The Harper’s Controversy: The Whisper Network Meets the Megaphone

With the story it is rumored to be publishing, the magazine has offered yet another reminder of the fragility of the current iteration of #MeToo.

A sign at a #MeToo march in Hollywood, California, on November 12, 2017
A sign at a #MeToo march in Hollywood, California, on November 12, 2017 (Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images)

“I am looking forward to talking about what is actually in the piece when it actually comes out. I am not ‘outing’ anyone. I have to say it’s a little disturbing that anyone besides Trump views Twitter as a reliable news source.”

That’s the writer Katie Roiphe, the author of an upcoming story in Harper’s magazine, responding to the uproar that has surrounded that story since Tuesday. The story seems to involve, in some capacity, the Shitty Media Men list, a spreadsheet created as a private document—shared among women who work in media and meant to warn them about predatory men—but whose existence was made public, via a post on BuzzFeed, in October. A spreadsheet that alternately empowered women, asked crucial questions about standards of proof when it comes to allegations of sexual misconduct, and led to multiple journalistic investigations into harassment and assault across the American media. A spreadsheet that led to the firings of some of the men on the list.

Roiphe’s story, reportedly set for the March issue of Harper’s, was initially rumored—on, as she suggested, Twitter—to have included the name of the woman who created the document. Which is to say that the piece was initially rumored to be doxxing that woman: to be robbing her of her protective anonymity, and thus subjecting her to the harassment, the abuse, and possibly the violence that so often reveals itself when internet-enabled vigilantes take basic information and weaponize it. (“Harpers-dont-do-this/,” pled the URL of The Mary Sue’s take on the matter.)

So Roiphe’s statement to The Atlantic is, in that sense, a notable one: Until today, the author had been much more coy about the contents of the story that, on Tuesday—the day of the Power Shift Summit in Washington, D.C., which sought to reconsider women’s place in journalism, and two days after the Golden Globes reveled in the glistening notion that the harassment of women would soon be a thing of the past—caused panic and outrage on behalf of an as-yet-anonymous woman. “Looking forward to talking about what is actually in my piece when it actually comes out,” Roiphe initially wrote, to a private Facebook group. “In the meantime, let’s rise above Twitter hysteria.” A Harper’s spokesperson gave a similar reply to the flood of concern. “We don’t discuss the content of our pieces until they are published,” that person said, adding: “I can confirm that Katie Roiphe is writing a piece for our March issue, nothing more.” Neither one, until today, denied the doxxing rumor.

And, so, anger—anger directed not against the existence of Roiphe’s article itself, but rather against the notion that the identity of the woman who created the list might be publicly revealed: the notion that a woman might be subjected to abuse for the act of trying to spare other women from the same thing. The outrage was accompanied by more specific entreaties to Harper’s (a magazine that has, depending on your perspective, either nobly or notoriously resisted the rise of the internet) to recognize the broader world its journalism now inhabits: a place of both marvelous and ominous fluidity between digital settings and physical ones. Digital harassment of women, in particular, is at risk of becoming “an established norm in our digital society,” one study had it, noting that 76 percent of women under 30 have experienced that kind of abuse. And doxxing—the term originates from the hackers of the early web, a derivation of docs—always, at this point, comes with the threat of the conversion of digital abuse into physical violence. Misogyny, it has become painfully clear, loves nothing more than a vulnerably human target for its hatred.

It’s notable, as well, that the discussions of the Harper’s story have been conducted during a time that has found pop culture particularly interested in what it means to speak truth to power. The Post, Steven Spielberg’s celebration of whistleblowing and of journalism, is arriving both to national theaters and to an Oscar campaign near you. The current iteration of the #MeToo moment has led on the one hand to discussions about a new era—of empowerment, of vocalness, of respect—for women: Women speaking up. Women acting out. Women expressing their anger, and using their power, and making their scenes. “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dared to speak their truth to the power of those men,” Oprah told a roaring crowd at the Golden Globes on Sunday. “But their time is up. Their time is up.”

And yet: Here, via an in-production work of journalism that holds so much power in its ink-stained hands—via a single piece of information that could be so easily weaponized—is a reminder of how fragile the progress of #MeToo really is, how susceptible it is to backlash. The people who have found their voices in the previous months, women and men, are fighting, after all, against centuries’ worth of cultural scripts demanding that women, in particular, be accommodating, be capitulating, be pleasing. That they avoid unruliness at all costs. If they don’t, they may be cruelly harassed. They may be dismissed as “difficult,” mocked as “shrill.” Their names—and, with them, their home address and work address and phone number, and those of their husbands and children and friends—may end up posted on The Daily Stormer.

Harper’s, ostensibly, per Roiphe’s comment on the matter, will not, in the end, be revealing the name of the woman who created the spreadsheet. If so, good. But the Harper’s article, with all its known unknowns, currently exists as a kind of Schrödingerian proposition—“the piece hasn’t even gone to print yet,” Splinter’s Clio Chang pointed out on Tuesday, “meaning there’s still time to stop this from happening”—and because of that, especially before Roiphe issued her “not ‘outing’ anyone” statement today, a kind of ad-hoc activism swiftly emerged: Harpers-dont-do-this, en masse. On Tuesday, the writer Nicole Cliffe offered up financial compensation to freelancers who want to remove their own in-the-works Harper’s stories from the magazine as a gesture of protest. The writer Jessica Valenti attempted to deflect attention from the creator of the list to the many women who contributed to it: “The list was created by contributions from dozens of women and disseminated by even more,” Valenti noted on Twitter. “I was one of them. If someone comes for the woman who started the list, they better be ready to come for us all.” Many others simply reminded Harper’s of the humanity at the other end of its journalism: of the very real and physical danger it could mean for a woman to have her name associated with the list.

One of the ironies in those public pleas for privacy is that the Shitty Media Men list, again—its title suggests as much—was never intended to be seen or consumed by the public at large. It was never meant to be swept up into the hulking machinery of the American media. The list was a sharing of information, and a haphazard one, meant to help women who live in a place that—still, despite what the cheerful t-shirts and the hopeful awards ceremonies might have to say about it—devalues them. Hey, be careful around that guy. Get a coffee with him, maybe, but don’t go to a bar. The list was a whisper network converted into an object of sharable media: a spreadsheet, essentially, of last resort. It was evidence of women engaged in that oldest of age-old work: warning other women. Helping them navigate a world that tells them, still, that they don’t fully belong in it.

It has long been predicted that this iteration of #MeToo will fall prey to the forces of backlash: to the knee-jerk defense of the status quo that tends to accompany social progress. The Harper’s doxxing discussion came during a period that served as more evidence that the backlash has already arrived—lobbed not from angry misogynists, but from those who object to #MeToo in the name of their chosen forms of feminism. The New York Times op-ed suggesting that women who publicly support the outing of harassers might have private reservations about that activity. The questions about whether Kirsten Gillibrand, in calling for Al Franken’s resignation, was being “transparently opportunistic.” The warnings of the threat of a “sex panic” making its way to America. The celebrities in France who are banding together to decry #MeToo (and its French counterpart, #BalanceTonPorc) as evidence of “a hatred of men and of sexuality.” And then, here, in the form of a soon-to-be story from a prestigious national magazine—a story that “will not be ‘outing’ anyone” but that could change its mind at any moment—is yet another suggestion of the fundamental fragility of it all. One more reminder that there’s a difference between an American culture that professes a general appreciation for women and their voices, and one that is fully ready to hear what those women have to say.