Culture

Kevin Williamson and Our Fractured Media Landscape

(Pixabay)
Is there no longer room for a politically diverse magazine?

Recently, Kevin Williamson left National Review to take a position as a staff writer at The Atlantic. Williamson published exactly one story at The Atlantic before being pushed out after pressure on social media, primarily regarding comments he had made on a 2014 episode of his Mad Dogs and Englishmen podcast regarding capital punishment for abortion. This episode illustrates two models we see in sociology: scandal as accusation, and the niche partitioning of industries.

Scandal is less about transgression than it is about accusation. Ari Adut in his book On Scandal discusses several public scandals and notes how in each case scandal did not erupt spontaneously as a result of transgression but through the efforts of a dedicated accuser to force the issue. The Victorians were not too naïve or stupid to notice Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality; they simply ignored it until Queensberry, angry over the seduction of his son Alfred, publicly accused Wilde and collected testimony coroborating the accusation. Similarly, The Atlantic did not fire Williamson because he took an extreme position (one that is generally rejected by the pro-life movement) but because Media Matters For America (MMFA) collected and publicized a dossier of Williamson’s past statements that it knew would offend its constituency.

MMFA’s motive in doing so and how their accusation resonated is best understood through the second model at issue, which is how we have increasingly come to understand media outlets as representing particular ideological viewpoints. As I argued here in National Review in a 2012 post:

Regardless of whether you think the media ever accomplished the goal of objectivity, it’s pretty clear that they engaged in some pretty elaborate genre conventions in pursuit of that goal (and moreover, that these genre conventions make for awkward prose). This was an anomalous situation historically and only ever really existed because a combination of printing technology and geography created a situation with tremendous economies of scale at the local level, at least in the United States. . . .

Economies of scale tend to imply natural monopolies, but there is still the question of who will be the monopolist, or more precisely, what market position the monopolist will take. The Hotelling theorem tells us that in a monopoly or even an oligopoly you’ll tend to get products targeted at the median consumer. In the context of news this means a sort of bland apolitical centrism. . . . By targeting news coverage at the median voter you minimize the number of people who feel the content is so discordant with their views of reality that they have to cancel their subscriptions. . . . .

Technological change (e.g., the development of cable and the internet) and to a lesser extent legal change (e.g., the FCC’s repeal of the fairness doctrine) change this. When there were only three networks nationwide and one newspaper in every town it’s easy to understand why they would converge on bland nonpartisanship as expressed through the genre conventions of “objectivity.” But we’ve been rapidly moving away from that world since the 1980s.

The result is what sociologists call “niche partitioning,” in which specialist firms emerge to compete with the generalist firms that once dominated. In response, generalist firms sometimes attempt a “robust” approach, meaning they provide a variety of products that appeal to different consumers, such as having both liberal and conservative columnists on an op-ed page.

Of course, attempting to provide a robust identity was exactly what The Atlantic was attempting to do when it announced on March 22 that it was hiring both Williamson and Ibram X. Kendi, a cultural historian of race. And as we saw in the case of The Atlantic, achieving a robust identity is a difficult business. Ideally, it relies on the different audiences to whom you’re appealing being unaware of how the other understands you. The best way to be a floor wax and a dessert topping is not to polish the floors with the product in front of customers at the ice-cream parlor.

In this case, readers who don’t care for Williamson’s writing or opinions did not simply flip past his stories to get to more-agreeable ones — the gee-whiz glories of technocratic neoliberalism, how some professor ran a chi-squared test that shows there is another mundane aspect of life that you should feel guilty about, the have-it-all-lean-in anxieties of upper-middle-class college-educated women in their late thirties, can’t-we-all-get-along political refereeing, a sermon on the subjugation of black bodies. Rather, MMFA and the rest of the take-industrial complex worked up The Atlantic’s core audience to see Williamson’s presence as an affront to the readers’ sensibilities and perhaps even to the physical safety or emotional well-being of his colleagues.

Conservatives led this flight from objectivity, owing to their long-standing objections that the centrist consensus was really a center-left consensus.

This is not, as has often been argued, anything specific to Williamson and the notion he casually floated as a just but unfeasible policy. For instance, Megan McArdle is generally a more genteel writer than Williamson, and one whose soft libertarian policy preferences are generally less offensive to the Left than social conservativism, but there was nonetheless much wailing and gnashing of teeth after the Washington Post hired her as an opinion writer in February. The usual Javerts dutifully recited the stock accusations against her, a mix of highlights from her writing and grossly exaggerated accusations of financial connections to Koch political patronage. Likewise, for the past few months there seem to have been few jobs in America less hectic than that of a customer-service representative at the New York Times, processing cancellation requests over everything from Ross Douthat suggesting that a durable immigration deal should address restrictionist concerns, to an opinion staffer’s sartorial opinions on pants, to straight-news profiles on neo-Nazis, to a Pavlovian response to the sound of Bret Stephens typing.

Through most of the 20th century and going strong in the late 1980s, there was a robust tendency in American media to strive for news and opinion of broad appeal, either by presenting news that was as blandly non-ideological as possible or by presenting a wide and balanced spectrum of opinion. The 1980s had opinion magazines, such as this magazine on the right and The Nation on the left, but the broad tendency, including essentially all broadcasting and daily newspapers, was to have content that was either non-ideological or balanced. Over the past 30 years, though, this model has broken down.

Conservatives led this flight from objectivity, owing to their long-standing objections that the centrist consensus was really a center-left consensus, and adopted new models of explicitly right-wing media, especially broadcasting, as legal and technological changes made ideological media more feasible. Hence the common left-wing rebuttal to right-wing objections to Williamson’s firing: We would not expect National Review to hire a liberal or Reason a socialist, so why should we be shocked that The Atlantic regretted its decision to hire an outspoken conservative? Of course, this concedes the point that The Atlantic is no longer a general-interest periodical but a liberal periodical, as demanded by an audience that has lost the taste for blandly inoffensive generalism and something-for-everyone robust identities and now insists on specialists who strive not for objectivity but for purity.

Gabriel Rossman is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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