The Atlantic’s decision to fire the conservative columnist Kevin D. Williamson has occasioned an avalanche of think pieces, the latest of which is a Wall Street Journal article from Williamson in his own defence. All these commentaries swirl around the same question: Exactly how important is political diversity in media? For some, Williamson’s firing is proof that the mainstream media practices something like institutional discrimination against conservatives. For others, Williamson’s views were so beyond the pale that hiring him in the name of ‘diversity’ would be no more justifiable than a university astronomy department hiring a flat-earther. Diverse, yes, but also disqualifyingly wrong.
Of the latter group—those who are skeptical of the need for media outlets to pursue political diversity—the ablest pen currently belongs to Osita Nwanevu, who laid out his argument in a piece for Slate entitled “It’s Time to Stop Yammering About Liberal Bias.” There are two layers to his critique: firstly, the media actually has plenty of political diversity, but secondly, this diversity isn’t a particularly important value for publications like the Atlantic to pursue.
Nwanevu argues that in our nation’s three most important ‘big tent’ publications—what we might call media’s elite gatekeeper institutions—there are already more than enough conservatives and libertarians. At the New York Times, Washington Post, and Atlantic, Nwanevu counts 18 such people who contribute regularly: 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. In the spirit of good faith, I’ll point out that he forgot at least one—McKay Coppins, at the Atlantic.
It’s an odd list, for a few reasons. Firstly, the only thing these writers really have in common (besides great talent) is that each of them holds views that depart from progressive orthodoxy in some way. Bret Stephens is skeptical of environmental activism, Bari Weiss questions the #MeToo movement, Conor Friedersdorf is worried about free speech on campus, and so on. But if the standard for political diversity is ‘anyone who departs from orthodoxy in any way,’ it only shows us how powerful that orthodoxy really is. We should sense trouble when paragons of careful, centre-Right moderation like Anne Applebaum start being held out as examples of ‘diversity.’
Indeed, one couldn’t build a more moderate list of dissenters. Of this crew, only one—Ed Rogers—could reasonably be described as a Trump supporter. The rest are prominent Trump opponents, and more than a few are widely despised by the country’s conservative establishment for their heterodoxies on policy. They represent the mildest encroachment on the political Left, certainly relative to the views of the country as a whole. A stiff dose of doctrinaire conservatism this is not.
But being in fundamental agreement with their publications’ liberal readership on the most important political issue of the day apparently isn’t enough—many of these writers find themselves hanging onto their jobs by their fingernails. At the New York Times, Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens have both triggered a savage backlash and boycotts of the paper, and Bari Weiss is regularly subjected to particular venom. James Bennet, the editor responsible for hiring them, is reportedly under intense internal pressure to change course. His policy of seeking a political diversity that extends past tokenism on the op-ed page is instead understood as “contempt for readers.”
Inexplicably, Nwanevu argues that liberals are “almost entirely indifferent” to these conservatives—despite subscription cancellations reaching such a pitch over the hiring of Stephens that Arthur O. Sulzburger, the publisher of the New York Times, was forced to issue a rare public appeal for calm.
Perhaps the most curious thing about this list is how readers are expected to take it on faith that 19 non-progressives is plenty. Between the three publications, I count 105 regular opinion writers. That means a full 18 percent of this group identify as anything other than left-of-center. Once again, if Nwanevu thinks this is ‘diversity,’ it says more about the power of liberal orthodoxy than anything else.
This mirrors the under-representation that conservatives experience in academia, another elite field whose nominal commitment to diversity of thought often collides with the political tribalism of its practitioners. Musa al-Gharbi recently documented that conservatives are the single least-represented group in the social sciences—blacks, Hispanics, and Asians are all better represented. Extreme conservative underrepresentation in academia isn’t inevitable—the problem in academia has been getting steadily worse over time, perhaps fueled by the fact that more education makes people more willing to discriminate against people who don’t share their political views.
Nwanevu sees calls for these institutions to seek greater political diversity as disingenuous. After all, he argues, if conservatives care so much about institutional neutrality, why do they respond to exclusion by creating highly partisan institutions like Fox News or Liberty University instead of forming neutral ones? “Until the Daily Caller hires a full-time writer who regularly makes the case for taking Marx and microaggressions seriously,” he writes, “the right’s complaints on this subject should be dismissed out of hand and without regret.”
Last year, centrist writer and psychiatrist Scott Alexander offered a framework to rebut this critique on his SlateStarCodex blog:
[There is] a widespread norm, well-understood by both liberals and conservatives, that we have a category of space we call “neutral” and “depoliticized”. These sorts of spaces include institutions as diverse as colleges, newspapers, workplaces, and conferences. And within these spaces, overt liberalism is tolerated but overt conservatism is banned. In a few of these cases, conservatives grew angry enough that they started their own spaces — which began as noble attempts to avoid bias, and ended as wretched hives of offensive troglodytes who couldn’t get by anywhere else. This justifies further purges in the mainstream liberal spaces, and the cycle goes on forever.
Stanford historian Robert Conquest once declared it a law of politics that “any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.” I have no idea why this should be true, and yet I’ve seen this happen again and again. Taken to its extreme, it suggests we’ll end up with a bunch of neutral organizations that have become left-wing, plus a few explicitly right-wing organizations. Given that Conquest was writing in the 1960s, he seems to have predicted the current situation remarkably well.
Understood this way, Alexander helps us see the central flaw in Nwanevu’s argument. Conservatives form partisan institutions because they keep being excluded from the ‘neutral’ ones. From the conservative perspective, forming more neutral institutions will just replicate the same problem, because the default setting in these spaces will eventually move to the left, just as Conquest predicted. If you’re a conservative and you want to ensure that your voice will be heard, placing your faith in the goodwill of the liberal colleagues who will soon outnumber you can prove challenging. If liberals want to minimize the growth of highly partisan institutions like Fox News and Liberty University, the solution is simple—stop making it so difficult for conservatives to exist in neutral spaces.
Of course, liberals have their own overtly partisan institutions, but Nwanevu misses them in his analysis. He expects National Review to be willing to hire progressives if the Atlantic must hire conservatives—but he forgets that the two publications have totally different missions. National Review is equivalent to Mother Jones, not the Atlantic. The Atlantic’s mission is explicitly to be a “big tent for ideas.” Like the New York Times and Washington Post, it seeks to be an arbiter of a grand national conversation and a publication of record. National Review doesn’t share this mission—it exists to explore conservative ideas, just as Mother Jones’s mission is to explore progressive ones. As David French pointed out, National Review is under no more an obligation to hire a progressive than Mother Jones is to hire a conservative.
Nwanevu commits this error because he takes it as a given that the Atlantic will be a publication of the Left—despite its professed mission to be a ‘big tent.’ Once again, Robert Conquest has been proved right. For Nwanevu, progressivism is the ambient default setting of ‘neutral’ institutions, so natural that it becomes invisible, like the fish who wonder “What the hell is water?”
The central premise behind the drive for viewpoint diversity in media is that, as much as possible, we should prevent people from self-siloing. Big-tent publications with broad readerships advance this goal by featuring diverse views on their opinion pages, guaranteeing that readers will encounter ideas they disagree with. Partisan publications can also contribute to a macro landscape of diversity, by ensuring that high-quality options all co-exist in dialogue with one another. But the gatekeeper publications have a special obligation to diversity, because if they mutate into echo chambers, total self-siloing becomes the likely outcome for many readers.
When we accept the mutation of neutral institutions into echo chambers, we poison the entire political environment. The conservatives who get excluded seek their revenge in the form of heightened partisan nastiness, uncut by any obligation to make a wide appeal or opportunity to persuade fence-sitters. Liberals see this as proof of inherent conservative derangement, and feel even more empowered to keep excluding them. Everyone self-silos, and everyone polarizes. Kevin Williamson may not have been the ideal vehicle to arrest this process, but if we want to avoid a fate of spiraling tribal warfare, we will need to find a way to preserve the opportunity for Americans of different views to open the pages of the same story and read, together.
Nicholas Phillips is a research associate at Heterodox Academy and president of the NYU School of Law Federalist Society. You can follow him on Twitter at @czar_nicholas_