Last week, The Atlantic announced a handful of new columnist hires, including longtime National Review writer Kevin D. Williamson. The magazine’s editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, has already felt the need to defend the decision to his staff.
That news comes courtesy of Slate, which on Tuesday published an internal memo from Goldberg laying out the case for adding Williamson to the magazine’s lineup. The memo doesn’t dive deep into the more hateful writing—in which Williamson espoused racist, sexist, and transphobic views—that caused people to protest his hiring so loudly.
Instead, Goldberg reiterates a familiar call for narrowly defined “intellectual diversity,” providing yet more evidence that top leaders within the media are loath to truly recalibrate their thinking to fit our current political moment.
Here is the explanatory section of Goldberg’s memo, which comes after he brushes aside Williamson’s affinity for trolling and shares his belief in “second chances and the opportunity to change” (emphasis mine):
The larger question is this: What am I trying to accomplish by having Kevin write for us? The first answer is this: He’s an excellent reporter who covers parts of the country, and aspects of American life, that we don’t yet cover comprehensively. I happen to think that conservatives made ideologically homeless by the rise of Trump are some of the most interesting people in America, and I want to read them whenever I can.
It is telling that the editor of a magazine that fancies itself as an incubator of the American Idea would write those words in a memo almost sure to be leaked to the public. The notion that Williamson is “ideologically homeless” in the Trump era is debatable at best. And it is galling to think that never-Trump conservatives, whose failings helped push the Republican Party toward its current state, are inherently interesting for realizing that they had gone too far.
But Goldberg goes on:
As our staff knows, because I go on about this ad nauseam, I take very seriously the idea that The Atlantic should be a big tent for ideas and argument. It is my mission to make sure that we outdo our industry in achieving gender equality and racial diversity. It is also my job is to make sure that we are ideologically diverse. Diversity in all its forms makes us better journalists; it also opens us up to new audiences. I would love to have an Ideas section filled with libertarians, socialists, anarcho-pacifists and theocons, in addition to mainstream liberals and conservatives, all arguing with each other. If we are going to host debates, we have to host people who actually disagree with, and sometimes offend, the other side. Kevin will help this cause.
The Atlantic already has a number of Republican expats, even if their views aren’t as strident as those of Williamson. But one wonders when Goldberg’s lip service to the libertarians and socialists and anarcho-pacifists of the world will likewise turn into action. There’s nothing stopping him from filling his magazine with such views. But I suppose it’s hard to compete in the marketplace of ideas with “some of the most interesting people in America”—middle-aged white conservative men who like to punch down.
There are two plausible reasons Goldberg would write such a memo. The first is that he wanted to communicate his thinking to staff amid public criticism of a high-profile hire. The second is that The Atlantic’s staff itself has misgivings about Williamson joining the masthead. Regardless of which reason—or combination of reasons—is true, the underlying message bears a striking resemblance to some of the defenses of The New York Times opinion section by Editorial Page Editor James Bennet, who happens to be Goldberg’s predecessor at The Atlantic.
In both cases, the editors have sought to respond to the Trump era by bolstering their vision of what a Trump-era conservative looks like—even if their chosen vessels have virtually no public constituency beyond the pages of their own publications. They’ve opened up their institutions to contrarian thinkers whose “challenges” to liberal values often rest upon illiberal assumptions. And their calls for “intellectual diversity” predictably center on the same sort of conservative columnist who has finally bit into the fruit of his labor, only to realize that it’s sour.
Goldberg closes his memo with a reminder that Williamson’s work will be subject to the same standards that everyone else at The Atlantic must meet. I have little doubt that will be the case—that Atlantic editors won’t allow Williamson to compare black children to primates or tweet that women who have abortions should be hanged, both of which he has done in the past. The better question is why a grown man who published such retrograde views deserves what Goldberg virtuously describes as “second chances” over everyone else who’s looking for their first.