"[W]hen they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate."
This single phrase has followed George Will for the last six months. The syndicated conservative columnist, considered by many a thoughtful intellectual rather than a bomb-thrower, severely damaged his brand when he wrote a June 2014 column dismissing efforts on college campuses to combat the epidemic of sexual assault and suggesting that women who say they were raped receive "privileges." The column has sparked hundreds to protest his public appearances, challenges from U.S. Senators and women's rights groups, and the dropping of his column from a major newspaper.
Will's 2014 misinformation was not limited to attacking and dismissing rape victims. Throughout the year, Will failed to disclose several major conflicts of interest in his columns, and his tangled relationship with political entities backed by Charles and David Koch was cited by the outgoing ethics chair of the Society of Professional Journalists as the kind of conflict journalists should disclose in their writing. His history as a prominent denier of climate change also helped further undermine his credibility, with more than 100,000 people signing a petition demanding the Washington Post stop printing the science misinformation he and others regularly push in its pages.
Will has written a column for the Post since 1974, which is syndicated in over 450 papers. He started his career as a Republican Senate staff member and speech writer before moving into the ranks of the conservative press, contributing to The American Spectator and working as the Washington editor for the National Review for a time. He has become a fixture in the right-wing think tank infrastructure, serving as a board member of the Bradley Foundation, which funds conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Federalist Society. But Will was always careful to keep one foot in the mainstream -- in addition to his Post column, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1977, he served as an ABC News commentator for three decades and was even a featured interview in several Ken Burns documentaries.
Yet late last year, he left ABC to join Fox News as a political contributor, cementing his increasingly conservative and counterfactual tendencies. Some of his politics -- such as his longstanding climate change denial -- seemed to fit in at the network. But at the time, Media Matters wondered if an association with Fox's more angry and crude fare would ruin the brand of the staid conservative pontificator, shifting his erudite elitism towards the hard-edged style of misinformation for which Fox is better known. Will's accomplishments in 2014 revealed our suspicions were well-founded.
Media Matters isn't the only organization to recognize the damage Will's commentary did to the discourse this year. When PolitiFact awarded its 2014 Lie of Year to "exaggerations about Ebola," they cited Will as a prime example. Will used his Fox News platform to spread lies about the disease, falsely claiming that it could be "spread through the air." As PolitiFact noted:
Will's claim that Ebola could spread through the air via a cough or sneeze shows how solid science got misconstrued. The conservative commentator suggested a thought shift about how the virus could spread. In reality, Will simply misunderstood scientists' consistent, albeit technical explanation. Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood, vomit and diarrhea. Coughing and sneezing are not symptoms.
Will has a long history of pushing misinformation, but it finally caught up with him in 2014, tarnishing the reputation as a public intellectual he had spent decades cultivating. He started the year one of the most respected members of the conservative media elite, and ended it with hundreds protesting his speeches. For this reason, Media Matters recognizes George Will as the 2014 Misinformer of the Year.
Rather than reconsider his position in light of the mounting criticism, Will doubled down. He refused to apologize, explicitly saying he wouldn't take any of his words back, and responded to the senators by claiming he takes "sexual assault much more seriously" than they do.
In the column, Will had used the story of a young woman from Swarthmore College who told Philadelphiamagazine about her rape. Despite the fact that she explicitly did not consent, Will implied he didn't believe her experience qualified as an actual incident of assault. The woman's name was Lisa Sendrow, and as the criticism against Will grew, she decided to speak out. In an interview with Media Matters, she blasted the conservative columnist.
"I absolutely have not received any privileges from sexual assault," she said. "He has clearly never experienced the fear of sexual assault. He clearly has no idea how hard it is to sleep, to walk around, thinking at any moment this person that you live down the hall from could come out." Sendrow told Media Matters that she received death threats and was diagnosed with PTSD following her assault and the media coverage of her, and found Will's dismissing rhetoric harmful. "You can't really heal if people are telling you that it's your fault," she said, "But that's what Will did."
Assessing the backlash against Will for this column, Post media blogger Erik Wemple noted that only men were involved in editing and vetting Will's column prior to publication.
Will's refusal to back down reflected just how seriously he takes this dismissive position towards many people who say they have been raped. 2014, after all, was not the first time he had written on the subject, though it was perhaps the most extreme example. Over two decades ago, in 1993, Will mocked what he termed the "victimization sweepstakes" which featured "rape crisis feminists."
To round out his 2014 misinformation campaign, Will returned to one of his most infamous topics: climate change denial.
Will has long denied that climate change is a real, manmade problem that has drastic consequences. But in 2014, he took this doubt further, disputing that scientific consensus even exists on the matter. When told that 97 percent of scientists who have studied the topic agree that warming trends are influenced by humans, hedemanded to know "who counted" the scientists. "Who measured?" he asked Fox News' Bret Baier. "Where did that figure come from? They pluck these things from the ether."
NASA's website offers several studies and scientific societies, including the National Academy of Sciences, to confirm the scientific consensus on climate change. Several peer-reviewed studies examining scientific publications on global warming have found that approximately 97 percent of academic papers taking a position on the matter supported the consensus position that human activities are driving global warming.
Will's clumsy and misleading approach to scientific facts over the years also helped spark a petition in 2014, signed by more than 100,000 people, urging the Post to banish climate misinformation from its pages.
Their concerns were well-founded; a review of Will's contributions on the topic over the years reveals gross distortions of data and scientific literature. For instance, back in 2009, Will cited the Arctic Climate Research Center to claim that global sea ice levels hadn't changed for thirty years. The Center responded, noting that they had in fact found the exact opposite -- sea ice levels were shrinking. "We do not know where George Will is getting his information," they wrote, adding, "[i]t is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts."
Unlike Will, the Post's editorial board recognizes that climate change is "an existential threat to the planet," and this year devoted a full week to publishing a series of climate change editorials aimed at sparking action against this threat. In an interview with Media Matters, Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said he viewed this as a moment "when the debate could begin to get unstuck." If that is the Post's goal, they may need to look at the role their columnist plays in keeping the debate stuck squarely in the past.
It seems that no matter how many times senators, scientists, experts, activists, and others call out Will's misinformation, Editorial Page Editor Hiatt and the Post respond with the same defense.
Back in 2009, when Will's discredited sea-ice column made headlines, Hiatt claimed Will was simply making"inferences which you disagree with" and suggested others "Debate him" rather than silence him. This year, when thousands asked the Post to stop publishing climate change denial, Hiatt again argued that Will and the other writers in its pages pushing this misinformation were merely contributing to a "robust debate." And when Will was criticized for his sexual assault column claiming victims enjoy a "coveted status," Hiatt again defended the column as falling "within the bounds of legitimate debate."
But this longstanding claim that Will is merely contributing to a "debate" is increasingly false. As the Post's ombudsman pointed out all the way back in 2009, in response to criticism of Will's shoddy sea-ice column, opinion writers are free to choose facts to help them bolster an argument, but they "aren't free to distort" those facts. This is precisely what Will has done, repeatedly, for years. Whether it's survivors who come forward with their personal life experiences, or scientists defending their research, Will distorts, disputes, and dismisses reality in favor of the only authority he believes: himself.