‘I am embroiled in a big scandal, in the middle of storm on social media,’ said Ian Buruma on the phone from New York. ‘It is rather ironic: as editor of The New York Review of Books I published a theme issue about #MeToo-offenders who had not been convicted in a court of law but by social media. And now I myself am publicly pilloried.’
For the moment, he does not want to comment on his sudden departure from the renowned, bi-weekly The New York Review of Books. But because Vrij Nederland was about to publish a long interview with him, Buruma made an exception for VN – although he is not willing to go deeply into the case and he terminated the conversation after a brief exchange.
He is about to write a resignation letter to publisher/owner Rea. S Hederman, says Buruma. A month earlier, during the interview, he was very enthusiastic about his new job, his young editorial team and his wealthy, but progressive publisher. And he is still. Just as he is still behind the decision to publish the essay ‘Reflections from a Hashtag’, even though it cost him his job. ‘The staff was initially not unanimously positive about publication, but once the decision to publish was made, we agreed. Also the publisher was initially positive.’
‘The fact that I feel forced to resign – in fact it is a capitulation to social media and university presses’
That is being disputed by some staff members and publisher Hederman has also changed his mind. ‘No, he did not fire me,’ says Buruma. ‘But he made clear to me that university publishers, whose advertisements make publication of The New York Review of Books partly possible, were threatening a boycott. They are afraid of the reactions on the campuses, where this is an inflammatory topic. Because of this, I feel forced to resign – in fact it is a capitulation to social media and university presses.’
Buruma admits, that he did not gage correctly the forces that #MeToo awakened – and now questions his own judgment. As Jay Rosen, professor of Journalism at New York University and a contributor to The New York Review of Books wrote on Twitter: ‘If you are going publish something BECAUSE it’s provocative and speaks into some silence you think is unfair, you better make sure it’s great writing, searchingly honest… and true.’
More than twenty allegations
As part of the cover story The Fall of Men about the after-effects of the #MeToo-movement, Buruma commissioned an essay for the October 11 issue by Jian Ghomeshi, a once-successful Canadian radio-dj. Ghomeshi was fired in 2014 after he had been accused of sexual assault. He was indicted in eight cases – although there more than twenty allegations. He was acquitted on a number of criminal accounts, and others were dropped because he had apologized to the victim. As a result he was not able to return to journalism – until Ian Buruma offered him the opportunity to write 3400 words on what the aftermath had meant to him.
‘I still stand behind my decision to publish,’ Buruma says now. ‘I expected that there would intense reactions, but I hoped that it would open a discussion about what to do with people who behaved badly, but who were acquitted in a court of law.’
As soon as the article was available online, protests resulted and with them the first cancellations of subscriptions. An interview in Slate made the situation worse. Not only did Buruma defend his decision to publish the Ghomeshi’s essay, he also, in the eyes of his critics, tried to downplay the accusations against Ghomeshi. For example, Buruma wrote: ‘The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.’
‘What happens when you are publicly pilloried on social media? That story had not been told.’
The interview in Slate exploded the issue, but Buruma also still stands behind what he said in the interview. ‘The theme interested me and now I have become a part of this: what do we think of punishing people by social media? There is no time limit to it, no defense possible. If somebody is not guilty in a court of law, he deserves scorn, sure – but in what form and for how long? It is absolutely not true that I do not have empathy for women who are mistreated or assaulted. But I also want to know: what happens when you are publicly pilloried on social media? That story had not been told.’
Perhaps, Buruma admits, an essay written by a man accused of sexually assaulting women, was not the ideal form to open this discussion. ‘You could be right that it gave him too much room to tell his side of the story, without a response and without critical questions.’ That this was not a good idea was made clear by his opponents in every way, Buruma says. ‘They go far, they are digging through everything I have ever written for proof that I hate women. I don’t read it all, because I don’t want to get depressed, but I do hear about it.’
Robert B. Silvers, Buruma’s predecessor as editor of The New York Review of Books, stayed at the job for 54 years and died while editor. That won’t happen for Ian Buruma. But to leave the magazine a year after his appointment, deeply saddens him. ‘I have now myself been convicted on Twitter, without any due process.’
Translated by Freke Vuijst.