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I respect Will, but smug, peevish, and humorless all reasonably describe him, and he should keep an eye out for predictable lurking in the weeds. The odd time I write about Will (such as here and here), it’s because he's annoyed me. Every once in a while a Washington Post column by Will shows up in the Chicago Tribune, and my reaction is always the same: I feel a small jolt of surprise at being reminded that Will still grinds them out.
I was just talking about Will with someone I know at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "He annoys the crap out of me but he makes me think," said this writer. "It’s good to be pushed outside your comfort zone." I carp, but it's true. We both think the Post-Dispatch was grandstanding the other day when it ostentatiously dropped Will from the paper.
Tony Messenger edits the editorial pages of the Post-Dispatch. It was a couple of months ago, he tells me, when he and his staff began kicking around the idea of deep-sixing Will's column. As he later told CNN’s Brian Stelter after the deed was done, everyone thought Will "had lost a little bit of speed off his fastball." They decided to do it, it was just a question of when, and then an opportunity presented itself to pull the plug that was so golden and irresistible that I'm sorry Messenger didn’t let it go by.
The occasion was a Will column on sexual assaults on college campuses. It didn't make the cut at the Tribune but the Post-Dispatch didn't think twice about running it. It was afterward that the paper announced they were dropping Will altogether. "The change has been under consideration for several months," Messenger would tell readers, in his note announcing that Will was out and Michael Gerson, also from the Washington Post, was in, "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."
Newspapers these days are eager to apologize when they get a fact wrong—the more trivial the fact the more eager they are. But to apologize that a story even saw the light of day is another matter. Prior restraint always enjoys plenty of advocates; newspapers need to be the ones who stand behind the principle of putting a sensitive story out there so the public can decide. The Post-Dispatch could have allowed that Will wrote a godawful column without wringing its hands and wishing it could take it back. George Will is an important conservative voice and we let him make his case, the paper could have said. And a damn poor case it was!
Messenger didn’t make a lot of sense trying to explain himself to CNN’s Stelter.
"If we were purely dropping the column because of that one particular offensive element then sure, [intolerance] would be a fair criticism of us," Messenger said. "But the element of that column that caused us to drop it was that we found it very offensive to many of our readers." Though this explanation doesn’t exactly parse, Messenger seems to be admitting the P-D was out of touch with its readers, and when it found out what made them really angry the paper decided this was a good time to lead from the rear.
Stelter asked if down the road Will might get a second chance. Could happen, said Messenger. "We make op-ed decisions for a variety of reasons. . . . We’re constantly switching our columnists for business reasons and for matters of content. So I wouldn’t close the door on George Will, no."
Messenger told me his paper had dropped the New York Times wire because it cost too much and switched to Washington Post columnists because they didn't. So to add insult to injury, that's why Will was in the paper in the first place: he came cheap. And it may not matter what he has left on his fastball; if he gets even cheaper there might be room for him back in the bullpen.
But what did Will write that was so terrible?
His inspiration was a long, complex piece in Philadelphia magazine on sexual assaults at Swarthmore College. The reporter described a campus beset by "cognitive dissonance," its response to assault allegations complicated by the Quaker tradition of "permissiveness and tolerance" and by the Obama administration’s warning to schools to obey the Title IX gender equity law. Will brushed aside the dissonance; he fashioned a boiler-plate screed scorning academia as the richly deserving prey of Washington's relentless nannies.
"Academia is learning that its attempts to create victim-free campuses—by making everyone hypersensitive, even delusional, about victimizations—brings increasing supervision by the regulatory state that progressivism celebrates," he wrote. Colleges are learning that "when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous . . . and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate."
Will didn't make the comparison, but I bet some readers did: Will's sexual assault "victims" were like World Cup players who take elaborate dives hoping to be rewarded with penalty kicks. The readers Messenger heard from were furious, and the reaction didn't stop there: four Democratic senators wrote Will a letter setting him straight. "Your thesis and statistics fly in the face of everything we know about this issue," wrote senators Richard Blumenthal, Dianne Feinstein, Tammy Baldwin, and Robert Casey Jr. "You trivialize the scourge of sexual assault. . . . You legitimize the myths the victims and victim advocates have worked tirelessly for decades to combat."
Messenger and his colleagues on the P-D’s editorial board decided that if they wanted to dump Will this was the time to do it. Messenger says readers overwhelmingly approved: 80 percent of the calls and e-mails the first day ("and more like 99 percent of the women") applauded. "The thing I will never forget about this episode," Messenger told me, "is talking to real women, with real names, telling me on their own that they are rape victims, and thanking me for standing up for them."
Ignored in the uproar was the core of Will’s column, those statistics that perturbed the senators. Will’s arithmetic, if wrong, should be easy to refute with other arithmetic, but the senators no more bothered to attempt this than the Post-Dispatch did. Will noticed. "I think I take sexual assault much more seriously than you do," he replied to the senators. "Which is why I worry about definitions of that category of crime that might, by their breadth, tend to trivialize it."
Here, from his column, are Will’s numbers:
The administration’s crucial and contradictory statistics are validated the usual way, by official repetition; Joe Biden has been heard from. The statistics are: One in five women is sexually assaulted while in college, and only 12 percent of assaults are reported. Simple arithmetic demonstrates that if the 12 percent reporting rate is correct, the 20 percent assault rate is preposterous. Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute notes, for example, that in the four years 2009 to 2012 there were 98 reported sexual assaults at Ohio State. That would be 12 percent of 817 total out of a female student population of approximately 28,000, for a sexual assault rate of approximately 2.9 percent—too high but nowhere near 20 percent.
As I never get tired of writing, journalism, like politics, is a fount of preposterous numbers no one questions, and I admire anyone who tries. If Will lost his op-ed position at the Post-Dispatch for a column in which he wrote inanely of privileged rape victims, he also lost it for a column questioning privileged statistics that don’t make sense. Will went on C-Span to defend himself and began his defense with this:
"This is my job—when dubious statistics become the basis of dubious and dangerous abandonment of due process, to step in and say, 'Take a deep breath, everybody.'"
Good for him. The Will of the C-Span interview was weary, straightforward, and serious. It’s interesting how compelling a pundit can be when he’s simply thinking and talking, rather than straining to earn a paycheck by getting off a zinger in this line and lobbing a grenade in the next. Writers should try it more often. Messenger's counterpart at the Tribune is Bruce Dold, and although he called the Will column nobody liked "misguided and insensitive," he says his paper has no plans to dump Will. "I don’t see a fallout in the general quality of what he does,” Dold told me. “His work is very well researched and he has an interesting point of view."
If Will’s only in the Tribune a few times a year, Dold says it's because he wants to put out a varied and lively op-ed age and has lots of other choices. The Post-Dispatch, much more dependent on Will to fill a hole, either had to keep running him constantly or replace him. Messenger tells me he gave the decision to replace Will a public airing because readers deserve "full disclosure." Fair enough. But the Post-Dispatch would have looked better disclosing why it wasn't sorry it published the column.