Walter Williams is an economist who writes a weekly syndicated column that appears in nearly 150 newspapers and websites across the United States. He’s also an African American and very, very conservative. These last two personal attributes make it possible for him to draw attention to the former two qualities. And that makes Williams very popular with some right-wing zealots.
Virtually everything that Williams writes is an unrelenting, negative rant on black leaders, black lifestyles, and black people. No matter that much of it is factually inaccurate or that his logic is intellectually dishonest. He’s a black man saying out loud what some conservatives already believe. For those who agree with him, he speaks the truth. End of story.
But for those newspaper editors who are running Williams’s syndicated columns, there is much more to their decisions. So let’s take a look at one of his recent opinion pieces—and then at the reasons so many newspapers serving mostly smaller communities around the country run his columns.
Williams’s most recent column, distributed by Creators Syndicate, rails at the U.S. Justice Department’s decision not to prosecute the New Black Panthers, whom he erroneously claims intimidated white voters during the 2008 general elections at a Philadelphia polling station. But that wasn’t the point of the column. Rather, Williams pivots to say that “black intimidation of voters, to my knowledge is rare, but black intimidation of Asians is not.” He offers no evidence of this except a vague and untraceable reference to “recent reports out of Philadelphia and San Francisco [that] tell of black students beating up Asian students.” The facts in these cases don’t stand up under close scrutiny, as Richard Prince effectively demonstrated in his online column Journalisms.
But, as Prince also points out, Williams’s fact-challenged opinions expose a larger and more troubling problem: Reputable newspapers publish Williams because he’s a hard-to-duplicate voice. Rare are black right-wing columnists. So in their glee to find one, editors publish Williams even as they harbor doubts about the integrity of his facts or arguments. Why? Because the papers, especially those serving small- and medium-sized communities, are besieged with declining readership and profits, and thus are hard-pressed to alienate their noisiest customers, who increasingly enjoy what Williams and other right-wing commentators say. They are quick to applaud wildly what they like to read and threaten to change their reading habits if they read something they don’t agree with.
For decades, of course, conservatives have complained that the nation’s news media are mouthpieces for liberal views. When newspapers and television stations were on firmer financial footing the cries were largely dismissed or ignored. But now, as media outlets have seen their advertising revenues decline by up to 40 percent during the past two years, the complaints are being heard where it matters most—in the pocketbook.
While this economic downturn opened the door for right-wing media personalities—Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Lou Dobbs—to exploit the genre, only a few black voices are in the conversation. Among the more popular are Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, and Williams, all of whom are fixtures in newspapers where black voices—especially market-agreeable conservatives—are rarely heard.
Newspaper editorial page editors admit the decisions they make about the opinions and personalities they choose to print are often affected by demanding readers. Some, like Susan Parker, community conversations editor at The Daily Times in Salisbury, Md., don’t like the turn from truth-seeking journalism to regurgitation of politically popular opinion. “We’re publishing in a very conservative area,” she said during a recent phone interview. “Many of our readers only want to read what they already believe. When we publish something else that they don’t like, they’re quick to call or write to say mean things to us for running this or that.”
By her estimate, conservative readers are more likely to demand that such material shouldn’t be published while progressive readers will gripe about the quantity of conservative voices. “Liberals don’t mind reading other points of view, if they feel their side is being represented,” Parker said. “The conservatives just don’t want to see it.”
And so editors give the readers what they demand. That leads to specious arguments such as Williams’s fact-less claim that blacks are intimidating Asians, said Dennis Mangan at The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio. He frets that Williams is popular because he is pushing an agenda without trying to be fair or accurate. “I am troubled because more and more columnists are starting to write like they’re talk-radio hosts,” he told me.
Mangan, who doesn’t subscribe to Williams’s column, complained on an email list circulated among members of the National Conference of Editorial Writers that the column failed the standard for a reasonable opinion. “The intellectual dishonesty that permeates this column is troublesome because it is becoming so common from some of the people we’re paying to write, presumably, serious commentary,” he wrote. “[H]e’s planted a seed suggesting widespread black racism, but he can deny trying to do so because, hey, he said voter intimidation was rare.”
But for many editors, facts and logic be damned if they can print a syndicated column by a black ultraconservative. Many of their readers liked what he said—and that’s good enough to give him an audience in small-town newspapers across the nation. Little wonder why people aggregate themselves into self-selected cocoons where they’re free to close their minds to any ideas or political views that challenge their own.
But journalism shouldn’t make ignorance easy or comfortable. Whatever truth exists in this media-saturated world is rarely revealed by allowing warring sides—liberals to the left and conservatives to the right—equal space and time to duke it out in public, each armed with competing sets of lies. All that does is confuse the public and makes it virtually impossible for average citizens to be informed. Our democracy depends on a free press, well, one free enough to boldly separate hard-to-swallow truth from the palatable fiction.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of polices on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.