Opinion

Dropping George Will Is A Bad Way To Arrest That Subscriber Decline, Post-Dispatch

Patrick Maines President, The Media Institute
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Even as such things are becoming commonplace, the sacking of George Will’s syndicated column by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sets a new low in mainstream journalism’s race to the bottom.

In case you’re you’re unfamiliar with the situation, Will wrote a piece (“Colleges become the victims of progressivism”), in which he ridiculed, in the context of a new Education Department mandate, some phony math and dubious cases being cited to demonstrate that America suffers from a rape epidemic, which the Obama administration has used to make the case for railroading due process rights of the accused.

Will’s larger point was that the DOE mandate threatens the loss of federal funding to colleges who do not institute a “preponderance of the evidence” standard when adjudicating allegations of sexual assault. This, he wrote, would inevitably lead to costly litigation “against institutions that have denied due process to males they accuse of what society considers serious felonies.”

Elsewhere in his article, Will also points to the growth of campus speech codes and the idea, on some campuses, of the need for “trigger warnings” on college textbooks that feature language or concepts as might “victimize” unwary students. Will contrasts these developments — none of which are much resisted by college faculty and administrations — often they’re welcomed — with those same colleges’ anger at another prospective DOE program, a rating system that would compare schools on things like graduation rates, student debt, and earnings after graduation.

Will concludes his piece with this: “What government is inflicting on colleges and universities, and what they are inflicting on themselves, diminishes their autonomy, resources, prestige and comity. Which serves them right. They have asked for this by asking for progressivism.”

So that’s it. That’s what the piece is about. But not to one Tony Messenger, the editorial page editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. To Mr. Messenger, Will’s column “was offensive and inaccurate,” for which apologies were in order, and sufficient grounds for dropping his column from the paper permanently. And what, precisely, was the offensive and inaccurate thing to which Messenger objected?

Well, as reported by the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, it was: “Seeing the reaction and intensity of the hurt in some of the social media and the reaction of women I know and talking to people who really were offended by the thought that sexual assault victims would seek some special victimhood — it helped seeing that response and it informed my [Messenger’s] opinion.”

Against the slim chance that anyone wonders about it, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a long record of supporting liberal and Democratic priorities, which means that Tony Messenger fits right in. He routinely bashes the Missouri Republican party, often harshly, and champions every liberal cause that comes his way.

Because it’s not nice to pick on the weak, it wouldn’t be right here to speak about Messenger’s abilities in and of themselves, except perhaps to say that somewhere between his brainpan and his mouth there are little walls that prevent him from making sense when speaking. You can witness this yourself, and in fact it’s recommend just for the humor, by checking out Messenger’s interview, available on YouTube, with a fellow named Lee Presser (“A Conversation with Tony Messenger“). Videotaped in 2012, not long after Messenger was hired, it’s almost comic how Messenger filibusters the hard questions while still managing to back himself into rhetorical cul-de-sacs.

One such is his claim that a unique feature of his paper’s editorial page setup is its insulation from the publisher. This, because of a special editorial board that meets regularly. Asked by Presser who sits on that board, Messenger says it’s him, two guys who report to him, plus the editor-in-chief, who Messenger reports to, and the guy the editor reports to, the publisher.

Apart from the substantive nature of this matter, and Messenger’s personal shortcomings, there are many smaller ironies. One is that George Will is the recipient of a Pulitzer prize, named after the former owners of the St Louis Post-Dispatch. (It and some other newspapers were purchased from Pulitzer by Lee Enterprises for $1.5 billion, a few years after which Lee Enterprises filed for bankruptcy.)

Another is the fact that, from 2010 through the end of 2012, the Post-Dispatch’s circulation dropped from 213,472 to 178,801, while the Sunday paper dropped from over 400,000 readers to 299,000. At the same time the paper routinely excoriated Republicans and the Republican Party, which today controls both the Missouri House and Senate by more than 2-1 majorities.

Asked by Presser in the aforementioned YouTube video why so many people say they no longer read the paper because of its transparent political bias, Messenger’s answer (trimmed of its fat) was that such people are confused, and that they should remember they can always write letters to the editor.

Yes, that’s it exactly.

Patrick Maines is president of The Media Institute, a nonprofit organization funded by media and telecom companies. Read his blog at mediainstitute.org or at mediacompolicy.org.