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The New York Review of Books was right to fire Ian Buruma

Flawed editorial judgement led to his downfall, not a ‘climate of fear’

Fintan O’Toole recently wrote that the departure of Ian Buruma as editor of the New York Review of Books (NYRB) should worry anyone who values freedom of the press. Buruma left his position after publishing a piece written by disgraced Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi who has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by more than 20 people. 

As O’Toole acknowledges Ghomeshi “blames his behaviour on his ‘self-involvement’ yet remains deeply self-involved”. Ghomeshi wrote a glib, self-aggrandising piece that attempted to minimise the extent and seriousness of his behaviour. He alluded to “online allegations” when in fact it was an investigative exposé by the Toronto Star which reported that three women said Ghomeshi had “struck them with a closed fist or an open hand; bit them; choked them until they almost passed out; covered their nose and mouth so that they had difficulty breathing; and that they were verbally abused during and after sex”. Others later accused Ghomeshi of sexual abuse and harassment including two men who said that he’d fondled their genitals without permission and a woman who said that he made advances toward her when she was a minor. 

Buruma also gave a shockingly ill-judged interview to Slate. When the interviewer described some of what Ghomeshi was accused of, Buruma responded: “The exact nature of his behaviour—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is that really my concern”. That’s a shocking admission from the editor of a publication which wields considerable influence in the cultural conversation. He inadvertently put the spotlight on his own editorial blind spots. Apparently, the horrific harassment and abuse experienced by dozens of people isn’t a factor in his editorial decision making. It is perhaps no coincidence that his publication was among the worst performers in Vida’s 2017 study on the byline gap with 71% of bylines in the magazine being from men.

Buruma commissioned the piece to “try to understand bad male behaviour”. Ghomeshi’s piece, though, added little to the conversation except perhaps showing just how little he has learned from his “reflecting”. The piece ends with Ghomeshi lauding himself for not trying to have sex with a woman he met on a train as if this is some great evidence of growth! Buruma condescendingly claims that the piece “helps people think this sort of thing through”. The basic premise that people deserve to be treated with respect is not new. Men don’t need to have their hands held while we patiently explain that you should treat your fellow human beings with respect. It’s an insult to men to suggest otherwise.

Buruma’s seeming unwillingness to reckon with the trauma experienced by victims (not all of whom are women) indicates that he doesn’t fully understand the #MeToo conversation. He wasn’t ousted because of a social media backlash, but because he displayed woefully poor editorial judgement in both publishing Ghomeshi’s piece and giving an interview which betrayed his broader ignorance of the #MeToo movement. Those factors should be disqualifying for the editor of a magazine with an intellectual history as formidable as the NYRB.

O’Toole writes that “no great paper was ever edited fearfully. Editors must be willing to take risks with unpopular material.” I agree. Editors should take risks commissioning pieces that push the boundaries and challenge readers to question their assumptions. I welcome stories of men interrogating their role in the movement, but not the self-aggrandising drivel of a man who is given space in a heretofore esteemed publication and not held to even the basic standards of accuracy, fairness and self-reflection.

I welcome intellectual debate, but it should be with due regard for the traumatic consequences experienced by victims and an acknowledgment of the enormous impact abuse has on a person’s life, career and psyche. The #MeToo movement has arisen in response to the systemic epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse. It is the job of diligent editors to reckon with the alarming prevalence of sexual predation and to cover the issue with the sensitivity and complexity it deserves. Abusive men aren’t entitled to their own redemption arc, and editors shouldn’t be in the business of granting them.