Publishers of 'atonement' essays face backlash in #MeToo era

Two media outlets have garnered backlash in recent weeks after featuring personal essays penned by disgraced radio hosts, reflecting on the aftermath of sexual assault and harassment allegations in the era of #MeToo.

Decision to print Ghomeshi essay described as 'reckless'

People participate in a protest march for survivors of sexual assault and their supporters in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California U.S. November 12, 2017. Personal essays penned by two former radio hosts have been slammed. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
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Sept. 19 update: This story has been updated to reflect that Ian Buruma left the New York Review of Books amid outcry over publishing Jian Ghomeshi's essay.

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The publisher of Harper's Magazine, which recently printed an essay penned by a former radio host accused of sexual harassment, says men embroiled in such allegations deserve a measured, nuanced response.

Rick MacArthur spoke in defence of a lengthy personal essay by former WNYC host John Hockenberry, who, according to the Associated Press, was accused of sexual misconduct by an author and former colleagues.

"It's a complicated mix of atonement, regret and an attempt to explore sexual relations between men and women in the modern age," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, noting earlier that it was edited by a woman, "who thought it was a very good piece of writing."

Former WNYC host John Hockenberry was accused of sexual misconduct by an author and former colleagues, according to the Associated Press. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival)

Harper's Magazine is one of two media outlets that have garnered backlash in recent weeks after featuring personal essays by disgraced radio hosts, reflecting on the aftermath of sexual assault and harassment allegations in the era of #MeToo. Former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi wrote a personal essay in The New York Review of Books, which was also swiftly condemned.

MacArthur says the Hockenberry essay is a "kind of a sequel" to a similarly controversial piece by author Katie Roiphe published in February and is "not just a long defence of [Hockenberry's] behaviour or a rationalization."

No distinction made, MacArthur says

MacArthur also said he wanted to point out that Hockenberry uses a wheelchair.

"He's a paraplegic so that does inform the piece immensely."

When Tremonti asked about its relevance to the sexual harassment allegations, MacArthur responded: "It's hard to get out of your wheelchair and attack somebody. I think that's one thing your audience should know."

Tremonti then clarified that sexual harassment "isn't just about physical attack," but MacArthur said there is a need for nuance.

There's a difference between arguing that you deserve a second chance and refusing that you ever did anything wrong in the first place.- Ruth Spencer, senior editor at The Cut

"There is an inability, on the part of #MeToo and a lot of people, to distinguish between Harvey Weinstein, who is physically aggressive, an accused rapist, and somebody like Hockenberry who showed bad judgment, he says, and made awkward passes at women from his wheelchair," MacArthur said.

"My point is there's a distance between a criminal act — and he's not been accused of anything criminal — he's been erased and that's the argument he's making in his piece. He's been erased from the culture."

In an, at times, heated exchange, MacArthur said there was a "Soviet-style" tone to Tremonti's interview, part of what he described as a broader "metaphor" of society's "extreme" viewpoint on men caught up in #MeToo allegations. Later in the interview, Tremonti described MacArthur's tone as "pretty flippant."

He described a seemingly collective societal expectation that "these guys have got to be re-educated. They have to show sufficient atonement, remorse."

'What did this achieve?'

Among those calling for that atonement and taking ownership is New York-based journalist Ruth Spencer who denounced the Ghomeshi essay.

"I think that he feels that he has a right to return to a prime place in our culture. And he quite simply does not," Spencer, senior editor at The Cut magazine, told Tremonti.

Former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi wrote a personal essay in The New York Review of Books, which was swiftly condemned. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Spencer briefly dated Ghomeshi in 2010 but says she was never assaulted by him during that relationship.

Ghomeshi was acquitted in March 2016 of four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking involving three complainants. In May 2016, he apologized to a fourth complainant and signed a peace bond that saw another count of sexual assault withdrawn.

Spencer described the roughly 3,400-word piece as "lacking really of any sort of reflection," a sentiment that former CBC producer Kathryn Borel echoed. A sexual assault charge against Ghomeshi, which involved Borel, was withdrawn.

"What did this achieve? How did it add productively to a crucial conversation," Borel wrote in a statement to The Current. "It was a reckless decision that resulted in a stunningly inferior piece of writing."

Ian Buruma, the former editor of the New York Review of Books, previously told Slate that he ran the piece to reflect "the point of view of somebody who has been pilloried in public opinion," and not as a piece to "exonerate him or to somehow mitigate the nature of his behaviour." Buruma left his position Wednesday amid outcry over publishing Ghomeshi's essay.

A publicist for the magazine confirmed that Buruma, who was appointed as editor in late 2017, no longer works for the publication.

Spencer says the #MeToo movement is grappling with how to navigate redemption and rehabilitation.

"There's a difference between arguing that you deserve a second chance and refusing that you ever did anything wrong in the first place.

"[If] you really wanted to go about trying to reckon with what you'd done or apologize, you would probably do something other than write a long essay for an elite publication."


Produced by Allie Jaynes, Danielle Carr and Idella Sturino. With files from CBC News and the Canadian Press.