortion.

We are striving here to be a big-tent journalism organization at a time of national fracturing. We will continue to build a newsroom that is, as The Atlantic’s founding manifesto states, “of no party or clique.” We are also an organization that values a spirit of generosity and collegiality. We must strive to uphold that standard as well.

Jeff