James Marcus wants the world to know that he was fired from his job as the editor of Harper’s Magazine. He is not stepping down voluntarily to work on a book, which he said was the face-saving “official narrative” offered to him by John R. MacArthur, the magazine’s longtime president and publisher. He also said that he had refused to accept a severance payment that was contingent on his signing a non-disparagement agreement.
“I was fired over a principled stand that I took and I am in no way ashamed of it,” Mr. Marcus said on Wednesday in a phone interview.
His disagreement with the boss, he said, had to do with the magazine’s March cover story, “The Other Whisper Network: How Twitter feminism is bad for women,” by Katie Roiphe. The article, which Mr. Marcus described as “exceedingly mediocre” in an email on Wednesday, was assigned over his objections, he said.
Within the magazine, there were conflicting versions of what led to Mr. Marcus’s departure. In strong terms, Giulia Melucci, the vice president of public relations at Harper’s, disputed the editor’s version of events.
“All we can say is that the notion that he was fired because of the Katie Roiphe story has little in common with reality,” she said in an emailed statement. “That is one small part of a larger and more complicated story. We wish James Marcus all the best.”
Told of Ms. Melucci’s remarks, Mr. Marcus said that she “was not present at my firing.” He added that “the bulk of the conversation” he had with Mr. MacArthur, which took place last Friday afternoon, “was about Katie Roiphe’s piece.”
Harper’s is a nonprofit publication supported in large part by a foundation established by Mr. MacArthur, who is known as Rick, and his father, J. Roderick MacArthur. That structure provides some financial stability but also allows the younger MacArthur to wield more control over the publication, which was on the verge of folding before he helped rescue it in 1980.
The venerable monthly has had unstable leadership since Lewis H. Lapham left Harper’s in 2006, after a 28-year run as its top editor. First there was Roger Hodge, who was fired after a disagreement with Mr. MacArthur in 2010. Next to hold the position was Ellen Rosenbush, who was replaced by Christopher Cox in 2015. Mr. MacArthur ended up firing Mr. Cox after he had been in the job a scant three months, and Ms. Rosenbush returned to duty on an interim basis. She was followed in February 2016 by Mr. Marcus, an early Amazon employee and the author of “Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut.”
“He’s looking for a doormat at this point,” Mr. Marcus said of Mr. MacArthur.
The news of Mr. Marcus’s firing was first reported by Publisher’s Marketplace.
The essay by Ms. Roiphe attracted attention before it was published, while it was going through the fact-checking process. Concerned writers and editors began a Twitter campaign warning that the article would reveal the identity of the main creator of a crowdsourced spreadsheet that named roughly 70 men in the media industry who were said to have acted in a predatory manner toward women.
The online complaints intensified, arguing that the safety of the spreadsheet’s creator would be jeopardized by the publication of Ms. Roiphe’s essay. Before the social media campaign had died down, the writer Moira Donegan revealed that she was the main person behind the list in a first-person story for New York magazine’s web vertical The Cut.
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.”
“I expressed my opposition in the beginning, but I was overruled by the publisher,” Mr. Marcus said. “It’s the publisher’s prerogative to essentially assign a piece.”
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. He added, “We can quibble over who technically assigned the piece. She’s a publicist and doesn’t have the power to assign anything. You could say she assigned it with Rick’s permission. She had no role in the editing of the piece.”
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.”
In addition to discussing the Roiphe article last Friday afternoon, Mr. Marcus said that Mr. MacArthur, the publisher, had expressed his disappointment that Harper’s had not been reaching more readers. The magazine’s circulation, now at 120,000, has been in decline for years. Mr. Marcus said that the publisher’s resistance to bolstering the website and expanding readership engagement by hosting events impeded opportunities for growth.
Ms. Melucci said that Mr. MacArthur had no comment for this article. She also declined to comment on whether the magazine had interviewed prospective editors. Ms. Rosenbush, listed as editor at large on the Harper’s masthead, will oversee the publication on an interim basis, Ms. Melucci said.
Mr. Marcus described being fired as “painful,” but said he still had respect for Harper’s.
“I think it’s still a magnificent publication,” Mr. Marcus said. “I share Rick’s pride in what he has accomplished there, but I think the anxiety and increasing sense that he needs to grab the reins editorially are going to make it hard for anybody who stands in that job. Whoever that poor sod is, I wish him or her good luck.”
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