"[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.
Past recipients include CBS News (2013), Rush Limbaugh (2012), Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. (2011), Sarah Palin (2010), Glenn Beck (2009), Sean Hannity (2008), ABC (2006), Chris Matthews (2005), and Bill O'Reilly (2004).
This year, media coverage of issues affecting women often failed badly, from trivializing sexual assault to pushing inaccurate reports on pending state abortion restrictions. Below are nine major ways the media failed women in 2014.
From the December 15 edition of Fox News' Outnumbered:
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Michigan State University (MSU) students protested before, during, and after George Will's speech at the university's graduation ceremony in response to the conservative Washington Post syndicated columnist's offensive comments about sexual assault.
MSU invited Will to speak at the December 13 commencement ceremony despite a controversial June column in which he suggested that efforts to fight sexual assault have made "victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges" on college campuses. Students and faculty, women's rights groups, and even Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) condemned the university's decision to host Will and award him an honorary doctorate.
MSU students used the Twitter hashtag #itsonyouMSU to protest the university's decision to host Will for the commencement ceremony. Before Will's speech, students lined up outside of MSU's Breslin Center in a silent protest. MSU Students United, which describes itself as "the autonomous student union of Michigan State University," documented the protests on Twitter, posting pictures of students holding signs with messages like "Only yes means yes" and "Rape is not a privilege":
During the ceremony, students turned their backs on Will's speech in protest, as Bloomberg News reported. Will reportedly didn't mention the controversy surrounding his sexual assault comments:
As Will got up to speak, about 15 people in the audience of several thousand stood up and turned their backs toward him. The columnist, whose writing is carried by hundreds of newspapers, made no mention of the protest, his June 6 column or the subject of sexual assault. The crowd applauded when he was done.
Protesters outside, including students, survivors of sexual assault and support group members, were polite and quiet, braving the chilly weather around the Breslin Center, the school's basketball arena and commencement venue. Some stood with red tape across their mouth and held placards saying "Fund Rape Counselors, Not Rape Apologists."
Joy Wang, a correspondent for News10 in Lansing, MI, posted a picture of the silent protest:
Image via MSU Students United Twitter account.
From the December 12 edition of Fox News' The Five:
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From the December 12 edition of Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show:
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From the December 11 edition of MSNBC's The Cycle:
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From the December 11 edition of TawkrTV's The Bill Press Show:
As young women, there's a conversation many of us have with our parents before we head off to college about how to decrease the risk of being raped or assaulted. We are told things like, never walk alone at night, or have a buddy system with friends at parties. Most importantly, my mother wanted me to know that if something did happen, no matter what, I would be believed, and to take that trust very seriously. This conversation was not part of a feminist power grab or radical lefty ideology. It was about my mother trying to keep me safe.
Michigan State University is delaying publicly releasing its contract for George Will's speaking engagement until after his speech by giving themselves an extension in responding to a Freedom of Information Act request.
Will is scheduled to speak at the school's December 13 commencement ceremony and receive an honorary doctorate, despite his controversial comments arguing that efforts to combat sexual assault on college campuses have made "victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges." Graduate and undergraduate student government associations have passed resolutions denouncing this honor, and U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) -- herself an alumna -- issued a statement expressing deep disappointment with the school.
Media Matters contacted MSU requesting information about how much Will would be paid for the speech on December 3. The university responded that per "usual protocol" they could not give out contract information directly, and instead instructed that we file a FOIA request, which we did that same day.
According to the state's law, the university had to respond within five business days. They responded six business days later, on December 11, and told Media Matters they required ten more days "to process" the request "thoroughly" (emphasis added):
A public body must respond to a Michigan Freedom of Information Act (MIFOIA) request within five (5) business days after it receives that request. However, the MIFOIA also permits the public body to obtain additional time to complete its response to an MIFOIA request by issuing a notice to the requester extending the response deadline by up to ten (10) additional business days. This communication serves as notice that in order to process your MIFOIA request thoroughly, additional time is required ... The University will respond to your request on or before 5:00 p.m., Monday, December 29, 2014.
From the December 12 edition of CNN's CNN Newsroom:
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U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) expressed disappointment in Michigan State University's decision to honor George Will during their December commencement ceremony, citing Will's offensive comments about campus sexual assault which have received widespread backlash and prompted multiple student government condemnations on the campus.
On December 10, Stabenow issued a statement criticizing the decision to let Will speak and to award him with an honorary doctorate. From Stabenow's statement:
As a Michigan State alumna, I am deeply disappointed that George Will is being honored this weekend. His statements on sexual assault are inaccurate, offensive, and don't represent the values of our state or MSU. I urge the University to continue their efforts to combat campus sexual assault, including the recent convening of the University Task Force on Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence.
MSU invited Will to speak during the December 13 graduation ceremony despite ongoing controversy surrounding his past comments on campus sexual assault.
Will published a syndicated column in June disputing the evidence that 1 in 5 women on U.S. college campuses experience sexual assault, and arguing that efforts to combat sexual assault have made "victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges."
Will's comments received widespread criticism at the time from four other U.S. senators, media, and women's equality groups, and have since incited campus protests. Scripps College cancelled his scheduled speaking engagement in October.
Both the MSU Council of Graduate Students and the school's undergraduate student government have passed resolutions denouncing Will's upcoming commencement address, but the university's president Lou Anna K. Simon defended the decision to honor Will on December 9.
Conservative media are attempting to discredit the investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee into the CIA's use of torture on terrorism suspects by comparing it to a controversial Rolling Stone article detailing an alleged rape at the University of Virginia that was criticized for not interviewing students implicated in the assault.
Michigan State University's president has published a 900-word defense of the school's decision to host George Will as a commencement speaker this weekend in response to widespread outrage from students who object to his past remarks on campus sexual assault.
President Lou Anna K. Simon stated that the university did not endorse Will's controversial June 6 Washington Post syndicated column suggesting that attempts to curb campus assaults have made "victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges." She wrote in part:
I'll leave it to Mr. Will to defend his comments and values, because this isn't about George Will. This is about us. And it is about the role of universities in a democratic society.
Having George Will speak at commencement does not mean I or Michigan State University agree with or endorse the statements he made in his June 6 column or any particular column he has written. It does not mean the university wishes to cause survivors of sexual assault distress. And it does not mean we are backing away from our commitment to continuously improving our response to sexual assault.
What it does mean is this: Great universities are committed to serving the public good by creating space for discourse and exchange of ideas, though that exchange may be uncomfortable and will sometimes challenge values and beliefs. There is no mandate to agree, only to serve society by allowing learning to take place. If universities do not hold onto this, we do not serve the greater good. Because next time it will be a different speaker and a different issue, and the dividing lines will not be the same.
Contrary to Simon's suggestion, Will is not participating in an open "exchange of ideas" in which students can engage with or question his remarks. Instead, his December 13 address will reportedly be a commencement speech to graduates from several MSU programs, who will have the option of either listening to his remarks or skipping their own graduations. Moreover, the "ideas" critics are objecting to are Will's comments about his audience, college students.
Additionally, the Post columnist will not only be addressing students but will be celebrated by the school, receiving an honorary doctorate for what Simon terms his "long and distinguished journalistic career."
Emily Gillingham, an MSU law school student and co-organizer of a protest against Will's involvement, highlighted the destructive nature of Will's participation, telling Media Matters last week,"I feel so bad for the people who are there who have survived sexual assault who George Will thinks are lying or it was some sort of pleasant experience."
Simon's statement comes in response to substantial criticism from the student body. More than 700 have already signed up for a protest the day of the speech, and MSU's Council of Graduate Students has passed a resolution calling on the administration to withdraw their invitation to Will.
Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume downplayed the prevalence of campus sexual assaults by misleadingly pointing to a Justice Department study which only surveyed respondents on assaults which occurred per year. Hume's analysis ignored that studies on campus sexual assault consistently find that nearly 20 percent of college-aged women report that they have been assaulted in their lifetime -- a completely different unit of measurement than the Justice Department's study.
During the December 8 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier, Hume highlighted a 2013 study from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that found that "the annual rate of sexual assaults on women in America declined by 58%," using the report to refute the the often-cited Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) survey used by "activists and President Obama who have been claiming for years that one in every five women will be sexually assaulted while at college," mocking it for including categories such as "forced kissing."
But Hume's comparison is flawed. The DOJ report only cites "the estimated annual rate of female rape or sexual assault victimizations," that occur per year and includes all females age 12 or older. The CSA study specifically surveyed women in college and asked women if they had been assaulted in their lifetime, reporting that "one out of five undergraduate women experience an attempted or completed sexual assault" since entering college.
And studies consistently echoed CSA's findings. A 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly 20 percent of women have been raped in their lifetime:
Nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives, including completed forced penetration, attempted forced penetration, or alcohol/drug facilitated completed penetration.