We’re now several days into a roiling debate over whether liberals ought to be upset that the Atlantic hired a man who once argued that a quarter of American women should be imprisoned or executed.* Predictably, both sides have progressed from that specific and tedious subject to a debate about liberal bias in media, broadly speaking, of which the backlash against Kevin Williamson’s hiring is supposedly proof. “This is not about persuasion or engagement; it never is,” National Review contributor Dan McLaughlin tweeted. “It’s about using anger and organization to shout down, defund, and drive out opposing viewpoints.” The Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney moaned: “They always pretend there’s an acceptable conservative somewhere. ‘Oh, just not Douthat.’ ‘Just not McArdle.’ ‘Anyone but Stephens.’ ‘Williamson is literally the worst they could’ve picked.’ Murray, Shapiro, et cetera, et cetera.’ ”
This is all nonsense. Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg challenged progressive followers to recommend right-wing writers “about whom you would not be offended if they were hired by the NY Times/Atlantic/Washington Post/etc?” You would not know reading this question or the griping from Carney, McLaughlin, and all the others that before Williamson, those three publications already employed, by my cursory and possibly incomplete count, 18 conservatives and libertarians writing regularly for them: David Brooks, Bret Stephens, Bari Weiss, Ross Douthat, David Frum, Conor Friedersdorf, Reihan Salam, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Megan McArdle, Marc Thiessen, Max Boot, Michael Gerson, Jennifer Rubin, Kathleen Parker, Radley Balko, Ed Rogers, and Anne Applebaum. The majority offer their takes frequently and freely without liberals on Twitter or anywhere else jeering in mass protest. None would raise more than a few grumbles if lateral moves were made between those publications—if the Atlantic hired Max Boot, say, or if Kathleen Parker went to the Times.
Individual liberals and leftists will differ on which voices in conservative media they think should be added to that roster, but generally speaking, the majority of that list suggests the left is almost entirely indifferent to establishment conservatives and libertarians writing for centrist and center-left publications, so long as those conservatives aren’t overly caustic or trollish. As much as some junior staffer at the Washington Free Beacon might want to believe he’d be martyred by a social media mob if he were picked up by the Washington Post, no one, in all likelihood, would bat an eye.
Rosenberg’s question also presumes there is a need to have more conservative writers represented at those publications in the first place. This is not at all obvious given the lack of representation the Times, the Post, and the Atlantic have collectively afforded to people elsewhere on the political spectrum. There is, by my count, exactly one writer at the three, the Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig, who identifies as a socialist. Heaven and earth will pass away before an anarchist is a columnist at the New York Times. And if there really is a representative need to have more conservative writers brought on, it doesn’t follow that there is a need for writers who, like Williamson, have been highly critical of Donald Trump and the current state of the right, as very nearly all of those writers have been. The anti-Trump constituency of the Republican Party is a tiny minority of voters and an even more negligible proportion of the adult population. It is patently absurd that more than a dozen writers can regularly be expected to advocate on their behalf in three of America’s most respected and widely read outlets for opinion journalism.
This entire conversation is getting a little old—more than half a century old if we’re counting. Over the course of this 1966 episode of his show Firing Line, William F. Buckley, founder of National Review and contemporary American conservative movement broadly speaking, deploys just about every trope imaginable about liberal bias—not just in the press, but on campus and in concerns about extremism.
“The final problem really is whether a society can express itself democratically in any reliable way if the prevailing bias prevents it from the opportunity sufficiently to evaluate contrary ideas and contrary opinions,” Buckley says about midway through. At one point, his guest, the liberal talk show host David Susskind, suggests the topic of supposed liberal indoctrination on college campuses had been wrung dry since the publication in 1951 of God & Man at Yale, a book that recommended the banning of textbooks and firing of professors accused of committing transgressions against the doctrines of Christianity and capitalism.
Now, think about this for a minute. In 1951, the nation was in the throes of a second Red Scare, a moral panic that saw leftists and imagined leftists across America thrown out of their jobs, and professorships, and friend circles, and the good graces of polite society. Additionally, America was, obviously, vastly more socially conservative than it is today, so much so that conservatives today herald the mores of that time as values we should return to. And yet, even back then, conservatives insisted they were being persecuted.
This raises a few obvious questions that are, for whatever reason, rarely asked. If American institutions really were intolerably liberal in 1951 and in 1966, then what would a state of affairs that satisfied the conservative movement actually look like? If, as conservatives have insisted over decades of uninterrupted complaint, the American people really are being indoctrinated into liberalism in their formative years at our schools and colleges and in their adult years by an oppressively slanted press, how exactly does one explain the American political situation in 2018, with right-wing control of the presidency, the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, 33 governorships, and 32 state legislatures? If America’s citizenry really has been spoon-fed leftist propaganda for nearly 70 straight years, isn’t the reorganization of the United States into semiautonomous workers’ republics long overdue?
Moreover, if institutional bias is a problem for American society, then why haven’t conservatives tried to solve it by building alternative unbiased institutions? The obvious societal corrective for bias at the Times and the Post and other outlets would be starting publications with a real claim to neutrality. Instead, conservatives have founded a constellation of explicitly partisan outlets ranging from National Review to the Gateway Pundit. The obvious societal corrective for bias at CNN and the major networks would be a truly objective news channel. Instead, we have Fox News. The obvious corrective for bias, indoctrination, and intolerance at our universities would be supporting and sending young people to colleges that strenuously avoid endorsing particular viewpoints. Instead, conservatives give money and often send their kids to explicitly conservative institutions such as Hillsdale, Liberty, Bob Jones, and dozens of other colleges that, mysteriously, never seem to come up in screeds about political correctness and the need to expose students to ideas they disagree with.
If we really ought to be troubled that there aren’t enough neutral purveyors of information in American society, the conservative efforts to address the issue amount, plainly, to moral failure. The notion that liberals should welcome Kevin Williamson into the fold without complaint even as the publication he’s left, to my knowledge, employs not a single liberal or leftist on its staff for regular commentary is laughable. Until the Daily Caller hires a full-time writer who regularly makes the case for taking Marx and microaggressions seriously, the right’s complaints on this subject should be dismissed out of hand and without regret. If that puts those in liberal media out of touch with the right in America, so be it. That would leave us, anyway, a step above Williamson and his anti-Trump defenders—themselves out of touch with the entirety of the left, the vast majority on the right and, of course, reality.
Correction, April 12, 2018, at 6:30 a.m.: This post previously misstated that Kevin Williamson has argued that women who receive abortions should be executed. He has argued that women who receive abortions should be imprisoned or executed in line with existing penalties for homicide.
Support our journalism
Help us continue covering the news and issues important to you—and get ad-free podcasts and bonus segments, members-only content, and other great benefits.Join Slate Plus