The world of entertainment celebrates the crossover. When a comedic actor makes the shift to dramatic roles or when a country music star successfully cracks the mainstream charts, it is thought of as broader recognition of their talents.
One would hope the same mindset exists for journalists. However, judging by the reaction from some quarters when National Review’s Kevin Williamson announced he was leaving the magazine founded by William F. Buckley to write for The Atlantic, many liberals were apoplectic.
How dare this publication they adore hire someone with a viewpoint not in lockstep with theirs?
They recoiled with anger, claimed his views were illegitimate. It’s all too common when right-leaning writers make a move from conservative outlets to more mainstream publications.
It should be a welcome move when publications hire outside of their comfort zone. Instead, the outrage culture forces publishers and editors to offer explanations for the hire instead of allowing the writer’s body of work to speak for itself.
Publishers and editors are under a lot of pressure to get the best talent on their pages while remaining cognizant of ever-tightening budgets and a growing need to appeal to a loyal digital audience — one that will not only click but read to the end, and even return to reread the work. Now they’re adding another figure to that difficult calculus — the possibility that a small but vocal mob will raise pitchforks after cherry-picking out-of-context quotes from thousands of tweets and columns.
The consternation over Williamson wouldn’t matter so much if this were an isolated incident — but we’ve been down this road before.
Bret Stephens’ hiring by The New York Times had people promising to cancel their subscriptions. It prompted publisher Arthur Sulzerberger Jr. to write a personal appeal to those subscribers.
The Washington Post’s hire of libertarian-leaning Megan McCardle prompted howls of dissent.
Another hire at The Times, Bari Weiss, prompted objections because of her supposed neoconservative leanings.
Jay Nordlinger, in a piece bidding adieu to Williamson, discussed how many writers nowadays are similar to politicians. They seek to curry favor with a small core audience, looking for applause lines along the way. They’re afraid to take risks. Williamson, as well his Atlantic colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, write fearlessly and honestly. Their writing may provoke eyebrow-raising and, at times, anger. But they also challenge readers to think instead of writing for the easy accolades.
It’s effortless for people to surround themselves with opinions that appeal to their biases. As a conservative, I could promise myself to read only National Review, The Weekly Standard and the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. I read them, yes, but I also read the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and The Atlantic.
I probably don’t agree with half of what I read at those outlets, but I don’t read them to seek affirmation of my point of view. I read them because the writers have something interesting to say and they do it engagingly.
It’s easy for people to shut off their minds to what they find disagreeable or objectionable. Publishers and editors could refuse to take risks and stick with the safe hires to alleviate the possibility of having to face a storm of criticism.
But none of us should want that. As consumers of news — and opinion journalism — we all need to broaden our horizons. News outlets that expand the base of their audience deserve applause, not condemnation.
Here’s hoping we’ll see more of it in the future.
Jay Caruso is a columnist with The Dallas Morning News.