On Friday, April 6, The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, sat down with the magazine’s star national correspondent, Ta-Nehisi Coates, for a live question-and-answer session in front of the company’s staff. This was a scheduled event, part of the media company’s in-house “Atlantic University” series, but the off-the-record conversation took on a new urgency because of what had happened the previous day.
On Thursday, April 5, the magazine had announced that it was cutting ties with Kevin Williamson, the irascible conservative writer it had installed in the magazine’s “Ideas” section only two weeks earlier. The impetus for his departure was the revelation that Williamson actually believed the things he had said in the past — namely his 2014 comments that women who have abortions should be hanged. This had led Goldberg to conclude that The Atlantic, recently purchased by Laurene Powell Jobs’ liberally minded Emerson Collective, was “not the best fit for his talents.”
What the centrist magazine might’ve once considered nothing worse than a cheeky heterodoxy from its right flank was now, Goldberg had discovered, suddenly and unacceptably outside the mainstream. The Atlantic, whose motto is “of no party or clique,” had found itself in an awkward spot.
In the weeks since, we’ve heard Williamson’s version of events. Preaching the story of his martyrdom in media outlet after media outlet after media outlet, the columnist has portrayed himself and even Goldberg, too, as the victims of a “Twitter mob,” forced to suffer the tyranny of our “P.C. culture.” Apparently, Goldberg had severely misjudged what Williamson’s hiring would mean to a larger audience. In The Wall Street Journal, Williamson recounts a conversation he’d had with Goldberg shortly after he’d been hired:
“You know, the campaign to have me fired will begin 11 seconds after you announce that you’ve hired me,” I told him. He scoffed. “It won’t be that bad,” he said. “The Atlantic isn’t the New York Times. It isn’t high church for liberals.”
Beyond his initial statement, Goldberg has said nothing publicly about the episode. But in his Atlantic University appearance with Coates, he tried to explain his thinking to his staff. Characterizing the meeting, an Atlantic spokesperson wrote in an email to HuffPost: “Jeff hosts regular meetings on issues large and small with staff. The meeting with Jeff and Ta-Nehisi had been scheduled for some time and just so happened to have fallen the day after the Williamson episode, which provided an opportunity for staff to speak openly and ask questions and for Jeff to respond frankly and transparently.”
HuffPost viewed a video of the session; a full transcript can be found below. It’s a remarkable exchange. Coates, who has spoken admiringly of Williamson’s prose style if not his politics, is frank and searching and self-critical where Goldberg is glib and simpering, apparently unaware of just how much and why the ground had shifted beneath his magazine’s feet.
The conversation centers on Williamson and the decision not to keep him around. But it winds up being about more than that. Coates talks about having learned, as a young journalist, from writers who thought of black men like him as less than human. What choice did he have? These were the journalists who got bylines in prominent magazines, and even at liberal publications, the genetic inferiority of black people was a proposition considered worthy of debate. “I didn’t really have the luxury of having teachers who I necessarily felt, you know, saw me completely as a human being,” Coates says.
The question of diversity in media alone is fraught territory. In 2016, a group of employees returning from the 2016 National Association of Black Journalists conference sent a letter to Goldberg expressing concerns with the magazine’s monochromatism, according to multiple people who were on staff at the time. By all accounts, Goldberg has since taken steps to address the criticism. Since Goldberg became editor-in-chief in October 2016, The Atlantic had added 34 full-time journalists to the newsroom, of which 25 have been women and 11 have been people of color, according to a spokesperson.
But Coates wasn’t making a point about diversity or, for that matter, about the pedagogical possibilities of broadmindedness. He was talking about the protective layer of cynicism he had to develop against certain kinds of political ideas. Coates had no expectations of Williamson beyond some flowery prose. No expectations, he says to his colleagues, of Williamson “seeing me or, frankly, a lot of you as fully realized human beings.”
This was the idea being circled in the conversation between Coates and Goldberg and their colleagues at The Atlantic. Over and over, the humanity of certain people is allowed to be put up for debate in the name of “ideological diversity.” How can a liberal institution square its essential humanism with an idea of inclusion so baggy as to promote the sort of cruelties that liberals, at least publicly, mean to oppose? The similarly oriented New York Times op-ed page, run by former Atlantic editor James Bennet, is wrestling with this very question. On the basis of his conversation with Coates and the magazine’s staff, Goldberg doesn’t seem any closer to answering it than is the Times or any other creature of centrist liberalism.
At least The Atlantic has company. You might call it a clique.
The conversation has been lightly edited for grammar and continuity. And if you’re a current or former Atlantic employee, please feel free to get in touch.
Jeffrey Goldberg: I said this in the meeting this morning, the dot-com meeting. You know, we do these things because we’re a cohesive unit, and we all work together. And it’s great when we get to talk openly about complicated issues, but we can’t do it if people are feeding information to people outside about what we’re talking about. And so, I recognize the desire to share things, but it would be better if we didn’t. We’ll call this off the record for whatever that means in today’s age, but it would be better if we could just have an honest conversation.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: So the genesis of me as a journalist is like, mid-’90s — I got my first writing job in ’96 — and a big ideas magazine at the time was The New Republic. No black people worked there. I’ve actually verified this. No black people worked there at all. And to my mind — other people will probably feel quite differently about this — but as far as I was concerned, it was basically a racist publication. And that was how I perceived it. But nevertheless, I had to read it. I had to read it because I wanted to do what they did. And there weren’t — and I don’t know how to put this without sounding like an asshole — but there was no me to learn from. In other words, there was no “Case for Reparations” for me to read and say, goddamn, I want to go do that. I mean, maybe there was some of that, but it really was not in the ethos.
There were certainly black writers who would be brought in. They would come into places like the New Republic, New Yorker and sometimes even The Atlantic, and they would give a view of black life that I felt like very few black people actually would recognize themselves in their own private spaces. I got, I think, incredibly used to — and I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, I guess for a long time I probably thought it was a good thing, but this week it made me think I don’t know whether it is or not — but I got incredibly used to learning from people. And studying people. And feeling like certain people were even actually quite good at their craft, who I felt, and pardon my language, were fucking racist. And that was just the way the world was. I didn’t really have the luxury of having teachers who I necessarily felt, you know, saw me completely as a human being.
This extends not just from my early days as a journalist, but if I’m being honest here, from my early days at The Atlantic. You can go into The Atlantic archives right now, and you can see me arguing with Andrew Sullivan about whether black people are genetically disposed to be dumber than white people. I actually had to take this seriously, you understand? I couldn’t speak in a certain way to Andrew. I couldn’t speak to Andrew on the blog the way I would speak to my wife about what Andrew said on the blog in the morning when it was just us.
Goldberg: I found, personally, that yelling at him in the office was very emotionally satisfying for me. But you didn’t do that.
Coates: I didn’t do that. And part of it was, going back to that earlier thread, I learned how to blog from Andrew. That was who I actually learned from. That was who actually helped me craft my voice. Even recognizing who he was and what he was, you know, I learned from him.
I think one of the things that happens is you become incredibly cynical about certain people and about certain political beliefs, and you just don’t hold them to a level. So I can read Kevin Williamson, for instance, and I guess — and I probably would not have said this like this two weeks ago — but just watching, and thinking, and not really having expectations. Like, having craft expectations — like reading him and saying, how can I learn from this as a writer. But not really having actual expectations of seeing me or, frankly, a lot of you as fully realized human beings.
And everybody here knows my politics. I know what The Atlantic is supposed to be, but I’m not speaking for them, I’m just speaking for myself. I think — and I think I’ve actually argued this in The Atlantic — that that is not just a personal flaw of Kevin Williamson. That is a part of the movement that he’s a part of. It represents a large swath of this country. And I think the problem for us, or the essential conflict for us, is that we set ourselves up with I think a pretty admirable value that says, OK, we are going to debate different poles of politics in this country. And we want that well-represented, and we want people that can do it effectively, write well. But if one pole is — and again, I’m only speaking for myself here — if one pole is batshit crazy, you’re in trouble. It actually throws the whole endeavor out of whack.
The thing that ultimately made this not go was Kevin’s really callous podcast, where he says, I have a soft spot for hanging. He’s talking about literally hanging women. And now, we’re in a room obviously with a large number of women. The question of abortion is not theoretical to them. It’s not an abstract question.
You know, again, not making any assumptions but just knowing the statistics, it’s probably a very direct question to some women in this room. So when Kevin says that he’s talking about them. And that’s bad, but when I thought about it, if you believe abortion is murder, and you believe in capital punishment, what’s the logical conclusion? Is this Kevin himself or is this a broader question? In other words, did Kevin state a specific belief that is outside of the mainstream conservative movement, or did he just follow those conclusions to their natural place? And if he did, you have a much broader problem, I think, in terms of this whole question of actual debate.
You know, I’ve thought quite a bit — and you can interrupt whenever you want. Sorry, obviously I’ve been thinking about this, and I don’t have nobody to talk to because I’m off Twitter.
Goldberg: Wait, wait, wait, you should be fully honest. His new version of Twitter is — he’s one of those people who text messages every individual thought individually. It’s like ping, ping — so I’m your new fucking Twitter.
Goldberg: Twelve, 15 texts in a row that you could have made one paragraph.
Coates: I’m sorry —
Goldberg: That’s where it comes from. I just realized! So he has been actually tweeting, but just at me.
Coates: It’s true, it’s true. Among other people.
But you know, I was an admirer of Kevin’s work, and I think I can say this, you know, Jeff talked to me about this. And I was not like, don’t hire that dude. To the contrary, I thought, OK, well he can come in and represent the position, and then we can fight it out. You know what I mean? So I think I should say, A) I feel like I failed Jeff in that advice. I feel like I kind of failed The Atlantic in that advice. I feel like I failed the writers of color here in that advice. I was here when I was the only black writer, and then Gillian came, and then we got a bunch more people. So I feel like I kind of failed you guys in that. I’m sorry about that. I’m sorry so many of y’all are on social media and catching shit for this, and I’m not there, so I’m not catching anything at all. I feel really, really bad about that. But then after, realizing that, I thought about, OK, so how did I muck this up?
Goldberg: I want to issue an absolution here.
Coates: I don’t need it, though. I don’t need it.
Goldberg: No, no, but I’m going to give it anyway. But go on.
Coates: So I thought about it, like, you know how did I miss that? I’m Mr. Blackity Black, how did I miss that? And I think one of the things that happened is, again, like understanding the mission of The Atlantic, which I get. It might not be my mission, but I get it, and I work here. I understand it. Debate various views, you know, we fight it out. “Of no party or clique,” right? And I told Jeff this already, but we have been of a party and a clique. The Atlantic, like most magazines — not The Atlantic because it’s specifically bad, but for most of its history it has been basically white dudes. That’s what we’ve been. I mean not totally, not completely. We did publish Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King. And I mean, it’s not that that’s all we published, but that’s basically been what one would say the consensus is. When you have an already established consensus like that, certain values are then easily manifested.
I think one of the things that happened at this magazine now that I’ve championed, I’m happy to see just looking at this room. If we had done Atlantic University in 2008, 2009, ’10, ’11, ’12, ’13, it would not have looked like this. This publication is diversifying. And I wonder if that consensus that says of no party or clique then has to come up for question. What is debatable comes up for question because you bring different people in, and those people are not just brown-skinned or dark-skinned or women who would normally — you know, who are just the same as any other. Their identity — and I know this is bad in certain quarters, but I don’t think it is — that identity cannot be neatly separated from the job. So maybe the job changes a little bit.
Goldberg: So let me just say two things on that. First is, in all seriousness, the decisions are on me. They’re not on you or anyone else who met Kevin beforehand. The decisions are on me. And you know, I appreciate your advice, and I always appreciate your advice. But it’s not you. The second part is, and I am torn on this, part of trying so hard to diversify gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, whatever, part of it is to make sure that we’re of no party or clique. Right?
I mean, I’ve told — you know this, we’ve talked about it — I’ve told senior editors I never want to walk into a meeting at The Atlantic where decisions are being made and not have a diverse room and not have black people and brown people and women and whatever. And part of that is very specifically a New Republic thing, if you’ll recall, because when they published — this is going back 20 years — but when they published an excerpt of The Bell Curve, the decision to publish that was made in a room with only white people. So what I’m saying is that my goal of never walking into a room where decisions are being made and seeing only white people, white males, is partially because that’s the right thing, and it’s partially self-protection. Because I think if there had been a black editor in that room in the New Republic in 1996 or whatever, that black editor might have said: “Excuse me. So I just want to clarify something. We’re putting a cover story up that says black people are stupider than white people?” That could have happened, and then they would have saved themselves an awful lot of grief; and they wouldn’t have injected something that, in my own personal opinion, is poison into the discourse.
On the other hand, why can’t a journalism institution that is diversifying — I hope people understand — fairly rapidly in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, why can’t it also continue to develop in an ideologically diverse way? And maybe there’s some questions that are no longer on the table because of that, but there’s got to be a whole bunch of questions that we could still disagree about without touching the third rails of gender and abortion and race and all these other things. I mean, what are you saying? That we do have to become what a lot of the world wants us to be, which is a stay-in-you-lane, center-left publication?
Coates: No, I think the deal is that in the ’90s, when this room would not have looked like this room does, there were things that were considered out of bounds. I don’t think we would have published “The Case for Reparations” then. If you change the makeup of the room, other things probably would become inbounds, and some things then become out of bounds. And I think the problem is, some of those things — this is the huge, huge problem — some of those things that I would argue should be out of bounds, actually a large number of Americans actually believe. Things that would be out of bounds for us are not necessarily out of bounds for the broader country.
Goldberg: Or big parts of the country.
Coates: No, huge parts, huge parts. I mean we got data on this during the Republican primary, right? They took data, 30, 40 percent of Americans agree with this sentiment. I’m sorry, not of Americans, of Republican voters. I should be clear about that. But you know, a huge swath of Americans, like 30 or 40 percent [of Republican voters] believe that black people are not as smart as white people. Or believe black people are somehow more criminally inclined. That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of people. And obviously that’s out of bounds for us.
Goldberg: No, we’re never running shit like that, obviously.
Coates: So to some extent the debate is already curtailed. There are views that are very popular in America that we will not deal with.
Goldberg: That’s the funny thing, because, you know, somebody asked me the other day, what won’t we run? And I could probably reel off 200 ideas that we would never post. You know, genetic-inferiority issues.
Coates: And that’s an ongoing debate in respectable publications right now.
Goldberg: No, if somebody came in and said George Soros and the Rothschilds are destroying Eastern Europe because of Jewish cosmopolitanism and controlling D.C.’s weather, we ain’t going to — you know, we’re not doing that. And by the way this has been what makes the conversation so meta. What I learned myself Thursday is — and this is the interesting question, because it’s about past opinion. Opinion that wouldn’t even necessarily get expressed obviously in The Atlantic. But like, if you actually sincerely, seriously argue with a level of callousness that women who have abortions not only should be prosecuted criminally — which puts you on the right end of the right-to-life spectrum anyway — but that hanging is a possibility, we need to be serious about that and say we’re not taking a piece that says that, right? So there’s 100 things, 200 things that we just wouldn’t ever publish, but I would just encourage you to, instead of thinking about a narrowing, think about all the things that we still can do. Like, there’s a lot more.
Coates: No, I’m not thinking about a narrowing. I think we can actually do a lot more. I just think it’s like, again, if your consensus is there, it’s here now. The number of things that you can do is not actually changed.
Goldberg: Could we have a debate in The Atlantic on abortion rights? Can you have an anti-abortion person — in your mind, obviously?
Coates: I mean, you could.
Goldberg: No, I’m saying, as The Atlantic, is that out of bounds now? What’s out of bounds?
Coates: I mean, this is me talking, but I just don’t think Kevin was out of the mainstream in terms of those views. So if you do that, I don’t understand the logic of getting rid — he said it in a really rude …
Again, I just got to go through this one more time. In the platform of the Republican Party: death penalty. In the platform of the Republican Party: pro-life. The belief that abortion is murder is not a fringe view. Defense of capital punishment is not a fringe view. If somebody participates in baby killing, and you advocate for the death penalty for them, I don’t understand that as a particularly— it’s said in a kind of way that people don’t usually say it. But the logical inference of it, like, how does the logic exist out of some sort of mainstream consensus? I’m not seeing that. And so, if we have that debate, and then we have a bunch of people who are kind of talking around a very uncomfortable fact of the belief that Kevin raised, I guess I would be like, why don’t we just have Kevin do that? Kevin was honest, at least. Kevin spoke about the actual logical outcomes.
I just want to be clear, I don’t agree with that. I think it’s completely batshit crazy, but at least it’s consistent. He took it to its logical ends, which I think a lot of people are afraid to do. Now, there are some people, like Ross [Douthat] at the Times, who actually are anti-death penalty and, you know, pro-life, so the logic would not work [inaudible].
Goldberg: No, but do the conversation that we did a couple days ago about spirit of generosity. It’s this mantra that we repeat all the time, and I think people internalize it. But talk about that in the frame of this conversation. I mean, what does it mean to you? What does it mean to you in the conversation we’re having about a particular way of expressing yourself?
Coates: I mean I have particular views, man, and I’m uncomfortable with the idea that The Atlantic should necessarily adopt my views.
Goldberg: Well, no, The Atlantic is not going to adopt your views.
Coates: No, but I don’t want to even — I just …
Goldberg: These are smart people. They can handle your views.
Coates: I mean, I don’t think it’s particularly generous to say that you or the state should have authority over a kind of labor that only 50 percent of most people — or slightly more in this country — actually do. I don’t think that’s generous. I don’t think that’s generous at all. I don’t think it’s generous to believe that some 16-year-old girl somewhere, you know, who — no, we’re not even going to do some 16-year-old girl. Let’s do this a lot more direct. My son — I love my son, I love him to death. And this is like the other part of Kevin’s story, which I heard and I understand and I get it. But my wife had gestational diabetes, swelled up like 80 pounds while she was pregnant with my son, [and she] almost died in our apartment when I was 24 years old. And the notion that she should not have control over a process that almost killed her, I don’t think is generous. I just don’t — the belief, not how Kevin said it. Now, I wish he would state that more politely. But no, I actually don’t think the belief is generous. And you know, again, that’s my belief. I’m not saying The Atlantic got to adopt it, but, no, I don’t think it’s generous at all.
And I’ve got to say, let me back up, too, because I don’t want to get too righteous. In my advice to you, I was thinking about the debate part, and I forgot about the generosity part.
Goldberg: Oh, when we were talking?
Coates: When we were talking I completely forgot about it. Because I would have raised — I would have said this shit is quite obviously not generous, you know. But of course, then, I would have gone to the larger debate and said, well, is it the belief, or is it how I actually feel about this? You know, I think a lot, from my end, a lot of this comes from just a general — there’s no other way to say this — a lack of respect for certain views. So then you don’t really actually think about the implications in the same sort of way. You’ve already written people off.
Goldberg: I mean, actually, you’ve done a very interesting thing here, which is, you’ve encapsulated the tension of being The Atlantic in a kind of way. Which is wanting to be the most robust center for debate in America but also trying to be generous of spirit and have a sort of a merciful attitude toward people who don’t have —
Coates: And I wonder if those two things are, at this moment, if you will … I actually think there is — and I think you’re in a much better position, honestly — but I think that this is happening here, and what’s happening with Bennet at the Times right now. I just don’t think it’s a mistake. I don’t think it’s a mistake.
Goldberg: Wait, what’s not a mistake?
Coates: Well, I don’t think it’s a mistake that, you know, we’re having these really, really hard debates about what views get access to what. And crazily enough, and I know — I think I can say this among us — just from talking to James, he’s tried do a very similar thing to what you’ve done here. He would love to diversify the paper, have more voices, and I know he wants that. And I think, like you also, he wants a broad range of debate. Like, those two things actually, as you said, they’re part of each other. And I guess what I’m suggesting is they actually might also be in conflict with each other.
Goldberg: Look, I mentioned this this morning in a meeting just for the web team. I think the founding manifesto of The Atlantic is in tension with itself. Because I mean, the founders had this tension 161 years ago. They were all abolitionists. They’re not hosting the debate.
Coates: Which, by the way, was not a mainstream view at the time.
Goldberg: In Boston, it was a mainstream view, where they were making a magazine. But they were not going to — there was no thought that they were going to host a debate about abolition or about the rightness or wrongness of slavery. They had a position. They also said that we want to be a marketplace for a discussion of the American idea, which means that you have to have an argument. So I think what we’re going around and saying, sort of, a little bit, is that — the old line is, you know when you’re in a minefield when you hear a loud explosion under your feet. Right? Nobody knows where are the lines. We don’t really know where the lines are, but I guess my question to you — and this is a generational question — I think one of the reasons we are on more of a same page than not on the Kevin Williamson question is that we’re of a certain generation, like you talked about, where our journalism institutions — there was a lot of fighting. There was just a lot of fighting and arguing. I mean people who were here eight years, 10 years ago.
Coates: Yeah, it was constrained fighting, though. Actually, I’m not sure —
Coates: Yeah, but I would argue that it was constrained even then because I was the only — I think I can even make this broader — I know I was the only black writer. I think I was the only writer of color. And there was only one other woman, and that was Megan. So I would say it was even constrained then. And now, that’s not the case. So it is actually, I think, more difficult. And I mean that in a good way. Like, not more difficult in that we should go back to the old way, but I think it was constrained. I think it’s much easier to draw a consensus when you’re pulling from the same demographic. And I don’t mean consensus, like you all don’t argue, but you can say, OK, the line is here, the line is here, let’s fight it out.
That’s easier when everywhere — let’s make it even deeper. I mean, at that time, me, you, Ross, Megan McArdle, Jim, Matt Yglesias, Andrew — I think every single one of those people, with the exception of me, went to an Ivy League school. I mean, in many ways, people are coming from a very, very similar place. You know, that’s not what this is now.
Goldberg: Do you think The Atlantic would be diminished if we narrowed the bounds of acceptability in ideological discourse, even as we grow in diversity?
Coates: Again, I don’t think it’s a question of narrowing. I think it’s where the lines are drawn.
Goldberg: Well, it is if you bring the lines in.
Coates: Well, no, you open it up. You understand what I’m saying? Like, as I said before, I don’t think 15 years ago or 20 years ago we would have ran “The Case For Reparations.” So that means it’s opened up in a different direction. I think if we publish kick-ass stories, very little of this will actually matter.
Goldberg: Go on about that. Talk about reporting.
Goldberg: I mean, I don’t care. I mean people just, I mean, we talk about this. People ask me, you know, how does this controversy affect you. And I’m like, I have leather skin, so whatever. I mean, I’m sorry for people who are getting attacked on Twitter because they happen to be affiliated with The Atlantic. I’m insensitive to it after 30 years of this. But I mean, this will last until it doesn’t, until it goes away. But the question is the reporting thing. I’m very interested in that, reporting vs. opinion. Some people have written me and said, you know what, opinion generally is overrated, don’t do opinion, do reporting.
I mean, you have thoughts on that I want you to share with everybody.
Coates: You know, when I came they weren’t in conflict. I think reported opinion are better than unreported opinions.
Goldberg: Well yeah, pure opinion is — is not the greatest thing.
Coates: Yeah, you shouldn’t do too much of that. You should stretch yourself. Because I think it’s always good, even as I’m saying what I’m saying, I do think it’s always good to come in contact with real people who may not share your assumptions and where you’re coming from. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to convince you. But they broaden you, they deepen you, you know, give you some perspective on things that you just may not have seen before. So I actually think that’s probably the core value.
Goldberg: The core value of The Atlantic?
Coates: Yeah, man. Well I don’t know if it’s been the core value, but I think that’s the one that matters. If you publish kick-ass stories, nobody’s going to care. Nobody’s beating down The New Yorker saying, where is you Kevin Williamson or where are your conservative writers. Like, it’s amazing how they don’t get that at all.
Goldberg: Well, they’re a different product, though. They’re an entirely different product.
Coates: No, that’s true. It’s true. But you know, the stories they publish obviously occupy a lot of real estate and have a kind of impact.
Goldberg: Yeah, but they would never publish ” The Case For Reparations,” which is reported argument.
Coates: I don’t think they would either. They say they would, though.
Goldberg: Yeah, NOW.
Coates: Now they do, now they do.
Goldberg: Easy to say it now! No, I told you, they’d run it as a 6,000-word story: “The Lonely Struggle of John Conyers.”
Coates:They would, they would. But by just taking that on, I go back to where I started. I don’t know that we were “of no party or clique.” I know we said that, but I would question whether that was actually the case.
Goldberg: Is that something to strive for even if we never reach it. Your own opinion.
Coates: I just feel like if we publish really, really great journalism, like … I know that sounds simplistic, and maybe it is simplistic. Maybe I’m being flip.
Goldberg: Let me ask you one final question before, and we’ll take questions.
Coates: You know, my thinking about this now, like where I’m at now. You know what I would like to do? I would like to get a stack of Kevin Williamson’s articles and compare them to what the standard is here at The Atlantic. I wonder if they measure up.
Goldberg: That’s an interesting question. It’s not entirely relevant because we don’t hire — you know, I mean this is one of the arguments …
Coates: No, I know, that people get better when they come here. I get it, yes, yes.
Goldberg: If we’re not making them all better then we’re not fulfilling the mission. But one more thing on this before we go to questions. I want to understand, as a journalist, put aside the other extraneous things that are going on around here, as a journalist, what attracted you to Kevin Williamson? You said on a podcast —
Coates: I think he’s a beautiful — I love people that, you know, I don’t like people who fuck around. I don’t like people who sort of do that duck and dodge, and he writes with a kind of aggression you know that I actually seek to write with myself. When I wrote “The Case for Reparations,” he wrote a reply. And I was so happy that he did. There was, like, no other conservative person I would have answered at all. You know, I was happy to be in debate with him.
I, again, I’m from a place where I can take my lessons from people and not agree with a damn thing they’re saying. You know, that’s just me. You know, reporting is one thing; that’s important. But the writing is actually really, really important for me. And I thought, when he was on, he’s really, really good actually. Like, the writing is really, really good. I don’t take that back, although I do want to kind of have that thought experiment again. But that was at least my impression at the time. That when he was on, he was pretty damn good. And I don’t think I was actually alone in feeling that. And I don’t just mean you. I mean outsiders, but I think there were other people who felt that way who were not necessarily crazy.
That don’t mean this was the right decision, or the right thing or the wrong thing happened — that’s not what I’m saying. But I don’t think I was alone in admiration with his craft. And I guess — you know what I learned from this? You know, when I went out and said, I think he’s a kick-ass writer. I don’t [inaudible], but I think he’s a kick-ass writer. Like, I actually can’t say things like that anymore. Even if it’s what I think because, you know, and I’m just coming back to this again. But what became clear to me was that other people get drawn in because I’m part of The Atlantic. That’s been really hard to see, you know. I say that, and probably if I was on Twitter, he would be in my mentions calling me to account. But I’m not there, right? So you see other people who ain’t said nothing at all. Who ain’t done nothing but just try to do their job. Who ain’t had nothing to do with this. You know, getting called on stuff. And that’s just hard to see. That’s very, very hard to watch.
Goldberg: Why don’t we take some questions here.
Staffer: Kevin conjured a really powerful image when he used the word “hanging.” I think that was an image that was really hard for a lot of us to ignore. And I’m wondering how or if you think this would have played out differently if he hadn’t used that word.
Coates: Great question.
Staffer: Or if he had just said death penalty or even lethal injection. How much of it was “hanging?”
Coates: I’m not sure we’d be here right now. I’m not sure we’d be here. I think it’s the specificity, you know, which is akin to how he writes. I mean, I think that’s exactly right. And I think that points to the tension of it. Was he just too clear? Was it really his viewpoint? Was it actually his viewpoint? Or was it just that he said it in a kind of way?
Goldberg: You know, the weakness of writers is they want to be interesting.
Coates: Yeah, but it’s not even interesting.
Goldberg: No, but it’s vivid, you know. You’re always trying to be vivid and provocative, and it goes to that question of line. Like, you know the line only when it’s been crossed, right? And everybody feels collectively, oh, that’s the line.
Coates: But I think the point here is, it’s your job to be vivid. It’s your job to use — I do that all the time! You know, you’re trying to actually use vivid language, all of us. And so it’s like, did he just write about this with more clarity? And certainly, there’s an asshole-ish, troll-ish portion to that that should not be ignored. And — and this will probably come up, I’m not trying to step on anybody — but, honestly, the piece about hanging is just the tip of it. There are other things he said and wrote that I think act, you know, similarly.
Goldberg: Emma has a question.
Emma Green: I was struck by what you said about the old times at The Atlantic, and I definitely agree with you that The Atlantic we are now is much preferable to —
Coates: Emma when did you come?
Coates: So you saw a little bit of this.
Green: Yeah, we had the little heads on the side of the web site, all the white dudes.
Green: So I definitely agree that we are a better place. We do more interesting work I think than when I first got here, but I think I’ve heard you talk about this — I’ve definitely heard Conor talk about this. I think I’ve even heard Jim talk about this, I don’t want to speak for you guys — but a certain amount of nostalgia for that time, which was the ability to just get out there and punch each other and people debating and actually having genuinely different ideas and having that spirit of really wanting to engage. And we just don’t have that anywhere on our website. So I wonder if you think this Kevin Williamson affair represents the impossibility of getting back to any version of that, or if there is some version of that that we could get back and how.
Coates: Yeah, I think there is. I think it’s just, where are the lines going to be? I mean, it’s not like among my friends, who are closer to me ideologically, there are no debates to be had. Are we — and you guys would know this better than me so correct me if I’m wrong — did we really well represent, for instance, the debate between the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party and the Clinton — you know, I’m being really crude in my statements — and the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party? Have we done a good job representing that? Do we have folks that can write aggressively and write really well to represent that [inaudible]? I mean, that’s an actual debate. It’s a vivid, real debate — and we could have that! There’s no reason why we couldn’t have that right now. And I don’t think that’s — I think it’s better than me having to debate Andrew about genes and IQ. I think that’s much, much more substantial and would be an improvement. So I think we can get back to it.
Green: It’s possible that we have people here who could do Sanders-Clinton if they were encouraged to do that. But do we have anybody who could do Ben Sasse-Rubio-Trump-Ted Cruz? I mean, do we have anybody who could do that? Not really, right? Maybe Conor.
Coates: No, that’s true. But again, that just takes me back to the question that was asked over here. Like, is what Kevin Williamson … this is why it was such a provocative challenge for us, as far as I’m concerned. How far out of the wheelhouse of Rubio and Ben Sasse is Kevin Williamson? Or did he just say it in a certain type of way? So for me, it takes us back to, OK, so why was he fired again? Or not hired; I guess he wasn’t fired. But why is he not here again? You know?
Goldberg: Gillian, why don’t you go on in here?
Gillian White: So I guess my question is, when we talk about the representation of some of the ideas and beliefs that Williamson held, I think a lot of us are of the mind that it is fine and appropriate and necessary to have somebody arguing those things on The Atlantic’s platform. I think the issue comes with whether or not it’s a civil discourse. And that is the thing that I think a lot of people feel when they talk about “spirit of generosity.” I think there are a lot of Americans and a lot of writers and a lot of people who could articulate a pro-life stance — and a lot of these other stances — who maybe have not been described in the same way as Williamson has. I mean, you just called him a troll. He’s been described as pugnacious.
Do we not think that there’s a space between civil discourse and people who are being described as right-wing trolls and pugnacious and all those other things? Do we not think that there’s someplace that exists where people can represent those opinions in a civil discourse on this platform?
Goldberg: Can I say something quick on that? I actually think — and I hope I’m not embarrassing him by saying this, and I don’t even know if he’s watching this — but I think we have on our team one of the best practitioners of exactly what you’re talking about, Conor Friedersdorf, who should be a model for everyone. What Conor does is — I mean, we talked about this this morning, I’m sorry for those of you who are hearing this again — what Connor does is, he has an argument he wants to make. He takes the opposition’s argument, characterizes it fairly, gives it its full due, and then systematically but civilly dismantles it to the best of his ability. Right? And that’s the most Atlantic-ish thing there is. So, you know, I think it’s completely possible to do that and not touch the third rail of outrageous language, or crazy over-the-line talk. I mean, we have a lot of other people who do that as well. I’m using Conor, in part, because, if we’re being honest here, Conor is outside the political mainstream, I would think, of this room but a valued and hugely important member of this family
Coates: But Conor is also not within the mainstream of conservative thought, either.
Goldberg: No, but… Well, Conor is very heterodoxical, so he does all kinds of things, but —
Coates: So there’s certainly room for that. I would definitely agree with that.
But I think the bigger challenge is, and I think this is what Gillian was pointing to, could you articulate those ideas and — again, I just drive back to, then what did he actually do wrong? Is it what he said? Is it how he said it? You know, I’m skeptical, man. And I think part of this is the ground. I think it’s the change with the makeup of The Atlantic. I think it’s Trump. I think the ground has actually shifted. You know, should we build the wall is a mainstream debate. These ideas have now been mainstreamed. And so, is it our job, then, to represent things that, you know, that I think are absolutely batshit crazy just because they’re within the consensus? Again, where is the line?
I don’t know, man. I have a hard time with the Williamson thing because what offends me is not how he said it. Like, I get why that was a problem for The Atlantic and the look. Like, there’s a PR argument for that. But when I start breaking down those beliefs, I’m like, but is he outside of the mainstream of conservative thought? You’re talking about a party that only a couple years ago — and I don’t know where these numbers are now — but only a couple of years ago, a majority of people believed that the president of the United States was born in Kenya. I mean, that’s a profound challenge to an organ that says it wants to have a robust debate between the poles of this country.
Goldberg: So should we be part of the resistance?
Coates: No, because we’re journalists. No. I’m not part of no resistance. I’m not an activist at all. You know, as I made the mistake and publicly said, you know I criticized Bernie Sanders and voted for him, both. The same thing — I shouldn’t have said that. I shouldn’t have said who I voted for. But no, I mean, but that’s the difference. I don’t have to write things that endorse the people — you know, I generally was a fan of Obama. But I criticized him all the time here because I’m a journalist. You understand? Like, no. I’m not part of any resistance. At all.
Goldberg: Not you. What about us?
Coates: No, no. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. For instance, a story I would love to see — no, I’m not gonna say it. I might be taking somebody’s story, sorry. Because I’ve talked about it with other Atlantic people, and I don’t want to claim credit for it. There’s a great story in this room about a very, very liberal place in America that for some reason can’t fix something that liberals claim that they could fix. I would love to see that story here.
Goldberg: Will somebody text me later who’s working on that?
Coates: They should. I’ll have them come to you privately because it’s their idea, and it was a great fucking idea.
Goldberg: I’m looking for great fucking ideas! Speaking of great fucking ideas, here’s Jim Fallows.
James Fallows: So I have a question that flows actually logically from what Carolyn and Emma and Gillian were saying, and what you all were both discussing. And this is a question I don’t have an answer for, and I don’t expect you, Jeff, to have an answer for now, but I think it’s a useful way to think about what we do next.
In this case, it really has become impossible to separate the case that Kevin was making from the way he was making it. And there’s a whole sort of side terrain here. A particular tell that was really most significant to me was his explanation for why he said the little guy in Detroit was three-fifths of a person. He said, well, I’m six foot he was four foot. It just came naturally. When I hear six and four, I think two-thirds.
You know, I don’t think three-fifths. That’s something you have to have, um, there’s a different weight to that.
Goldberg: Oh, showing off your math skills now.
Fallows: But I think the question is, is related to what you were just saying, Ta-Nehisi, there are arguments that we — that I personally — wouldn’t agree with, but if made in a respectful, patient way, we’d want to have part of our realm. I think we can agree on ones that would not be in that realm. Many of you know here Jared Taylor, a guy who was once my friend in Japan. He makes a very respectful, erudite argument for racial superiority. He’s a complete, unapologetic racist, and we would not, should not publish his argument, no matter how well it was made.
We shouldn’t publish anti-Semitic arguments, no matter how well made. We shouldn’t publish birther arguments. Even though I personally am anti-death penalty across the board, because I think it’s discriminatory and too many mistakes, even though I think Roe v. Wade is both the settled law of the land and should be the law of the land, I can imagine us publishing a respectful, sane argument by somebody who said, I view abortion as murder, therefore I’m willing to carry my argument to its extreme and at least we make that case.
I guess the question is, to define over time, what arguments — even if made in the best way — we would not countenance as part of our discourse
Goldberg: It’s interesting because I think most of us know what those arguments are. We know them intuitively, and 99.9 percent of the time, our own editorial filtration systems work almost unconsciously, like they never actually emerge to be considered in a kind of way. I think that’s a thing worth noting. Making lists of things — I mean, this has come up from time to time, what don’t we do. It’s impossible because this is not a laboratory, you know. And it is not boxes, and things change and realities shift. Maybe 20, 30 years from now, The Atlantic will never publish an anti-choice piece, an anti-abortion piece. Maybe 50, 60 years from now, The Atlantic is going to publish on the cover that abortion is murder. I don’t know.
We don’t know because things shift. But I generally know when it’s my job, and it’s the job of other senior editors, to in a very live way, constantly think about where the parameters are and where the lines are. And I think, I disagree with Ta-Nehisi in the sense that, to me, the breaking point is, in this previous case, is the civility case, the “spirit of generosity” case. It’s like, you know, there’s a certain kind of writer who directs his merciless writing at powerful people, and we love that.
But you know, there’s something implicit — the only thing that’s implicit to me in our journalism, implicit in the term “spirit of generosity” that manifests itself in our journalism, is we have to be merciful toward the weak. You have to start from position of, at least, understanding or empathy or something when it’s the weak. And this is where maybe things fell apart a little bit.
But I think the lines are generally — I mean, am I wrong in thinking that?
Coates: How do — how do you —
Goldberg: I’m not running racist pieces, obviously.
Coates: No, no, no. But how do you make, and maybe I didn’t quite hear you correctly, and if I didn’t, just correct me here — how do you make a civil argument for the death penalty for a procedure that huge numbers of Americans undertake right now?
Fallows: So I’m saying, I entirely disagree with that perspective. I can imagine someone, you know, if Ross, our former guy, if he were pro-death penalty, I could imagine him making that case. Saying that he understands the brutal logic of what he’s saying. He understands this is not the civil law of the country for the last four-plus decades. He understands the tens of millions of people who would be affected, all of them women, but he nonetheless goes this way. Would we countenance that if he made that case?
Goldberg: I … Me? Probably not? I mean, I don’t know. I mean it’s a live thing. I’d have to read the thing and understand what the thing is. But you know, I just, I mean, going back to the point that Emma’s making, it’s like the Wild West —
Coates: How do women in this room feel about that?
Goldberg: Well, one of the things I would do is like, run it by —
Coates: No, I mean like right now. Because we’re having this very abstract, theoretical argument —
Goldberg: Are you taking a poll?
Coates: No, I mean, we don’t have to take a poll. Somebody has the mic right now.
Female staffer: [inaudible] I question whether his argument was made in the best way. If he’s not saying that men whose child this also is should also face the death penalty. [inaudible].
Fallows: And suppose he said that, too, suppose you were willing to embrace that in the argument. You know, until two days ago, we were hiring on our staff somebody who had this view. So we were willing, until two days ago, to countenance this view until we knew sort of all the peripheral stuff about how he was expressing it.
Male staffer: Well, we’d countenance this view among our writers, not necessarily in our pages — that’s the distinction Jeff is making.
Goldberg: Well, right. We weren’t countenancing the view, and this goes to — and by the way, this is an important thing for everybody who writes in the web age and social media age — we weren’t countenancing the view. He wasn’t going to write that for us. Right? And this goes back to the first iteration of this, which is the second-chance thing. The possibility that writers can grow and be better under the tutelage and guidance of The Atlantic. And so, I have a lot more tolerance for what I would consider to be mistakes people made at other organizations but show other talents than I would — it wouldn’t happen here because I don’t think our filters would let it happen.
But we all are very well aware of the fact that everything that we say can and will be held against us in the court of social media opinion. Right? And so I don’t think that’s … I think Bob’s right. It’s not something that he was going to do here. It’s the question of, is this characterologically where we’re at? And that was the question that sort of came up yesterday or the day before.
Male staffer: I think the [inaudible] question is, from Gillian and from Jim, is whether — and Ta-Nehisi’s view is clear — whether, Jeff, you might have been comfortable publishing Kevin Williamson in a civil way on this point that Gillian ―
Goldberg: On this particular point?
Male staffer: Yeah, on this particular point, that I am pro-life and pro-death penalty, and I’m going to take that to the logical conclusion. And he’d done it in a Ross Douthat-style, Conor Friedersdorf-style voice, which Kevin doesn’t have. He’s a thoughtful person, but didn’t have that voice in his —
Goldberg: I’m going to answer you — and I’m not dodging this — this meeting is so meta I can’t even stand it.
Coates: You’ve got a woman with the microphone. That would make it less meta.
Goldberg: I know, and I’m going to —
Coates: We should —
Goldberg: No, no, no. But let me answer his question and Rosa can come — and it goes to that point. The first thing I would do — I mean, one of the reasons that I’ve tried to promote so many women to leadership roles is because I want a lot of women in leadership roles so, when those questions arise, I can just say Adrienne [LaFrance], Swati [Sharma], Sarah [Zhang], Gillian [B. White], whoever, what do you think of this? Like, real experience.
I think if Andrew — I mean, you had a problem with Andrew — I think Andrew trafficked in anti-Semitism. And I would have liked to have somebody talk about that when we were fighting it out all the time. You know, that’s why we have that. And I think I would put that piece first, up for discussion, with people who were actually that group, and let them actually think it through and then give me their advice and then make decisions accordingly.
Rosa Smith: So, one thing that I’ve been thinking about, a common theme across all these questions, it seems to me that when we define the “spirit of generosity” as, sort of, the ability to accept other ideas or accept a wide range of ideas, that burden can sometimes fall heavier on some people than on others. Like as Ta-Nehisi pointed out, this question of hanging women who get abortions, it felt extremely personal, I think, for a lot of the women in this room. And so I’m wondering whether you define — sorry, I’m going to be one more person who asks whether you define the spirit of generosity primarily in terms of civility. And if so, how you would want to account for the fact that we can’t, as journalists, always separate ourselves from our ideas and the ideas that we’re able to take in. And the fact that an idea that some people might be able to think of as an abstract is very, very personal for someone else.
Coates: I think that’s for you, Jeff.
Goldberg: No, no, no. You can be the editor for a minute.
Coates: I don’t think that’s for me.
Goldberg: So, I’m going to give you the hard-edged answer. The hard-edged answer is that we’re journalists, and you have to separate how you feel from who you cover and what you write about.
Very quickly, I spent half my career covering people, interviewing people, being with people who literally want to kill me—and six or seven times tried. OK? So, like, fine, whatever. I lived with the Taliban. I know they didn’t like me. And I’m not — but my job is to explain them, and be in their shoes and… I have a high tolerance. Part of the problem here might have been that I have an insensitivity or a high tolerance to offense. It just builds up. Right? That said, you know, as an editor I’m like, you know, this is not a safe space. This is The Atlantic. We’re a robust magazine of ideas and reported opinion and everything else. And so we all have to deal with the fact that we’re gonna work with people and with ideas that we just don’t like, and we’re going to come in proximity to them.
On the other hand, as a manager, I want to make sure that everybody feels good and safe at their workplace and all of the things related to having a healthy, positive environment where there’s cohesion and a common purpose and everybody feels like they’re coming in and doing something positive and useful, and they don’t feel oppressed in the place that they work. That’s a complicated answer. I mean, I don’t want — but friction, on the other hand, is what makes really interesting journalism. And so we have to live in a kind of unhappy balance sometimes.
But obviously, and I hope people know this about me by now, I really do love the people I work with. And I don’t want to do anything that ever hurts anyone. So that’s where I sort of am right now.
Male staffer: With regards to Williamson, I just wanted to highlight the Laverne Cox piece, which I sometimes feel doesn’t really get discussed enough. And I think it was both very viciously argued and in a very unambiguous way. I thought about that while listening to Ta-Nehisi talk about being in an early newsroom with no people of color. I thought about that when, Jeff, you talked about a newsroom that made the decision to publish “The Bell Curve” without any oversight. And I guess I would encourage us to reflect on ways — on what our residual institutional blind spots still are, at The Atlantic. Even as we make good efforts to diversify our newsroom.
Because we did not publish Kevin on Laverne Cox, but we did hire him, briefly, in spite of that.
Goldberg: Well, I mean like I said very briefly I’m not going to hold everything — I mean, I agree with you on the piece, obviously. I’m not going hold everything that anyone ever said about anything against them when making those decisions. Maybe the calibration was off here, obviously. But yes, one of the reasons that we started the talent lab, and Christi … is here? I don’t know if Christi’s here. Hello, Christi.
One of the reasons we’re trying to be very deliberate about thinking about where we’re underrepresented — and it’s not just underrepresentation for journalists. It’s underrepresentation because we want to bring in people who don’t know that they can be journalists and make them journalists, right? And so, obviously, I can’t sit here and make specific promises about a specific kind of hiring, but clearly, I think we’d be a better organization. You know, I just think we’re a better organization when you have people from all different walks of life and different backgrounds, and I mean … I hope that you know that.
Female staffer: Ta-Nehisi just threw a bit to the women in the audience by asking how we felt about hearing this conversation. I cannot speak for everyone. I know for me, hearing people discuss abortion and hanging as a punishment has been quite painful to hear, but I appreciate the spirit of this discussion and the fact that we’re having it. And I appreciate your asking that question, Ta-Nehisi, because I think understanding how people react to things is part of that conversation, even when it’s good.
To me, when we talk about the logically complete argument around this, I see not just this idea of abortion and capital punishment, but then, this idea embedded within that — that the punishment for anybody who’s found culpable when it comes to a single homicide should be dead. Then it should be death by a means that many of us would consider barbaric, and that is not permitted even in states that allow the death penalty much of the time. So if someone were to have come to us with the argument that, you know, they believe that our criminal justice system should become much more punitive and more brutal and here are my reasons for it. And you know, if we find somebody guilty of murder even once, which is not always a capital offense, then we’re going to make it a capital offense — is that something that we as arbiters of the sphere of reasonable debate would have found tolerable more so if they hadn’t even begun with the abortion? Because I see that as the logically complete argument or the logical extension of that argument.
Coates: I’m just answering this off the spot right now, so I can’t give a complete argument for this, but yeah, I’d be much more open to that. And I think part of it is the discriminatory nature of just putting it on — like, I’m not going to have an abortion. That’s never going to affect me at all. So I think part of it is the discriminatory nature of making it that way.
Female staffer: Surfacing abortion as the main criteria when actually the question is, did you commit a homicide?
Coates: I probably will be much more open to, as Jim said, a civil, well-reasoned — ugh — argument around that.
Female staffer: Hard to envision that.
Coates: But you know, it’s OK for me to go, “ugh.” I can do that. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be in the pages of The Atlantic. I’m not going “ugh” like you shouldn’t publish that.
Goldberg: The default position always has to be, we’re going to publish something, an argument, unless there’s a very good reason not to do it. You know what I mean? I always want to leave it. Why, you know, not “let’s not even go near something,” [but] “let’s think about the hard things and figure out can we do this.” I always lean in favor of, like, “let’s explore it, and let’s push out and see where we’re at.” I think we have time for one more question. Christi, do you wanna?
Christi Parsons: Thank you. Hi, I’m Christi. Appreciate this introduction to Atlantic culture this week. Week one. I don’t recall a conversation like this at the L.A. Times.
Goldberg: There are more immediate problems at the L.A. Times.
Parsons: Yeah, exactly. This is a nice luxury to have. Very often men who speak glibly about violence against women also turn out to be harassers in the workplace. I’m not making that accusation in this specific case. I just want to note that this seems like a moment when you can talk about your commitment to protecting the workplace and the culture of The Atlantic at a moment when you’re about to bring in an awful lot of new people in a really fast hurry.
Goldberg: Yeah, I mean, thank you, Christi. And this is a simple one. I mean, those of you were here over the last year know that David and Bob and me and every other manager, we’ve been addressing this — especially since November, since the Weinstein thing. You know we have, I mean, we’re OK? [knocks on wood] You know, and the Atlantic culture I think you’ll experience is very strong. And the civility culture is very strong. And I’ve made it as clear as I possibly can that there’s zero tolerance for anything of the sort on the whole range of things that can go wrong in an organization related to this. There’s absolutely zero tolerance. We are a majority-female organization. We have, over the last year and a half, brought up a lot of women into leadership roles, not because they’re women but because I wanted to make a concerted effort to level the playing field so that women could get into leadership roles. I know from reading and talking to other people that having women in leadership roles in organizations doesn’t actually preclude the possibility of — NPR being a good example — the possibility of things happening. But I think everybody knows that the thing that we want to most defend against is the possibility that any woman would suffer in any way from the depredations that we’ve seen across the industry.
Where was the other question?
Vann Newkirk: I imagine when this Atlantic University was planned, we were going to talk about something else. The reason why we are talking about this is because Ta-Nehisi has become, even in some ways more than Kevin Williamson, the avatar of this conversation. I think [The National Review Online] has spilled more ink on you than they have on Kevin.
Coates: Is that true?
Newkirk: Well, when David French did the piece quoting both of you, he quoted you and did not quote Kevin. But it’s interesting. I mean you’ve seen all things about what you’ve written that might be considered beyond the pale. You’ve seen it. It seems to me that we are having a conversation resting on something of your moral authority, your role in this. As Jeff said, not in the hiring position, but in lending some sort of moral credence to what we do here at The Atlantic. How do you feel about that? And, Jeff, is that a sustainable thing?
Goldberg: What do you mean sustainable?
Newkirk: That we have a person like Ta-Nehisi, who is an amazing journalist and person and friend to many of us, who is sort of the ongoing center of many of these conversations about who we are and what we do.
Goldberg: Is it sustainable?
Coates: No, I understand what he’s saying. I understand exactly what he’s saying.
Goldberg: You mean as a moral insurance policy? Or as a person who becomes a lightning rod for a lot of what is said about The Atlantic?
Newkirk: I mean, I think it’s both. The lightning rod is part of the package.
Coates: I understand what he’s saying. No, it’s not sustainable.
Goldberg: Well, I’m not — your question is complicated.
Coates: He’s saying, in the course of this debate, when people want to define what is tolerable for The Atlantic or what The Atlantic is willing to do, I’m brought up as evidence of it.
Goldberg: And I don’t give a shit.
Coates: Yeah, yeah, but maybe you don’t give a shit because — and I’m just being clear — because it’s not you. And also —
Goldberg: Oh, you mean — no, I don’t give a shit what people say about you.
Coates: That’s what I’m saying, well maybe you don’t give a shit …
Goldberg: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. In terms of people pressuring me to do something about —
Coates: No, I don’t think that’s Vann’s question. That’s not Vann’s question. It’s not “are you gonna fire Ta-Nehisi?” That’s not his question.
Goldberg: No, no. I mean, no, no. Because you’re triggering me here because I get a lot of stuff about him. I get a lot of stuff about a lot of people.
Coates: That’s his point, though. And not in “are you gonna fire …?” Like, is it healthy in general. Everybody knows where you are in this. I mean, it’s not “are you going to fire this dude?”
Goldberg: Is it healthy — what’s the healthy or unhealthy thing?
Coates: Is it healthy to have —
Goldberg: No, I mean, I’m sorry, because I got all self-righteous in my mind. And I was going to say — I mean, look, it’s very hard for me to disaggregate the professional Ta-Nehisi from the personal Ta-Nehisi because —
Coates: Can you maybe repeat the question?
Goldberg: No, I mean, I want to say that. I just feel the need to say this. I mean he’s one of the dearest people in my life. I’d die for him. So like —
Coates: That’s not what he’s asking!
Goldberg: I know! But —
Coates: We all know that!
Goldberg: No, I want you to know that.
Coates: We all know this. That’s not his question, though. He’s clear on that.
Goldberg: No, I want you to know that.
Coates: I do know that!
Goldberg: Can’t I just express my love for you? What’s so bad? What’s so wrong?
Coates: Can I just say — and I would only say this sitting in this room — but that was a very white response.
Goldberg: I’m very white! Why was it white?
Coates: Because you’re going to this question of, I’m trying to prove, you know, I’m a good ally. I’m part of this.
Coates: “I love Ta-Nehisi.” But that’s not actually what he’s asking.
Goldberg: Well, I didn’t understand. I would die for Ross Anderson. He’s one of the whitest guys I know.
Coates: That’s still very white, though — nobody is asking you to die!
Goldberg: No! But — all right, fine. What’s the question, Vann?
Newkirk: What I’m asking is, he’s become, and I think this is fair, more than the sum of his journalism and what he does, the center of a conversation around who we are, what we do and what’s allowable here. And I was asking if that is a desirable position for us to be in, and if that’s a sustainable position for Ta-Nehisi and for you?
Staffer: That’s not something we create though, right?
Newkirk: I think we do in some ways.
Goldberg: I mean, all we are and all The Atlantic is is the sum total of the people who work at The Atlantic and write for The Atlantic and edit The Atlantic, in a very basic way. And so, Ta-Nehisi was hired 10 years ago to do a thing, and because he’s Ta-Nehisi and because The Atlantic is The Atlantic he became a very famous person. I really, I’m not, I’m not tracking the question.
I feel like Ta-Nehisi is, and I feel like Jim is the same thing, and a lot of other people — Megan is the same thing, you’re the same thing. And Conor and David Frum and all of that is The Atlantic together, and it’s hard to define that group. Right? And I’d like for things to be in a little bit of balance in those questions so it’s easy easier to explicate what we are and who we are. Of all the problems, that doesn’t strike me as a problem. Does it strike you as a problem?
Goldberg: Well, why? Why does it strike you as a problem?
Coates: Well, go ahead Vann, go. Don’t let me —
Newkirk: I mean, I think if any of us swapped positions with Ta-Nehisi and were put in the position to be that moral authority, it would be a difficult position. And I think each of us who may be in line to be in the line of fire, perhaps, would say that’s a perhaps undesirable position.
Coates: Well, I don’t think with just the sum total of our parts. I mean, let’s flip it, man. Let’s flip it like this. If we didn’t have — if there was someone here who, for instance, had and — good idea, bad idea — had written a cover that said abortion should be legal, in all cases, everywhere, right now. And had we done that, probably you would have seen that person in that position instead of me. Do you understand? Like, I think part of why that’s the case is who gets opportunities, who is cultivated to make really, really aggressive arguments. And then also, once those arguments are made, who we promote. You know, I appreciate that. I appreciate what you just said about the talent and all that and all of that stuff. I appreciate that.
But I do think the machine is part of it.
Goldberg: Do you think the machine is conscious?
Coates: No, no, no, no. But that effect is the same, so it really doesn’t matter. But I think, you know, Jeff, like you got props yesterday from Nicole for this. I really admire what you’re doing. And I respect that, you know—I really think that diversity piece is really, really important. But then what happens after that is, it raises — you know, you don’t just become diverse, and everybody says “yeah!” and claps.
Goldberg: Well, yeah, you become different.
Coates: No! You don’t just become different. You uncover other problems. So the very fact that Vann is in the room is the reason why we’re having this discussion right now. Whereas if Vann was not in the room, this wouldn’t even be — we wouldn’t have this discussion. More problems that you may not have seen when you said, “Hey, we’re going to become diverse that will be a great thing,” become revealed. So it’s like an ongoing process.
And so what he’s pointing to — and I think this will be true; I don’t think it’s just necessarily true of me, I think it would be true of anybody else in this position — is, why is that the case? And I think part of the reason that’s the case is, for a very, very long time, I was the only black writer here. And we are dealing with the effects of that. That don’t necessarily follow you, it don’t even necessarily follow Bob or, you know what I mean, I don’t think people were consciously trying to say, let’s not get any black folks here. Or let’s not get any writers of color here. But there are effects of that. I mean there’s no other person here who is making those sorts of aggressive arguments. So, yeah, it ends up that you say, OK, who can I find that says shit at The Atlantic that feels like it’s outside of the mainstream. So then you become the tentpole — and this is my therapy right now — you become A) well, they let that guy write this, why can’t Kevin Williamson do this, B) well, that guy likes Kevin Williamson, what are the rest of y’all complaining about?
Like, I don’t have the right to my own private opinion. And I should have actually recognized that before I started talking. That was my mistake. But writers want to write. You know, writers don’t want to be that. You know, no writer really wants to be that. And I think one way The Atlantic can help with that — and I think The Atlantic’s already helping with that, though, you might not see dividends from it for another five years or so ― is that piece of making sure that as you bring these folks in, who have not traditionally been here, that they get the opportunity to make those aggressive arguments.
That those people are promoted in our events, in our outreach. You know, like the stuff Anna [Bross, senior communications director] does— whoever talks to the press — that those people are pushed in a certain kind of way. And then I think it becomes, you know, less easy to put that on one person.
Goldberg: Yeah. I mean, my goal is to make it look like as much of America as we can. And I don’t want that burden to fall on one person from each group to be that spokesman and avatar.