John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s, is best known for his splenetic hatred for the internet, which he despises on aesthetic, economic, and intellectual grounds. It is the last one, which MacArthur spells out in a weekend New York Times interview, that is most perplexing. MacArthur speaks for the still-large portion of America that believes “print” and “online” are moral and qualitative categories of journalism. This is how MacArthur puts it:
“I’ve got nothing against people getting on their weblogs, on the Internet and blowing off steam. If they want to do that, that’s fine. But it doesn’t pass, in my opinion, for writing and journalism.”
Here is where the metaphysics of MacArthur’s distinction defy simple explanation. No doubt MacArthur very much enjoys the well-crafted arguments of prestigious economist and New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman. And MacArthur would never stoop to pay attention to the rantings of unhinged weblogger Paul Krugman, though sometimes the two are virtually identical. Likewise, he would distrust the shoddy reporting of a story in the online site Politico, unless that story was published on newsprint and distributed in boxes around Washington, D.C.
The tricky part is understanding just when in the process this collection of words is transformed from “blowing off steam” into “writing and journalism.” The answer cannot be “when it is edited,” since editors have long since discovered the technological means of editing stories that appear online only. Is it when the story physically rolls off the presses that it becomes journalism? When it arrives at the reader’s home? Those of us who lack MacArthur’s capacity for erudition and extremely deep thought can only await the moment when he resolves the mystery for us.