Useful Idiots: Thomas Chatterton Williams on the Open Letter on Cancel Culture
In this week’s quarantine episode of our Useful Idiots podcast, hosts Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper are joined by journalist Thomas Chatterton Williams, who was instrumental in the recent Harper’s open letter.
Our hosts break down the discrepancies in CNN analyses of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — from Jake Tapper on one side, and the Governor’s brother Chris Cuomo on the other — and, of course, the instant-classic Cuomo COVID-19 poster is on the table.
“Andrew Cuomo almost always gets a pass from his brother, ‘Fredo’ Cuomo, well his name really is Chris Cuomo, but let’s call him Chris ‘Fredo’ Cuomo. So this is a rare occasion where CNN actually is critical of Andrew Cuomo, and I think Jake Tapper really nails it,” says Katie, referring to a recent Jake Tapper segment on Governor Cuomo’s self-congratulatory poster. “[Chris is] probably going to threaten Jake.”
“It’s CNN-on-CNN crime,” says Matt. “We love it. We’d love to see more of it.”
Katie and Matt also give a requiem for former U.S. Attorney General and Senator Jeff Sessions, after his recent primary loss in Alabama.
In the big media news of the week, our hosts discuss the self-canceling and departure of opinion editor Bari Weiss from the New York Times, and the ongoing conversation in media circles about “cancel culture” and free speech.
“What makes Bari Weiss presenting herself as a victim of censorship or mob mentality kind of ironic and problematic is that she herself, when she was a student at Columbia University, really did a lot to smear certain professors as anti-Semites,” Katie explains.
Matt points to the lack of intellectual diversity in mainstream media companies. “Forget about whether it’s Bari Weiss or Brett Stephens or whoever, if basically your op-ed page is a whole bunch of people who agree with each other, and Ross Douthat, right? The loser there is the rest of the staff and the readers of the New York Times,” says Matt. “You’re going to end up getting a picture of the world that’s incomplete, and the paper is going to suck because it’s not going to be able to see what the rest of the world is thinking. They’ve already proven that that’s the case.”
Thomas Chatterton Williams join Katie and Matt, allowing the show to really lean in to the subject of intellectual diversity in journalism. Williams, along with several colleagues, drafted the Harper’s open letter, solicited the signatories, and is now in the middle of an international debate over it. “He’s literally sitting at ground zero of this whole controversy,” says Matt.
Williams discusses the reasoning and decision-making that went into to the letter, and who was asked to sign it. He also opines on the overarching goal of putting it out.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, this is what I’ve been talking about in my private texts.’ Their group chats. Now people are talking about it openly,” says Williams. “We probably always have had things that are beyond the pale, that cross a line. We’re collectively trying to figure out where our lines are now, and to try to make whatever we’re doing to enforce quickly-developing norms on the fly. W’re trying to make it more and more fair.”
Williams describes the variety of reactions the letter has received, and the intensity of the criticism — as well as the vindication. “I’ve taken an enormous amount of abuse,” Williams admits. “Lots of us have had negative experiences in the last week or more with this letter, but ultimately those individual negative experiences pale in comparison to what I think has been collectively healthy.”