Posted on | November 11, 2012 | 22 Comments
Donald Douglas calls to our attention an interesting internecine quarrel at Commentary, where their freelance literary critic David Myers has been terminated because of a dispute that Myers claims was about gay marriage, but which the magazine’s editor John Podhoretz says was in fact about acts of insubordination by Myers:
What I did not like, and what I could not accept, was that David had decided unilaterally to convert [his blog] Literary Commentary into a sociopolitical blog without a moment’s consultation. This I considered an uncollegial and insubordinate act,and I’m afraid it was not the first of these. I would not have allowed him to do so had he asked; I might have considered publishing the item on this blog, though to tell you the truth, I found his take goopy and overheated.
But the issue was not the content. He did not have the authority to redefine his blog in this fashion. This is something he clearly accepted and understood in the past, because there have been times when he has reverted to his old blog, A Commonplace Blog, as he did tonight, to publish things he clearly understood were beyond the scope of Literary Commentary.
Hear! Hear! The authority of the editor-in-chief is beyond question. This is one of the fundamental principles of journalism: Someone must be in charge of the organization. The Boss may rule with an iron hand or he may give his staff wide discretion, but either way, the ultimate authority of The Boss cannot be defied by his subordinates. Otherwise the editor’s title is meaningless and anarchy will ensue.
It is worth noting that David Myers has been writing for Commentary for more than two decades and that we should properly call him Professor Myers, as he has a Ph.D. and is on the faculty of Ohio State University. This is perhaps a generational quarrel: Professor Myers began writing for Commentary when Norman Podhoretz was the editor, and may not have extended to the son the same respect he had for the father.
On the other hand, this may be a culture clash between the journalistic world and the academic world within which Professor Myers earns his daily bread. Inhabitants of the faculty lounges make much of what William F. Buckley Jr. famously called “the superstition of academic freedom,” and Professor Myers evidently thought he could smuggle that superstition into Commentary without bothering to notify the editor. He admits as much:
What’s more, as an academic for more than twenty years, I have become too comfortable with intellectual autonomy; I clearly and admittedly did not show the proper deference to Mr Podhoretz’s authority.
Let us also note that Commentary is a monthly magazine which, in the Internet age, has also become an up-to-the-minute source for online news, analysis and opinion. This is similarly true for The American Spectator, where I write, as for nearly every other established publication: To remain relevant, one must be online, and to be relevant online, one must continually generate fresh content. Thus the publication that is monthly (or weekly or fortnightly) in print has no choice but to be as contemporaneous as the Associated Press when it comes to reporting, aggregating and commenting on breaking news developments.
Just yesterday, for example, I cited a Commentary report by Bethany Mandel describing the Romney campaign’s ORCA debacle. This is the kind of current-events reporting that a monthly magazine would scarcely have touched in the print-only era; by the time Commentary could have published a magazine article about the ORCA project, the story already would have been picked apart by the daily newspapers and weekly news magazines. Yet the equalizing effect of the Internet permits — really, requires — John Podhoretz’s staff to compete with every other news organization in the world and, in the case of Mandel’s ORCA article, we may say that Commentary has beaten the digital vestiges of Newsweek and Time.
All this is a long way around to explaining why Podhoretz is correct to insist on his prerogative to enforce adherence to editorial procedure. His role is less and less like the editor of a monthly highbrow journal, and more and more like the city-desk boss at a daily newspaper. And anyone who ever worked in the newspaper business knows better than to contest the authority of the city editor.
As to the topic of gay marriage, there is actually no fundamental quarrel between Myers and Podhoretz, as the latter makes clear:
As it happens, like our president, I was for a long time an opponent of gay marriage. I am not any longer—indeed, I am relieved that on Tuesday night citizens of four states chose freely to allow gay marriage within their borders rather than having such a thing imposed through judicial fiat. However, I am deeply respectful of those traditionalists who stand in opposition to it for profound reasons of conscience and faith and do not deserve to have the word “bigot” hurled unjustly at them. David Myers is himself an Orthodox Jew, and official Orthodox Jewry certainly does not share his views of gay marriage; I doubt he considers the Orthodox rabbinate institutionally evil.
This declaration of unprincipled pragmatism is scarcely encouraging, and one imagines that enforcing conformity to this New Pragmatism will require further purges — Goldilocks-like, the Podhoretzian embrace of gay marriage must be neither too hot nor too cold — but his authority as editorial enforcer is unlimited. The publishers of Commentary must either support Podhoretz 100% in the exercise of that authority, or else find themselves a new editor.
UPDATE: David Myers e-mails a correction, saying that he “started writing for the magazine when Neal Kozodoy was the editor.”