Harper's magazine seems doomed to controversy. Two years ago it was financially defunct, and last year editor Lewis Lapham left abruptly. Now there's another tempest in the editorial teapot: Within 24 hours this week, editor Michael Kinsley was suspended and then reinstated, and his tenure remains uncertain pending a meeting of the magazine's board next month.
The ruckus began Aug. 16, when Kinsley accepted an invitation from the Israeli Society of Journalists to come to the Mideast at its expense. He returned after a week intending to write an article based on his experiences.
But last Monday, Kinsley was summoned to a meeting with an angry Donald Petrie, board chairman of Harper's Magazine Foundation, the fund formed after the MacArthur Foundation rescued the imperiled monthly from collapse in July 1980. Petrie told Kinsley that he had violated the magazine's ethical standards and could not write about his trip.
"There are two rules that apply to Harper's magazine," Petrie said yesterday from New York. "First, Harper's does not solicit or accept money from people whom it plans to write about. And second, Harper's does not write about people whom it has accepted money from." Consequently, he said, "no article will be published."
"There certainly was no such rule at Harper's at the time of the press junket," Kinsley said yesterday, "although Petrie may want there to be a rule." Besides, "under my contract, the editorial policy is my business," although "I'm happy to discuss it with the board of directors."
Petrie remained adamant, and insisted that unless Kinsley agreed not to write about the trip, he would be suspended and forbidden to enter the office. When Kinsley said he would have to think it over, Petrie told him to go. But Tuesday morning, Petrie called Kinsley, told him to return to work and informed him that the matter would be taken up at a Sept. 8 meeting of the board of directors, which would review the editorial direction and policy of the magazine. Thereafter, Petrie repaid about $2,000 to the Israeli press society. "If he'd gone to Israel at the magazine's expense," Petrie said, "everything would have been all right."
"I have accepted no money from the Israelis," said Kinsley, who had been invited by the Israeli group to tour Lebanon along with several other journalists and was given board, lodging and transportation while there. "They feel they've been getting a raw deal in the American press. The quid pro quo is that you agree to hear their case. And I went and I heard their case."
Asked if he felt it was unethical to accept the offer, Kinsley said, "It's complicated, but the short answer is no. There's a lot of high-minded baloney about this from people who haven't paid for their own travel for years. The fact of the matter is that every major country in the world pays for journalists to visit them--including our own--and scores of responsible journalists take advantage of it." If Harper's forbids such trips, Kinsley said, "It will be the only magazine of its type to have such a policy."
That's just the point, Petrie said. "We're at a competitive disadvantage," he said, "because we have to be so careful." Harper's circulation, recently cut to 140,000, does not cover the cost of operating, and the magazine depends for its continued existence on the foundation, which takes contributions from a variety of corporate and private sources. "Because we accept grants from many concerns," Petrie said, the ethical situation is "much more difficult than it is for a commercial magazine." As for Kinsley, "he is an experienced, competent and terribly bright young person. I should have sat down with Michael when he first came and said that this is a high-sensitivity area."
Petrie said, "It is not my intention to fire Mr. Kinsley" ("That's a lot of crap," Kinsley said, "he did fire me on Monday"), and that he is keeping an "open mind" about the situation, awaiting the outcome of the board meeting.
Kinsley, too, is conciliatory, and hopeful that he can remain at the magazine, which has gained critical acclaim since he replaced Lapham last year. But he is indignant at the idea that he might willingly have compromised that reputation. "I took a very large voluntary pay cut after I came to Harper's," Kinsley said, "because we had limited resources and I had been urging the staff to pursue an austerity plan. The idea that I would do anything to harm Harper's for a free trip to Israel is ridiculous. That, more than anything else, is what outrages me."