First, it was Harper’s. In their October issue, the magazine published an essay by John Hockenberry, the disgraced former public radio host who was accused of sexual harassment and racially inappropriate comments by women he worked with. He sent them emails asking for dates, made comments on their appearance and made *** jokes. In August 2017, after multiple complaints about his behavior were made to WNYC management, Hockenberry quietly retired from his program, The Takeaway. His behavior was only made public later, in reporting by Suki Kim for The Cut.
Hockenberry’s Harper’s piece, titled Exile, reached nearly 7,000 words – extraordinarily long for a personal essay – and details the suffering that Hockenberry claims to have endured since his behavior was made public. In the essay, Hockenberry relies heavily on the notion that his disability is exculpatory of his behavior – Hockenberry uses a wheelchair – and compares himself to Lolita, the teen girl who is kidnapped and raped in the Vladimir Nabokov novel.
He claims that he has reached out to his accusers and has been ignored or rebuffed, an assertion denied by the women, who say that they have not heard from him. Later, Hockenberry likens the Me Too movement to the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, and characterizes his harassment of colleagues as “courtship”. “Do I dare make a spirited defense of something once called romance from the darkness of this exile, at the nadir of my personal credibility?” He does dare.
Then, there was the New York Review of Books. In an issue titled The Fall of Men, centered on what editor Ian Buruma called “Me Too offenders who had not been convicted in a court of law but by social media,” the magazine ran a similar piece, entitled Reflections from a Hashtag, by the Canadian former broadcast star Jian Ghomeshi.
The piece, like Hockenberry’s, was a first-person account from a man accused of sexual misconduct – in Ghomeshi’s case, sexual assault – that detailed the suffering he said he had endured as a result of his behavior being made public. Like Hockenberry, Ghomeshi seems not to have much considered the impact that his actions had on the women he targeted, and like Hockenberry, he downplayed the allegations against him and distorted the facts in a self-serving and myopic piece that is short of self-reflection and long on solicitations for pity.
Ghomeshi, who was ousted from his job at CBC in 2014, characterizes the accusations against him as stories that “circulated online” that he had been “abusive to an ex girlfriend during ***”. In fact more than 20 women accused Ghomeshi of sexual abuse in incidents that ranged from sexual harassment in the office – in one incident he allegedly told a female colleague he wanted to “hate fuck” her, to “wake” her up – to punching them in the face and choking at least one woman who resisted him. What he characterized as online allegations was in fact an investigative exposé from the Toronto Star. (Several of the claims against Ghomeshi were brought to Canadian court, where he was acquitted on all but one – that charge was dropped on the condition that Ghomeshi issue an apology.) No further reference is made to his victims, but Ghomeshi does recount two anecdotes in which he claims to have charmed women: one who sang with him at a karaoke bar, and another who he chatted up on a train. He proudly tells his readers that he refrained from pursuing *** with her.
The reaction online to the pieces was swift, with readers pointing out the factual errors and self-indulgent excesses of the pieces. But even more concerning than the pieces themselves was the statements that these magazines seemed to make in publishing them. In lending their credibility and prestige to essays that disregarded both factual realities and the lived experiences of victimized women, both Harper’s and the New York Review of Books seemed to suggest that they as institutions were invested in maintaining a system that rendered women disposable and granted impunity to men, and willing to disregard editorial standards to do so.
This sort of editorial gesture was expected of Harper’s, which aroused controversy in January when they ran a piece by the writer Katie Roiphe that alleged that the Me Too movement was “bad for women”. Roiphe began her career with her 1993 book The Morning After, which argued that many of the incidents that were then beginning to be called date rapes were in fact instances of consensual *** that women simply regretted later on. She has since periodically emerged to issue similar takes on women’s rights. That piece sparked controversy, largely because of reports before publication that it would reveal my identity as the then anonymous creator of a crowd-sourced document called “Shitty Media Men”, compiling allegations of sexual harassment, assault and **** by men in magazines and publishing. The revelation had the potential to endanger my safety. I wound up pre-empting the piece by revealing my own identity in an essay for The Cut.
The backlash over the Roiphe article eventually led to the exit of editor James Marcus, who said in an interview with the New York Times in April that he was fired for taking “a principled stand” against the publication of Roiphe’s piece. Marcus claimed that the magazine’s president and publisher, Rick MacArthur, the grandson of billionaire John D MacArthur, had demanded a “contrarian piece on the Me Too movement”, and then dismissed the editor for disliking the one that ran. Former managing editor Hasan Altaf gave a similar account of Harper’s publication of the Hockenberry piece to the Huffington Post, after recently leaving the magazine for the Paris Review. “The way it felt to me, personally, was that our opinions were not taken seriously or considered important,” Altaf said of what he claimed was a near-universal staff opposition to the Hockenberry piece. “The entire editorial staff shared a feeling, and it was dismissed.”
The incidents have damaged Harper’s credibility; advertisers pulled their ads, writers withdrew their pieces and subscriptions were cancelled. Mr Marcus’s departure means three of the last four Harper’s editors have been fired after editorial disagreements with Mr MacArthur: Rodger Hodge in 2010, Christopher Cox in 2016, and Mr Marcus in 2018. (In an email, Harper’s editorial director, Ellen Rosenbush, who edited the Hockenberry piece, said that Mr MacArthur, “does weigh in from time to time on editorial matters”, but claimed that she held “absolute editorial authority”.)
As the drama unfolded, with former employees and Harper’s publicist, Giulia Melucci, trading jabs in the press, an unflattering portrait of the magazine emerged. The growing impression was that Harper’s had devolved from a once serious and independent publication to a disorganized and tumultuous organization whose editorial output was functionally little more than an organ for the opinions of its publisher.
The New York Review of Books was supposed to be different. The revered magazine, founded by co-editors Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein in 1963, the Review quickly became primary organ of mid-century American intellectualism, making the uncommon choice to devote column inches to reviews of books from academic presses and publishing luminaries like Hannah Arendt, Irving Howe, Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, to name only a few, alongside founding writer Elizabeth Hardwick. It has long been considered a relic of the old school New York literati, endowed not only with prestige but with a dignity that was largely lived up to by the writing it published. After the ***** of charismatic longtime editor Robert Silvers in 2017 (Epstein had already passed, in 2006) the continued existence of the review was in doubt. But the appointment of Ian Buruma, a Dutch writer and critic who had focused much of his work on east Asia, to Silvers’ editorship was meant to reassure readers and staff alike that the Review would go on.
The NYRB had maintained its considerable prestige, but the decision to run Ghomeshi’s piece seems to have caused tumult and animosity within the organization that mirrors that which has allegedly roiled Harper’s. Employees of the Review say that they, like the editorial staff at Harper’s, opposed the publication of the piece, and that they, like the staff of Harper’s, were overruled by the powerful man leading the magazine. It was Review employees who leaked the existence of the Ghomeshi piece before it was published, stoking controversy online and leading to speculation about Buruma’s intentions in publishing it. “Some of us were afraid that is would pass without the furor it deserved,” one NYRB employee said in an email of the piece’s publication. “Being unable to speak out publicly ourselves, it was extremely heartening” to read criticism of the piece, and of the decision to publish it, online.
Taken alone, either of these incidents might be signals of mere institutional problems; of the difficulty of asserting the importance of employee wishes to management, or of the problems that arise in situations where one person – particularly when that one person is white and male – has organizational power that exceeds his sensitivity. For MacArthur, the choice to publish Hockenberry might be taken as a consequence of the impunity of the very wealthy; in Buruma’s, it might be seen as the sort of misstep that can befall any new member of an old and venerated institution. The dissatisfaction of these men’s employees, at least, suggests that there are still people of insight, integrity, and moral awareness working at these magazines, and that there is still good work to be done there.
But MacArthur and Buruma further degraded the credibility of their magazines shortly after publishing the Hockenberry and Ghomeshi pieces, when they each conducted contentious interviews in which they doubled down on their decisions to publish the pieces and issued new bromides against the Me Too movement.
In an eight-minute radio segment with the CBC’s Anna Maria Temonti, MacArthur criticizes his interviewer’s “tone”, compares Me Too to “Soviet style re-education” programs, and suggests that Hockenberry could not be guilty of sexual misconduct because he was in a wheelchair. When Tremonti points out that Hockenberry is accused of harassing and inappropriate comments – things that you don’t need to be standing to do – MacArthur rails against what he calls the women’s “inability” to distinguish between harassment and assault. The implication here is that while MacArthur might concede that **** and assault are wrong, he feels that discussing harassment is a bridge too far – Tremonti has to remind him that sexual harassment is a fireable offense. “You sound flippant,” Tremonti tells him. In complaining about harassment as well as **** and assault, MacArthur implies, women have set the standard for their own treatment too high.
In a similarly revealing interview with Isaac Chotiner of Slate, Buruma says that Me Too has had “undesirable consequences”, among which he counts Ghomeshi’s denunciation. He condescendingly asserts that he published Ghomeshi’s piece “to help people think this sort of thing through”. Buruma resigned days after the disastrous interview was published, and though he asserted in a subsequent statement that he was not fired, the dismissive arrogance of his answers had made his editorship of the Review seem endangered. When Chotiner presses him about the allegations against Ghomeshi, he says, “The exact nature of his behavior – how much consent was involved – I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.”
It should be his concern. As the leaders of prestigious magazines, who hold influence disproportionate to their actual readerships, MacArthur and Buruma have a responsibility to engage meaningfully and honestly with the public conversations that their publications shape and confront.
For everything else that Me Too has been – an eruption in several high-profile industries, a reckoning of long-ignored wrongdoing, an overdue confrontation with the ways that men harm women – it has also been an intellectual exercise. Women are introducing new information – saying that they have been hurt, and that they would like for others to be spared this hurt. Those who listen to them – women and, crucially, men – are being asked to imagine their anger, their fear, their frustration and their pain, and to adjust their understanding of the world accordingly.
The project that Me Too has advanced is a visionary assertion that injustices can be righted, that men and women can interact with more integrity and more compassion than we have so far. MacArthur and Buruma have refused this project, denying that the world might be otherwise than they have always known it, asserting that their perceptions are the only correct ones. Those who are too defensive, too incurious, or too bigoted to engage honestly with Me Too are missing out on one of the greatest intellectual feats of our time.
Moira Donegan is a writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in n+1, the London Review of Books, Bookforum and the Paris Review
This article has been amended on 25 September 2018. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Rick MacArthur is a ‘billionaire insurance heir.’ He is not an heir, as his father was disinherited. The article also originally referred to Ellen Rosenbush as Harper’s interim editor. Her title is editorial director.