ink-stained wretches

A Brief History of John R. MacArthur Hating the Internet

Photo: Mitchmar/Wikimedia

John “Rick” MacArthur, the wealthy president and publisher of old-fashioned monthly magazine Harper’s, likes to emerge from the serenity of his personal library every now and then to remind us that the Internet is evil. Today, he’s back with a publisher’s note on the recently revamped (now with comments!), that aims at the web’s “free-content” model, which “has transformed Google’s Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt into media barons who make William Randolph Hearst look like a small-time operator.” It’s more of the same, but with more Teletubbies, and it is wonderful (in its way).

As publisher of a magazine that specializes in substantive, complex, and occasionally lengthy journalism and literature, and that also lives off advertising,” MacArthur writes, “I’ve long objected to Google’s systematic campaign to steal everything that isn’t welded to the floor by copyright — while playing nice with its idiotic slogan ‘Don’t be evil.’” To illustrate his point, he relies on a pop-culture allusion to a children’s show from the late nineties:

It’s no coincidence that Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Yelp sound like toddler gibberish from the Teletubbies.

Whenever I hear these silly corporate names invoked with sanctimonious awe, I imagine Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Po, and Tinky-Winky singing their hit single “Teletubbies say ‘Eh-oh’ ” as they shake the change out of some two-year-old’s pocket. Come to think of it, Eric Schmidt’s new playmate, the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, bears a more than superficial resemblance to Po.

He’s got the blogger snark down, at least.

Last time we heard such crotchety yelling from MacArthur, in March of 2012, he was claiming “Internet con men ravage publishing”:

It wasn’t so long ago—maybe eight years—that I found myself trapped in a corridor at Harper’s, surrounded by a small mob of what I can’t help but refer to as “young people.”

These youthful members of my editorial staff—one of them now the co-editor of Mother Jones Magazine—were imploring me, demanding even, that I meet the Internet revolution head on by posting free what they also described as “content” on our brand new Harper’s Web site so that it might be consumed by a huge reading public supposedly dying to read our longish essays, reporting and short stories. The Internet, I told them, wasn’t much more than a gigantic Xerox machine (albeit with inhuman “memory”), and thus posed the same old threat to copyright and to the livelihoods of writers and publishers alike.

Two months later, in “The Decline and Fall (in the U.S.) of the Public Intellectual,” he added:

The recent Internet-and-conglomerate-driven decline of publishing has reduced book advances and promotions, especially for mid-list authors. If you want to get your book on prime-time TV or radio, you had better be ready to dumb down your message and round off your edges.

In 2011, amid a fight with his unionizing staff, MacArthur scoffed at the notion that words could be profitable online, as reported by our own Gabriel Sherman:

He said no one will ever make money on the web,” one staffer told me on condition of anonymity. […]

A couple of months after Hodge’s firing, senior editor Donovon Hohn helped to convene a meeting about publishing Harper’s on the iPad. MacArthur didn’t attend. But shortly thereafter, staffers began receiving xeroxed articles from MacArthur in their mailboxes that trashed the iPad and Kindle. […]

When one staffer brought MacArthur’s attention to a recent New York Times article that stated The Atlantic was profitable this year because of its heavy investments in the web, MacArthur responded: “They’re lying. They’re a private company and they can say whatever they want.”

And back in 2010, after quitting Facebook, MacArthur vowed “I Won’t Hug This File — I Won’t Even Call It My Friend”:

All those millions of eyeballs glued to Facebook do not a revolution make, or even a reform movement. The energy devoted to the Net is an astonishing waste. This is time that obviously could be better spent talking to a friend or a child, reading a good book, or marching in a political demonstration.

Just wait until he hears about Snapchat.

John R. MacArthur Still Hates the Internet