Figuring out what's wrong with Harper's magazine.

Figuring out what's wrong with Harper's magazine.

Figuring out what's wrong with Harper's magazine.

Media criticism.
Sept. 15 2004 7:06 PM

Lewis Lapham Phones It In

Figuring out what's wrong with Harper's magazine.

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I joke. But barely. I imagine that what drew Lapham to these writers was his taste for heresy—he's always loved starting fights on the playground and then bringing them back into the classroom. It's difficult to convey how unkosher these writers were in the late '70s, a time when liberal Democrats ruled Washington and the liberal establishment ran the media. Publishing contrary pieces gave Harper's an ecumenical edge because alongside the right-wing shit-stirrers, Lapham ran pieces by the brightest on the left—Richard J. Barnet, Edward Abbey, Andrew Hacker, George McGovern, Alexander Cockburn, Walter Karp, Michael Harrington, and William Shawcross, to name a few.

Lapham II may still tilt against power, but he rarely deviates from the liberal-to-left orthodoxy, stocking his pages with the likes of Mike Davis, Francine Prose, Eric Foner, Gene Lyons, Jonathan Schell, Bill McKibben, Greg Palast, John Berger, Naomi Klein, Tony Kushner, Tom Frank, and E.L. Doctorow. Now, I like these writers as much as the next guy—as long as the next guy isn't a member of the Democratic Socialists of America—but if I want to read The Nation, I would read The Nation.


How did Lapham turn into such a one-note artist? It's no accident, I think, that Lapham I's salad days came when the magazine was a for-profit, money-losing enterprise that might expire any day. Perhaps editing on death row loosened Lapham's intellectual inhibitions. As the magazine's finances deteriorated in 1980, its capitalist owners declared it extinct. Rescuing the magazine as Lapham departed was a deep-pocketed liberal foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation ("Big Mac," as it's known in philanthropy circles), and an oil company, Atlantic Richfield.

After Michael Kinsley had a brief run as editor, Lapham returned to the Harper's helm in 1983. The magazine survives at its 210,000 circulation two decades later, thanks to a subsidy that now runs to more than $2 million annually from the liberal J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation ("Little Mac").

(Add the $2,150,000 grant Little Mac gave Harper's in 2003 to what Big Mac [$7.5 million] and the Schumann Center [$4.3 million] gave to liberal media in 2003, and you almost hit $14 million. Magazines supported by conservative foundations—the National Interest, the Public Interest, the New Criterion, Commentary, Policy Review, Reason—aren't sucking up anywhere near that kind of money from their benefactors. Reason, which is representative of the bunch, received $1.4 million in subsidies from donors last year. In other words, if the three liberal foundations concentrated their philanthropy on magazines that lost only $1.4 million a year, they could support 10 like-sized publications.)

One subtext of Lapham's essay is that right-wing foundations have corrupted intellectuals and journalists and tarnished the national debate by encouraging them to write what their fascist patrons want to hear. If true, it's only fair to apply the equation to the beneficiaries of left-wing foundations, such as Harper's. In lashing out at conservative moneybags, is Lapham carrying water for his liberal funder?

"I still think of the magazine as a centrist magazine," he tells me, proudly pointing out that he was tough on Clinton, too. (But wasn't Clinton a centrist? I'm confused.) It's the country that's shifted right, he believes, making him appear left-wing. If that's so, that makes him Zell Miller in reverse.

Harper's publishes fewer conservative writers today, he explains, because their submissions have become less speculative and more predictable. It's a shame he hasn't noticed the same about his lefty writers, many of whom compose their pieces in closed, Foucaultian boxes.

The $200,000 Question

The most entertaining passage in Lapham's essay comes where he describes dancing with neoconservative éminence grise Irving Kristol, who is known for reaching out to tap promising journalists and enlist them in the neocon empire at good pay.

"I was flattered by his inclination to regard me as an editor-of-promise who might be recruited to the conservative cause, presumably as an agent in place behind enemy lines," Lapham writes of Kristol.