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How Your Godawful Contrarian Sausage Gets Made

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The story behind Harper‘s commissioning a terrible article about #MeToo from one of the tiredest of nostalgia files (“hey, when we opened the ‘contrarian 90s anti-feminist chicken-fucking’ folder at least we didn’t pick Camille Paglia!”) is…amazing:

Ms. Roiphe’s essay had a similarly troubled pre-publication history inside the Manhattan offices of Harper’s. The idea began, Mr. Marcus said, with the publisher, who suggested that the magazine “run a contrarian piece on #MeToo movement.” The editor countered that he was uncomfortable with such an assignment, because of the magazine’s “longtime reputation as a gentleman’s smoking club.”

See, a good publisher/editor would think “let’s have a good writer look into the #MeToo movement and see how it’s working in practice and whether people are being treated unfairly.” A bad (and sexist) one thinks “we need a contrarian argument about #MeToo, irrespective of whether the facts justify it.” And since no serious writer will take the latter assignment, you’re going to be stuck with a hack making an argument that was lousy the first of the ten million times she’s been provided a forum to make it during the first Bush administration. This is how you end up with an article that even people who want to like it has to admit has no evidence to support any of its scary claims and implications. Or articles about Hillary Clinton asserting that the junior senator of New York has the unilateral authority to enact legislation, articles about the policy impact Affordable Care Act that devotes two sentences to Medicaid, one of which implicitly blames Congress for amendments that were made by John Roberts, etc. etc.  That is, you get a magazine that is bad and that nobody reads because your core potential audience isn’t in the market for having its intelligence crudely insulted.

But to the current leadership, everything is just fine!

Mr. Marcus said that the magazine approached “one or two” writers, who passed on the idea, before Ms. Melucci, the Harper’s publicist, reached out to Ms. Roiphe.

Yes, the story was ultimately assigned by the publicist. You can’t make this stuff up.

Ms. Melucci suggested that she got involved in the editorial process only because of unusual circumstances at the magazine. “Maybe think about the fact that the publicist had to assign stories because the editor didn’t have ideas?” she said in a phone interview. “I don’t know — maybe that’s how bad it was.”

Mr. Marcus disagreed with that, saying that during the discussion last week that ended with his firing, “there was no complaint about my failure to generate story ideas.”

“The editorial process was breaking down,” he continued. “It’s Rick’s magazine, but usually the publisher does not intercede during the editing process. The piece was widely disliked by the entire staff, but I want to stress that they worked with absolute professionalism on it, whatever they thought of it.”

Ms. Melucci said that she did not understand Mr. Marcus’s objection to the essay. “I don’t know why,” she said. “Maybe because it was a good story? It was the most successful story we’ve had in a couple years. He may have been against it, but it was good for the magazine.”

Let’s leave aside the idea that at a magazine like Harper’s “success” should be measured solely by short-term clicks. Even on its own terms, this makes no sense. 1)Given that most of the magazine’s material is behind a paywall, this is a meaningless metric; 2)Harper’s famously sells very little advertising on its website, so the revenue generated by these clicks is negligible; 3)you don’t generate paid subscribers from hate- or morbid curiosity-clicks.

Anyway, on the question of “will Harper’s ever be good again?” as long as MacArthur is running it the answer is clearly “no.”

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