Southern Discomfort: What’s Next for the Oxford American?

Smirnoff and Fitzgerald

If you think New York has a monopoly on toxic media cultures, consider the balmy Petri dish of Conway, Arkansas, home of the Oxford American. The magazine has been in turmoil since early this month, when publisher Warwick Sabin locked employees out of its offices on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas (UCA). Said lockout was bookended by allegations of sexual harassment leveled at top editors by two employees and a former intern, an internal investigation (conducted with all post-Sandusky haste), and a vote by the magazine’s governing board to dismiss the magazine’s founding editor, Marc Smirnoff, and managing editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald.

It might have ended there, though Mr. Smirnoff didn’t usher the perpetually cash-strapped “Southern magazine of good writing” through two decades, two states, and three National Magazine Awards by not being, well, let’s say tenacious.

Mr. Smirnoff and Ms. Fitzgerald (who are also a couple) appealed, via email, to UCA president Tom Courtway, alleging (in sometimes graphic detail) that they had been railroaded by disgruntled employees and—in Ms. Fitzgerald’s case—that she had been the harassed, not the harasser. According to Jeff Pitchford, the school’s vice president of university and government relations, the emails were forwarded to the UCA Police for further investigation. But according to a statement from Oxford American board chair Rick Massey, referring to OA’s own investigation, “none of the witnesses substantiated Ms. Fitzgerald’s allegations that she had been sexually harassed by the co-worker who complained about her—allegations first made during her interview with the investigators.”

The circumstances under which the emails became public raised eyebrows as well. The first of three requests from local news outlets for emails between Mr. Courtway and Mr. Smirnoff and Ms. Fitzgerald under Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act reached the president’s office an hour and a half after the sensational emails were sent, leading to speculation that Mr. Smirnoff and Ms. Fitzgerald intended the emails to be made public. Mr. Smirnoff denied this, telling Off The Record that he didn’t even know the emails would be subject to public release and that, in any case, their provenance should not impact their claims. “If the letters are legally in the public and no law was broken to put them there, isn’t their veracity the most crucial and only relevant question now?” he asked in an email. (Asked if Mr. Smirnoff or Ms. Fitzgerald prompted her to request the Courtway emails, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Debra Hale-Shelton referred the question to deputy editor Frank Fellone, who declined comment.)

According to department spokesperson Arch Jones, UCA Police determined that the allegations in the emails to Mr. Courtway did not outline any criminal wrongdoing and forwarded the case to UCA’s associate vice president of human resources, Graham Gillis, who is pursuing an administrative investigation. However that investigation pans out, the admissions made in the supposedly exculpatory emails—obtained by Off The Record—do Mr. Smirnoff and Ms. Fitzgerald few favors. Mr. Smirnoff admitted he served alcohol to minors and that he indeed “touched or photographed the feet of an Oxford American intern,” a detail unlikely to benefit from elaboration. Ms. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, admitted to propositioning one of the complainants, according to Mr. Smirnoff’s account. The couple is almost certainly out for good, in other words, though it remains to be seen if they will take others, or perhaps the entire magazine, down with them.

Mr. Smirnoff told Off The Record that reinstatement was not necessarily his goal. Rather, he said, “I may feel that the Oxford American, the magazine that I started in 1992 without lawyers and money, has been consumed by lawyers and money, and I believe they have crushed the spirit that has kept the OA going for so long, and I know I’m going to at least request that they change the name. [They should] start their own magazine.”

Friendly concern about the future of the magazine, meanwhile, is summed up by Roy Blount Jr., a longtime OA columnist and contributor to the magazine’s very first issue, who told Off The Record, “It was Smirnoff’s baby, and nobody else has ever been able to keep such a peculiar and interesting magazine going in the South for anywhere nearly as long.” Mr. Blount said he reached out to Mr. Sabin after Mr. Smirnoff was dismissed, meaning to protest, but was assured that the grounds for dismissal went beyond underage drinking and Mr. Smirnoff’s recent fiery critique of competitor Garden & Gun, where Mr. Blount is now a columnist. “All I know about the workings of the magazine is that they never messed with my copy or tried to talk me out of writing anything that would upset readers,” Mr. Blount continued. “I never visited any of the offices. The few times I ran into Marc or other OA staffers over the years, no one showed any interest in my feet, understandably.”

According to Mr. Sabin—who is serving as interim editor—the next issue, due out September 1, will ship on time and feature a cover story by Pulitzer finalist Chris Rose about recent developments at The Times-Picayune. The magazine has also named Louisiana music journalist Alex Rawls guest editor of its 2012 Southern Music Issue, which comes out in December. Mr. Sabin told Off The Record he has “reached out to several people about the permanent editorial positions” and “received inquiries from several well-known editors,” although he says he may employ guest editors beyond the music issue in order to “not rush the selection of a permanent editor.”

“In the end, one way or other, our version of what happened with these three accusers will come out in the public,” Mr. Smirnoff told Off The Record, vowing to expose “the machinations and the lack of honor of Warwick Sabin and his team.”

For his part, Mr. Sabin said, “I never anticipated that the magazine would ever be edited by anyone other than Marc.” One thing—at least—on which he and Mr. Smirnoff might agree. Southern Discomfort: What’s Next for the <em>Oxford American</em>?