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Conor Friedersdorf: The Perfect Flunky for The Atlantic's Fake Discourse
What seems like a long time ago, The Atlantic had a section called Notes. The idea behind Notes was something between a curated comments section and letters to the editor; it was thought that various TA writers would be encouraged to respond to the strongest good-faith dissents related to articles they themselves had published on the main site. The plan was to eventually have multiple threads of conversation keeping things straight as the authors engaged in back-and forth on their own work. The expectation was that a reader could pop in and see several conversations evolving and growing in any given week, purposefully optimized for quality of thought and taking advantage of TA’s then-pretty-good readership to create a unique kind of content.
I’m biased, but I think all this actually worked out really well for a while.
There’s multiple reasons I’m biased about this; the first is that I got to be a part of it. This was a period of my life where I otherwise had zero outlets for my writing. I had (and have) no bona fides of the kind that open doors; I had very few opportunities to get eyes on my work. I wanted to think of myself as a writer, but had no way to show it. I was uneducated, unrefined and had no idea of how to change any of that.
Despite all that, there were a few occasions where stuff I wrote got picked up by Notes and started meaningful discussions. This won’t make sense to everyone, but being told that I had opinions worth reading, selecting and reprinting was a really big thing for me at the time. A big part of why I could do this blog stems from being included in Notes; it gave me some confidence I’m not sure I could have gotten anywhere else then and since.
The other reason I’m biased is that I’m more-or-less conservative, and TA’s Notes section was a place where conservatives were given real opportunities to be heard. If dialogue is supposed to be about letting ideas fight it out in a sort of polite survival-of-the-fittest evolutionary battle, having a biased ref necessarily breaks the process, tilts the playing field and determines the winners agnostic of the strength of their positions.
This didn’t happen here; the editor in charge of the section (who I’m pleased to stay friends with today) was even-handed, and despite TA’s even-then-significantly-left slant, conservatives were allowed to give as good as they got, often coming out even or on top of arguments. The same friend informs me that this was by design; the comments section had been somewhat left alone to fester; in a curation vacuum, bad actors were rewarded for bad behavior. Notes (coupled with a worst-of-the-worst-trolls banning campaign) changed up the rewards system. High effort thinking and discussion was found and showcased, and increased moderation made cheap trolling less worthwhile.
My-friend-the-editor’s evenhandedness made this all work; good writing from both sides was rewarded and the general level of discourse on the site steadily improved, in both Notes and the comments as well. But, as you might expect, this doomed Notes; Trump was elected, and everything changed.
My friend tells me that some of the reader-driven threads in the wake of Trump's victory (threads that aired views from across the political spectrum, including conservative critiques of Trump and unabashed support for Trump) were so widely read that Notes consistently topped the traffic leaderboard for more than a month; the writings of anonymous readers were out-pacing many of TA’s top writers. But the left’s backlash against all things Trump - and by proxy, all things conservative - was also beginning to go into overdrive.
The newsroom was now quietly hostile to the project. Encouragement was non-existent and promised staff support for the blog never materialized. In a teamwork desert, Notes dwindled, wall-writing was read, and my now-disillusioned friend quit TA entirely. To make sure such conservatives-get-a-voice mistakes were never repeated, they gave the section to James Fallows, who could be predictably expected to print conservative opinions sparingly while explaining both before and after why they were wrong. Absent controversy and with posts about how much Fallows loved flying airplanes outnumbering posts with actual discussion of issues, Notes was safely forgotten.
A few years later conservatives were still present on the site within the comments section, which was axed completely in service of further silencing them in 2018. As a replacement, TA instituted the Letters section, once again safely edited to minimize unacceptable views. It still exists to serve its purpose as a show-piece indicating TA’s interest in dialogue but seems broadly unread; it’s rarely shown on the frontpage and essentially never referenced by its writers in other pieces. This action was accompanied by a reasonable-sounding rationale:
Adrienne LaFrance, editor of TheAtlantic.com, said that the move is designed to elevate the smartest feedback from its readers, both by incentivizing more thought-out responses over knee-jerk reactions and by making it easier for others to read them (which in turn improves the overall experience of reading TheAtlantic.com). “We have such smart readers and they add so much to our journalism, whether they’re praising us, criticizing us, or just adding a new perceptive. It’s all very valuable,” she said. “It’s a huge leap up from the comment section.”
Which, of course, is reasonable only until you remember that they already had this in Notes and let it die on the vine precisely because it provided the benefits LaFrance describes.
In two short years, TA distanced itself as far as possible from any sort of adversarial accountability as they could. Their power is limited, but to the extent they can control things you will never see anybody disagreeing with one of their pieces in a way they can’t optimize for them seeming completely correct once the smoke clears.
But now TA exists in a slightly calmer world, seems to have a dwindling readership and has to compete with the Substacks, Ghosts and Revues of the world. All this set the stage for the debut of Up For Debate, TA’s third stab at a Notes-like section. Like Notes, it promises curated reader discussion in pursuit of honest and productive dialogue.
Unlike Notes it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of accomplishing anything meaningful. Conor Friedersdorf is in charge, and while he’s not terrible he’s the exact wrong choice for the job.
If a person knows one thing and nothing else about Conor Friedersdorf, it’s that he’s the farthest person to the right at TA. That isn’t saying an enormous amount; even a decade ago when right-leaning voices were more welcome there, TA usually opted for centrist libertarians in lieu of anyone who might be mistaken for a standard-issue conservative.
But Conor’s political alignment isn’t really all that important to whether or not he can handle the job of running a bipartisan discourse channel. My friend who I mentioned above? He describes himself as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. That never once got in the way of him doing his job as described. No matter how a person is aligned, they are going to disagree with somebody in a come-as-you-politically-are environment. What matters is having a real dedication to discussion; if someone can bring that to the table and let it override their tribal instincts, it doesn’t matter if they are a straight-up communist or the kind of person who sits around waiting for the second coming of Reagan.
On the surface, that actually bodes really well for Conor Friedersdorf; being known for being pro-free-speech and pro-discourse is sort of his thing. Any given one of Conor’s tweets tends to circle around the idea of maintaining the ability of folks to talk without being silenced by others. It’s even often nuanced:
And is just as often bi-partisan; while he makes jabs at the left (as he did constantly during the period that deplatforming conservative college speakers was heavily in the news), he also often cuts towards criticizing the right:
If all this seems positive, that’s intentional. I don’t hate Conor Friedersdorf. He’s a good writer, and there have been dozens of times I’ve agreed with him. If nothing else, he’s been consistent on free speech and discourse; in the areas he cares about, he’s a staunch defender.
But it’s that “areas he cares about” that gets tricky. He’s perfectly consistent about caring about the speech of journalists, and he’d be reasonably expected to identify with them. He cares about speech in universities; he went to one, and he’d probably like to speak at one. He cares about issues of speech that are close enough to those two things that he’d catch them in the same news searches - so, say, Joe Rogan or elementary school book censorship. But beyond that, it stops, and it stops cold.
When Notes was given the slow death, he was completely quiet. When the comments were cancelled, he said absolutely nothing. Not everybody has to write about every single thing, but it does establish a track record; when his employer decided to silence everyone who disagreed with them to the absolute extent of their power to do so, he made absolutely no noise.
A few months after The Atlantic ended their comments section, it occurred to someone that they might actually need to have at least one actual honest-to-god conservative on staff if they wanted to give any credibility at all to their of no party or clique motto. As a solution fated to be stop-gap, they hired Kevin Williamson. For the record, I don’t have any huge opinions on Williamson as a writer; my main familiarity with his work is from this story.
This was 2018, and basically the pre-COVID peak of wokeness; the movement was able to connect everything back to Trump in some way or another, and thus felt fully empowered to take down any Republican at any time, full stop. Some quick Twitter digging revealed that Williamson held two opinions the left as a whole strongly disagrees with but are not rare on the right: that abortion represents the end of a human life and should be treated as a capital crime, and that capital crimes typically merit the death sentence.
Twitter demanded Williamson’s firing, and TA breathed a sigh of relief and fired him. But the “Twitter made me do it” excuse is only a partial fig-leaf; more was needed to convince the average Joe that they had anything like a commitment to viewpoint diversity that would stand up to more than finding out a fairly normal conservative held a fairly normal conservative view. It’s impossible to say whether Conor trotted out or was trotted out to fulfill this role, but trot he did.
So it was that TA’s only sorta-conservative wrote an article where he explained that while Williamson’s views were clearly repulsive and had no place in public discourse, he still opposed the firing on the basis of a narrow principle he totally understands most people don’t hold:
But in most cases—in this case—I depart from the conventional wisdom…
And I draw a distinction between the position that a given belief “is not something that belongs anywhere in the mainstream,” and the crucially distinct belief that a person who holds any such position should be totally excluded from mainstream institutions, even if their participation in them never broaches the outlying view.
The latter approach fuels balkanization.
And then made very clear that his bosses were in all cases super cool and totally wouldn’t fire or censor someone as reasonable and moral as him:
My long experience at The Atlantic imbues me with faith in the prospect of clarifying matters in ways that avoid the slide toward the faintheartedness that Shafer fears.
As ever, the work that appears in our pages will be the truest test.
But in my experience as a writer who, while certainly not a movement conservative, departs frequently and vehemently from what might be called woke consensus progressivism, I’ve always had the freedom to write about what I want; and I have never been pressured to take, alter, or soften any viewpoint whatever, full stop.
A quick side note: If you are a writer who just watched someone get fired for having a wrong viewpoint, the fact that you yourself aren’t fired or censored for your viewpoints doesn’t mean they aren’t pressuring you to have the right viewpoints. They are, in the very strongest terms they can. All your safety and freedom means in that environment is that you either accidentally or through training never say anything they don’t want you to.
It’s possible to make the argument that TA is very much committed to ideological diversity anyway, and Conor dutifully does:
Goldberg is earnest in his desire to publish ideologically diverse voices at The Atlantic—remember, no one made him go and hire Williamson in the first place. That Williamson was fired, for better or worse, does not render The Atlantic a small tent.
But note that TA did not replace Williamson; their fig leaf now full, there was no reason to. It’s as full-left as any not-Mother-Jones publication in the US. It’s also possible to make the argument that Conor thought they would, that they really held ideological diversity as a real value they’d really make efforts to meet. But TA has swung farther and farther left, full-throated conservative voices remain conspicuously unhired, and Conor still draws a check, week after week, at an organization that has used all the strongest tools at their disposal to indicate they won’t tolerate views they substantially disagree with.
As I said before, I’m salty about this. But I’m salty for what I consider good reasons; TA used to be better. Notes was fantastic and special. Conor Friedersdorf really was once one of a stable of diverse voices, and not just a safe, predictable writer kept on staff because he safely, predictably and instinctually never said anything more than ~20% out of line with what his bosses already believed.
A section like Notes is necessarily going to draw fire; discussion of important topics is inherently controversial. People with genuine disagreements often disagree strongly in big ways that aren’t easily resolved. Conor’s Up for Debate, if it allows real dialogue, will unavoidably run into the same difficulties. It’s inherent to the format.
I actually hope it does draw that fire, and that Conor proves me wrong and does well. But everything we know about Conor’s track record says he won’t. His silence when Notes died, his silence when comments were eliminated, his thinly-veiled defense of his bosses during a firing over ideology, and his continued participation at a magazine that has again and again pulled farther and farther away from anything resembling debate all speak to the idea of a man who will either already toes a line or will fall into it when asked.
A few months in, Up For Debate is doing… well, it’s doing fine. With the exception of one thread about abortion (mostly sanitized of object partisan talk), he’s mainly chosen topics that avoid significant right/left disagreements, like having unpopular opinions on food. “Readers respond to reader responses” content like what drove Notes is completely absent; this is strictly a letters-to-the-editor format, giving us something that’s less discussion and more curated one-shot opinions.
To the extent Conor can avoid strong, fiery disagreements, I suspect he will. But strong disagreements happen for a reason - they happen around the things we disagree about most, the things we most need to talk, debate and fight around. Either Conor will forever avoid those kinds of meaningful brawls and squash any of the real potential his new project has, or he will allow them to happen, find conservatives have opinions too, and run into the hard wall that is TA’s intolerance of right-wing viewpoints. His project is either dead on the table by default or he will have to - for the first time ever - stand up for reader voices.
Real discourse has long since been dead at TA. Conor says he’s bringing it back, and I hope he does. He might. But I’m not holding my breath.
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