World

Ben Smith gifts Harper’s best subs week ever

2 April 2021

5:09 AM

2 April 2021

5:09 AM

Say what you want about the sickness of cancel culture, it can be great for business. Nothing rallies paying readers to a writer quite like the news that somebody wants him or her silenced.

Nothing, that is, apart being called ‘odd’ by the New York Times. On Monday, the paper produced an article about Harper’s magazine by its ultra-successful media columnist Ben Smith. Under the headline, ‘Inside America’s Most Interesting Magazine, and Media’s Oddest Workplace’, Smith was generous about Harper’s but quite rude about its president, John R. MacArthur, whom he made out to be an eccentrically dressed crank.

The result? Harper’s had its best week ever for subscriptions. From Sunday through to the end of Wednesday, the magazine gained 1,494 readers. Harper’s had another subscription boom last year after on July 7 it published a joint letter from 150 writers defending the ‘free exchange of information and ideas’ against mad woke censorship. The letter caused a blaze of free publicity and over four days Harper’s acquired 414 new readers. Cockburn is no mathematician, but it seems the Ben Smith piece has proved about four times as good for business.


To repeat, Smith’s article was not a hit piece. As the headline suggests, he went to lengths to praise the Harper’s editorial offerings. But he seemed particularly struck that MacArthur, who is half-French and has become a kind of bête noire to a certain sort of New York media progressive, had written articles attacking the American fixation on identity politics for French publications. ‘His attention is often elsewhere, particularly in Paris,’ he wrote. Smith did not mention, for some reason, that  MacArthur also contributes to The Spectator.

Overall, he made MacArthur out to be a spoilt-rich technophobe. He opened the piece suggesting that Harper’s staff had been forced back to work ‘in a kind of hostage situation’, despite the pandemic, and suggested that the MacArthur had cowed his staff into obedience. He presented the editor, Christopher Beha, as a sort of moderating force against MacArthur’s reactionary style.

‘He tried at times to steer his boss’s views,’ he wrote describing his interview with the editor and the president, ‘and appeared to start vibrating with stress when I asked about staff members’ views about being required to come to work during the pandemic.’ Smith also said MacArthur was ‘dressed in a classic style of the American rich, which is to say, indifferently, in a sport jacket, dark slacks, battered black shoes and a surgical mask.’

MacArthur was cheerful about the subscriptions windfall when Cockburn spoke to him earlier today, and quite amused by Smith’s attempt to portray him as ‘some kind of French weirdo’.

‘For 1,500 subscriptions Ben Smith can criticize my wardrobe to his heart’s content,’ he said.

The lesson here is not just that weird is wonderful but that New York Times readers seem hungry for something original and genuinely radical, rather than woke. Harper’s staff had a small (and socially distanced, of course) Champagne and cupcake party the toast all their new readers. Still, much as Cockburn admires Harper’s, he should remind you that a subscription to The Spectator is the best move of all.

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