‘Harper’s’ Bizarre: How the House of Twain Became a House of Pain

harpers torn illosd Harpers Bizarre: How the House of Twain Became a House of Pain

(Photo Illustration by Scott Dvorin)

On a bright winter morning last January, John R. “Rick” MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, walked into editor Roger D. Hodge’s office and fired him. It was so unexpected that when Mr. Hodge told the magazine’s literary editor, Ben Metcalf, what had happened, his colleague laughed in disbelief.

Three Fridays ago, in the offices of Levy Ratner, the law firm of the United Auto Workers Local 2110, two lawyers representing Harper’s management laid off Mr. Metcalf, a 17-year veteran whom other staffers described as the “soul and conscience of Harper’s.” Another pair of lawyers present, representing the staff’s union, objected that the termination was illegal, as Harper’s vice president, Lynn Carlson, watched in silence.

It was a painful year in the life of a magazine that has appeared continuously since 1850, never missing a month. In the wake of Mr. Hodge’s firing, several senior staffers decamped, and the staff unionized, with Mr. Metcalf as union leader. An increasingly bitter dispute has ensued between labor and management in an office where all parties come to work with uncommon passion.

A document drawn up by a lawyer for Harper’s management three months earlier displays the ironies of the scenario. The aim was to prove that editors of Mr. Metcalf’s rank are management, not labor, but the document more vividly serves as an argument for Mr. Metcalf’s indispensability. Ellen Rosenbush, who succeeded Mr. Hodge as editor, testified to the National Labor Relations Board that she and the employees regarded Mr. Metcalf as her second-in-command, and that he had “enormous editorial influence.” The document reports on Mr. Metcalf and other editors’ authoritative taste and trustworthy hiring recommendations. Of Ms. Rosenbush, Mr. MacArthur’s lawyer writes, “She is, in effect, a rubber stamp.”

Mr. MacArthur believes that the unionization arose from bitterness about personnel changes. After he fired Mr. Hodge, he believes Mr. Metcalf wanted the job. Unionization was, in his eyes, a power play.

“It’s clear that some people on staff are still upset that Ben Metcalf wasn’t made editor,” Mr. MacArthur told The Observer.

“Since the motives behind a union are, as a matter of law, irrelevant,” Mr. Metcalf told The Observer in an email, “not even the ludicrously false ones imputed to me can excuse the treatment I and my fellow editors have lately received from the management at Harper’s Magazine.”

Mr. MacArthur cited financial concerns and claimed that Mr. Metcalf’s work could most easily be absorbed by other staffers.

“We have filed unfair labor practices charges against Harper’s Magazine for their failure to bargain in good faith about this layoff,” said Maida Rosenstein, the union’s UAW representative.

Mr. Metcalf’s layoff became effective immediately. He was at the time in the middle of editing a cover story about Mark Twain by Lewis H. Lapham, a short story by Alice Munro and Thomas Frank’s column. When he went to the Harper’s office to sort through years of galleys and correspondence, he found his belongings had already been packed into boxes.

Mr. MacArthur fell in love with Harper’s as an undergraduate at Columbia in 1977, when he covered a speech by then editor Mr. Lapham for Columbia Spectator. He became a devoted reader and invited Mr. Lapham to address the college journalists at their annual banquet.

“I had no contact with Lewis between the Blue Pencil Dinner and the day I called him, more than four years later, to tell him we were trying to organize the rescue,” Mr. MacArthur told The Observer. In those four years, Harper’s had suffered near-fatal mismanagement under the Minneapolis Star & Tribune Company. In June of 1980, the company announced it would cease publication of the magazine.

Though only 23 years old at the time, Mr. MacArthur was well placed to save Harper’s. His grandfather was the insurance billionaire who founded the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, famous for its “genius grants.” His father, J. Roderick MacArthur, was disinherited but quickly made his own fortune through the collectible-plate emporium Bradford Exchange and the gadget catalog Hammacher Schlemmer. (Harper’s employees receive the catalogs in their mailboxes and are eligible for discounts.) J. Roderick still sat on the board of the MacArthur Foundation. His son convinced him and the board to buy the magazine.


  1. observer says:

    There are no heroes here. MacArthur is not a good publisher, but Hodge and Metcalf were not good editors. One of Hodge’s first acts was to publish a dangerous piece denying that HIV caused AIDS. Metcalf published his own clumsy imitations of Swift, such as an essay that grindingly repeated, “I would like to hunt down George W. Bush, the president of the United States, and kill him with my bare hands.” Here’s hoping that the magazine finds a fresh start all around.

  2. Faithful Reader says:

    Oh dear. I’d completely forgotten about that “HIV doesn’t cause AIDS” article. It was like something you’d hear from a tinpot sub-Saharan dictator, and was why I’d drifted away from the magazine. As for Nicholson Baker-esque “parody” fantasies of wanting to kill GWB or comparing him to a dictator, I suppose that was popular at the time and perhaps scored points among friends in Williamsburg and Park Slope, but not worthy even of a college magazine. When I read things like that I think journalists really out to see a bit more of the world beyond the bounds of NYC, stop contemplating their navel and go see what a real police state looks like. The Harper’s board should go in, clean house, and then burn urns of sulfur.

  3. MWnyc says:

    The editors didn’t call in the United Auto Workers “against” the magazine. It was the editors (meaning the magazine’s staff) who formed a union and joined the UAW as their umbrella organization.

    1. Faithful Reader says:

      Right. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pro-union and a member of one, but… as I said, the editorial staff, led by one organizer who professes to love Harper’s, called in the United Auto Workers union to insert itself into negotiations against the magazine. In short order all manner of internal documents were leaked into the public damaging the reputations of the magazine, the publisher, the board, and actually the editors. “We had to burn the village in order to save it.”

      MWnyc, that was a lawyerly answer. Perhaps you’re a lawyer, or a staff member, or a UAW rep.

      1. mediacrity says:

        I don’t think it’s very fair to say that deciding to collectively bargain showed that they don’t really love the magazine. They didn’t call the United Auto workers in against the magazine. They asked for the right to collectively bargain the conditions of their employment. All workers enjoy that right and why shouldn’t you exercise just because you love your place of employment? It’s really sad that supposedly pro-union Harper’s readers(!) would express the same hostility toward collective actions as Republicans. Just because you have a grievance with management doesn’t mean you don’t want the company to be successful. In fact, sometimes you do it precisely because you want the company to be successful.

        As far as the crazy press battle, which yes, seems crazy all around. (Did you see MacArthur’s statement that he won’t take money from people of “limited means”?? Maybe he should just give the magazine away then.) I can imagine that editors unionizing under a publisher who has written books and editorials about his support of unions might not have expected to be met with such hostility. The press battle seems to have started only after these layoffs happened, so it seems like duking it out in the press might havet been a last ditch effort to save these editors’ jobs and not an attempt to burn the place down when they go. People who feel backed up against the wall use whatever means necessary–that seems to hold true for both MacArthur and the editors.

      2. Seymourglass says:

        having worked for the communications wing of the UAW on their radio venture that wasted tens of millions and would NOT let that staff organize (which is against federal law btw) I wouldnt trust those folks to do anything but fuck ANYTHING up.

        They sold out their autoworkers and the communities where they once were – these people are totally incompetent.

        Their “Writers Union” is the biggest joke in the union world and its head is an utter moron.

  4. Dw123 says:

    who’s the MoJo sugardaddy?

  5. East says:

    Rick’s statement in the article (4th graf from the bottom) strikes me as sensible. MoJo fundraises almost like a 501c3; liberal donors feel they are helping a critical voice be heard. If that’s their business model, then frankly it seems their demand for savvy business managers may be slightly less, so I can understand why their business managers might get paid less.

    I remember when The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s were a trio of respectable magazines which everyone knew could never make money. Now the first two are pulling it off. If they had gone nonprofit and started fundraising amongst liberals, they would have lost a bit of their credibility. (In my opinion and seemingly that of others on this board, Harper’s did indeed lose its credibility in the Bush years by being too arch-liberal to be considered a reasonable news/commentary outlet, but I think I understand Rick’s desire to maintain the option of going back to center-left by not being beholden to other donors.)

    It certainly seems like he hasn’t yet got the business model working, but he bought the magazine, and he’s entitled to try. If he was underpaying editors, he’s now suffering the consequences; from the outside, it does seem like an odd decision to underpay that severely, but it would seem he felt he wasn’t getting what he needed. (Which is not to say that everything he wanted was always right – we can all agree the lack of a decent plan for the web was probably not the decision of the young staffers.)

    It sucks not to feel valued at work, and I feel bad for the editors who had to go through that. But as the article said, many Harper’s staffers have only worked at Harper’s – I did get the sense while I was there that it was seen as a job for life, as long as you were one of the chosen few. Which was nice for the chosen few, but apparently didn’t produce the most dynamic magazine as compared to those which used to be its peers.

    Finally, my “ransom” remark is predicated on the unionization thing. From the outside, that doesn’t look like the act of people who were giving their all to try to save the magazine. It looked more like people who believed they deserved a raise and/or more job security but didn’t want to go through the hassle of looking for other jobs; they wanted the benefits of a liquid labor market, and some vindication that they were valued, without any of the personal risk. If the staffers had banded together to buy the magazine – now that would have been impressive, and sincere. Banding together to demand more money from a money-losing enterprise, and then deciding to fight it out in the press, doesn’t look like an act of good stewardship on behalf of “American history” – it looks like a ransom demand.

    1. another former editor says:

      Harper’s and Mother Jones don’t raise money “almost” like 501c3 non-profits. They are 501c3 non-profits. Rick’s assertion that seeking financial support through solicitation and donations would harm the editorial independence of the magazine is preposterous. How would the credibility of the magazine be more imperiled by accepting donations instead of accepting them from a single donor (Rick) and the corporations interested in advertising in its pages? Bottom line: independence has nothing to do with it. It’s vanity, pure and simple, and anyone who has spent more than an internship cycle at the magazine would know that. Rick would like to believe he is some sort of businessman, which he isn’t, therefore he attempts to have the magazine support itself financially–without investing in its future, without keeping its best staff, without paying writers a market rate, and without in any way acceding to the demands of a marketplace. Frankly, your impression of the magazine as an intern–you liked Rick better than Lewis–doesn’t give you the right to judge the dedication of the staff who taught you and made you one of their own while you were there (who ever you are).

  6. therealeastintern@harpers.org says:

    The travails of a national treasure such as Harper’s Magazine and the meting out of its precious few rubies are topics worthy of vigorous conversation, but (as our current president is fond of saying), “Let me be clear”: the deep issue at hand is not the struggle to preserve, in a wasted economy, one of the last remaining bastions of clear thought and human decency, but instead, the cavalier recklessness of the JoeShmo who exposed my Harper’s email address to a crowd of incensed, keyboard-happy Observer readers.

    That’s right. I’m talking to you, elder Easterner. I’m the current East intern, and I’m simply tickled to be the recipient of an interminable shower of black blustering born of your virtual indiscretion: an incautious ploy for anonymous comment-board authority and respect.

    Would you please, please think of the little people?

    1. therealeastintern@harpers.org says:

      By the way, in the event this is necessary:

  7. Llabeck says:

    Harper’s, under Mr Lapham’s direction, ceased being an American treasure. It is the crummy outcome of political hackwork. I didn’t want to see it for years, but it became undeniable. so much so, that I am gratified by its current anguish.

  8. Seymourglass says:

    This sucks. I love harpers and like and respect Macarthur and I have worked for the UAW. (with the boondoggle waste of a radio network they blew millions on)

    Even though Im 100%$ pro union – It was a mistake to bring in the UAW.


  9. Seymourglass says:

    Latham deserves hero worship. I spent a night getting drunk and chasing women with him at one of the Party conventions and I could never bear to call him lewis. Hes Mr. Lewis to me and always will be – and theres only about 3 or 4 people on the planet I save that salutation for.

  10. in the neighborhood says:

    he played a lot of arcade games when he should have been at work though.

  11. in the neighborhood says:

    they lived in a bubble if they thought they should be paid more. most editors who are not in the top or second chair live in a miserable $45-60K range, no matter what kind of magazine they work at. (unless we’re talking the obscene Tina B or her Conde Nast sorority mates). as a thought mag Harpers was exposed and vulnerable because it didn’t have a constellation of titles around it as with the New Yorker, or a major deep pockets backer like Zuckerman. at thought mags there are those who get the big bump and henceforth cling to their chairs with death-grips, and then there are assistants and associates. from my experience with this particular magazine, there was a revolt–open and misogynist–against the first woman editor. they went after her with hammer and tongs. MacArthur seems to have waited a year to try to let the bad boys find their manners, but in the end, that just allowed them to call in their “pretend” blue collar muscle with the UAW.

  12. Stephen says:

    I am an elderly not-very sophisticated subscriber to Harper’s on the West Coast, who was complacently and happily unaware of most of this commotion until not very long ago. Oh, dear. A magazine with such an attitude of superiority and sophistication has a long drop to fall when their own house is not very much in order.