As I read Isaac Chotiner’s perfectly fair, quietly relentless interrogation of the editor of the New York Review of Books in Slate last weekend, I found myself wondering: Could Ian Buruma survive his own responses?
The answer came fast. Buruma stepped down from his lofty post on Wednesday just days after publishing a hotly controversial essay by a disgraced broadcaster accused of physically assaulting women. He had been editor of the prestigious literary journal for a little more than a year after succeeding the legendary co-founder Robert B. Silvers.
“I certainly didn’t set out to make anything like that happen,” Chotiner told me by phone a few hours later. He has had a pleasant relationship with Buruma, who had once offered him a job — and was surprised that Buruma had agreed to the interview to begin with.
As for Buruma, he told me he didn’t want to talk about it.
“I haven’t yet written my resignation letter,” Buruma said in a brief phone conversation Wednesday. He told the Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland on Thursday that he felt forced to resign because of a looming advertising boycott but that he still stood behind his decision to publish the essay.
There’s a backstory here that has a lot to tell us about journalism in the #MeToo era — and just as much about how to effectively interview a newsmaker. Chotiner provided a master class in holding someone’s feet to the fire by pressing the facts and posing pointed follow-up questions.
The interview was about Buruma’s decision to publish, in the Review, a first-person piece by Jian Ghomeshi — a former Canadian radio host who was accused a couple of years ago by more than 20 women of punching, choking, biting and sexually assaulting them.
The factually flawed piece — part of an issue devoted to “The Fall of Men” — allowed Ghomeshi to hold forth on how tough it’s been for him to be exiled and, as he claims, misunderstood.
“There has indeed been enough humiliation for a lifetime,” Ghomeshi wrote. “I’m constantly competing with a villainous version of myself online.”
The outrage that followed came not only because a scandal-plagued radio host was given this rarefied outlet (the venerable Review has published the likes of Joan Didion and Elizabeth Drew), but also because he was allowed to gloss over or minimize the facts of the case.
Why? That was what Chotiner set out to discover after his editor, Allison Benedikt, suggested the interview.
Among the cavalier answers from Buruma about what Ghomeshi had done is this gem:
“The exact nature of his behavior — how much consent was involved — I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.”
Buruma emphasized that his concern “is what happens to somebody who has not been found guilty in any criminal sense but who perhaps deserves social opprobrium, but how long should that last. . . .”
In other words, it’s all about the comeback.
(Ghomeshi has consistently denied the worst of the allegations against him. In his essay, he acknowledged he was too “demanding on dates and in personal affairs.” He was acquitted in one legal case and avoided additional charges in another by signing a “peace bond” and apologizing to the victim.)
Buruma may believe he was pushed out of his job because of “a Twitter frenzy of histrionic women,” as New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino put it on Twitter. But, she aptly added, that’s not the point: “The Ghomeshi essay & Slate interview added up to a truly abysmal professional performance: you can’t be a good editor with such a pathological distance from the texture of the world.”
The Slate interview elicited this cluelessness by pressing on the facts — for example, challenging the way Ghomeshi was allowed to write that he resigned from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation after “rumors circulated online” about allegations from “several women.”
Chotiner pointed out the reality: “Several” was more than 20. And the resignation came just before the Toronto Star’s exposé of Ghomeshi was about to publish.
And finally, he asked whether Buruma would also be interested in publishing a piece about how Harvey Weinstein feels about his fall from grace.
Buruma responded that, for various reasons, he really couldn’t say.
When (or whether) men credibly accused of sexual misconduct get to make their comeback is a valid subject. It’s only valid, though, if it acknowledges the more important issue — the harm done and the indelible effects on victims.
Buruma seemed blind and deaf to that, not only in his own publication but in his responses to Chotiner, who showed what a skilled interviewer can do without bombast but with persistence.
“I have no idea, nor is it really my concern,” as Buruma put it, is not a sentiment that is acceptable anymore.
And for that small victory, at least, we can be glad.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan