Business coach, Dixie Gillaspie, takes a searing look at the ramifications of being the only publication to sever ties with columnist George Will.
For me, with the revelations of my own history of rape and abuse so recently published here on The Good Men Project and in the St. Louis Post Dispatch (the same weekend that “Colleges Become the Victims of Progressivism” ran in The Washington Post) George Will’s column was incendiary.
So I wasn’t surprised at the outcry against the article, because I didn’t really think it was only my history that made it painful, and I know I’m not the only person out there with a history of abuse.
I wasn’t surprised at the support it received either. Because, hidden in the derogatory language and the suggestive use of quotation marks, Mr. Will makes a few valid, and significant, points.
Even as I recognized the points Mr. Will was trying to make, his choice of words seemed so belittling to anyone who has ever been violated, or listened to the choked voice of someone who is still trying to make sense of a violation from their past, that I had to sit with my anger for days before I could offer any rational public opinion.
Even the suggestion that coming out as a person who had once been the victim of sexual abuse and violence implied any kind of privilege or “coveted status” was appalling. And the example given, of a young women who let a once-lover-now-trusted-friend sleep in her bed, giving in to his unwanted sexual advances because it was easier to do that than to fight, was all too familiar as a story I’ve heard from women of all ages. “I didn’t want it, and I told him no, but I didn’t want to cause a scene, and it seemed easier just to give in,” is a common admission, usually told with all the pain and shame of the years-ago-incident still present in their voices.
As the anger cooled, I began to read the responses and the comments. And realized that in between the radical, hate-filled diatribes from both sides of the political fence, something magical was happening. People were beginning to tell their stories.
I know that it is these shared stories that have the power to do what neither political party, and no amount of legislation can do, and that is to challenge what a “rape culture” really is, where it is rooted, and what can be done to weed it out.
And that encouraged me to write about what I feel is at the heart of George Will’s offence; that he would even suggest that there is ever a time when any person does not have the right to withhold consent.
And it’s really right of consent that’s being called into question now that Tony Messenger, the Editorial Page Editor for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, has announced that my local paper will no longer be carrying Mr. Will’s column in syndication. (His space is being filled by another Washington Post columnist, Michael Gerson.)
This decision has been nearly as heavily attacked and celebrated as the original column has been. And his right to cancel Mr. Will’s column has been called into question more than once.
Mr. Messenger’s interview with Hugh Hewitt, which was titled “Tony Messenger: the Man Who Fired George Will” got into conspiracy territory when Mr. Hewitt said, “Now I am concerned that this is pure McCathysim …” after Mr. Messenger protested the use of the word “fired” as being unfair, since, as he says, the Post Dispatch simply made the decision to switch from one columnist to another.
In fact, according to Mr. Messenger, in his Editor’s Note published on Thursday, this column from Mr. Will was only the final impetus to make a decision that had been on the table for months.
“The change has been under consideration for several months, but a column published June 5, in which Mr. Will suggested that sexual assault victims on college campuses enjoy a privileged status, made the decision easier. The column was offensive and inaccurate; we apologize for publishing it.”
Erik Wemple, in The Washington Post, focused on the fact that, so far, the Post Dispatch is the only publication to cancel syndication of Will’s column. He also noted that the column was edited by Alan Shearer, CEO and editorial director of the paper’s syndication group as well as two of his colleagues.
In a second article, published the following day, Mr. Wemple notes that all of the editors of the piece were male, although it was proofed by at least two women. Mr. Shearer shrugged that detail off, but Mr. Wemple finds it significant.
“It is indeed important. Women are the predominant victims of rape and sexual assault; therefore, they may have some insight on the editing of a column on sexual assault.”
The Washington Post called Mr. Will’s column “well within bounds of legitimate debate.”
Of course, we all have different ideas of “reasonable debate.” In this case the debate seems to be whether the column cited any factual inaccuracies, or if it was the assumption that victimhood is becoming a privileged status or that there is a “supposed campus epidemic of rape,” which Mr. Messenger was citing as being “offensive and inaccurate.”
But aside from whether or not the Post Dispatch was right in cancelling Mr. Will’s column, is the question of whether or not they had the right to do so.
When Mr. Hewitt accused Mr. Messenger of “silencing” and “censoring” Mr. Will by taking him out of the paper, Mr. Messenger responded, “I made a business decision and chose to publish a different columnist. But I didn’t silence George Will. He’s a big boy. He’s still got a much bigger megaphone than I do.”
What Mr. Messenger could have said is simply that his paper, and every paper who still carries Mr. Will’s column, and ever paper that never has and never will carry Mr. Will’s column has the right to withhold, or withdraw, consent.
As a corporate entity, they can choose whose opinion they will distribute to their readers, and whose they will not. The fact that Mr. Will, and all of us, enjoy freedom of speech and, with blog platforms and social media accounts, even the freedom of publication, does not give Mr. Will, or anyone else, the right to be published in any particular publication.
One of the commenters on the official Editor’s Note from the Post Dispatch captured it succinctly:
“There is no constitutional right to having your opinions published by a corporate entity.”
Another commenter wrote:
“A newspaper has no obligation to employ someone whose column hurts readership. The newspaper owners also have freedom of speech — the freedom not to give a platform to someone whose views they find objectionable. The freedom of speech only applies to the inability of the government to arrest you or fine you for what you say. Has Mr. Will been incarcerated for his column?”
I had been thinking a great deal on this matter ever since the Duck Dynasty incident, which was followed closely by the firing of a PR Executive for a particularly offensive tweet.
As I said in my article “What Do You Stand for, and Do You Have the Right to Defend It?” I believe we will continue to find ourselves at the intersection of the freedom of another person to express their views, and our right to distance ourselves from anyone whose views we find unethical.”
As a business or organization, I believe that ultimately we have to protect the right to do exactly what Mr. Messenger and the St. Louis Post Dispatch have done – disassociate from any group or person whom we perceive as being damaging to our brand or our culture.
“When you, as an individual or an organization, put yourself in a position where you cannot afford to socially, contractually, legally, or ethically, control who you buy from and sell to, who you hire as a contractor or employee, who you partner with or otherwise associate with, you have abdicated your right and ability to control your reputation, your culture, and your brand.”
As Mr. Shearer says, “These days a lot of people are going to read into something what they want to read into it.”
That’s true, although I think it has very little to do with “these days.” But more than what people want to read into it, I think it’s what people expect to read into it. And if a publication accepts content that they believe violates the message they want to send, then it alters the way that anything they publish will be perceived.
If the decision makers at the Post Dispatch believe that the facts Mr. Will cited in his article don’t justify the insinuations and innuendos they’re wrapped in, then their decision to cancel Mr. Will’s column is not only a justifiable business decision, it’s basic brand management.
And of course, if they’re only giving in to public opinion, but it is the opinion of the public they want to have reading their paper, why that’s basic brand management too.
Either way, they are well within their rights.