After December 11, when The American Prospect axed senior editor Ana Marie Cox, the media gossip machine went into overdrive looking for a villain. Was Cox guilty of “not being civil” to colleagues and of changing writers’ copy “without due process,” as founding editor Robert Kuttner reportedly said to her face? Or was she, as some argue, another Kuttner casualty, the latest in a line of lefty journalists who joined the Prospect only to discover, as one insider put it, that they were working for “a bad manager who doesn’t brook dissent”?
The truth is rarely so simple. By all accounts, Cox is smart, funny, and well connected in the media world. But sources say she has a tendency to be confrontational and brusque, sometimes rubbing colleagues the wrong way. Cox declined to comment, except to say that when she learned of her fate, “I expressed disappointment and said I thought I had been doing a good job. Bob said, ‘That has nothing to do with it.’ ”
No sooner had Cox’s name been whisked off the masthead than a counter-story began to take hold. Was Kuttner really a champion of civility and due process, or was he a closet tyrant with a history of lashing out at employees and blacklisting writers who strayed from his party line?
At first glance, this inside-the-beltway soap opera may seem petty, but it’s not about just any magazine. After launching the Prospect with Robert Reich and Paul Starr in 1990, Kuttner positioned it as a think tank that would shape the liberal agenda for the 21st century. The Prospect‘s circulation doubled to 42,000 this past year. Thanks to some $10 million in grants from the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, the Prospect recently moved its center of operations from Boston to D.C., and began hiring editors to bring in lively prose and reportage. Enter executive editor Harold Meyerson, who was hired from the L.A. Weekly last June, and Ana Marie Cox, who came on board in November. (She only lasted six weeks.)
Cox’s demise may have been foretold in her mission, which was to gradually shift the magazine away from the dry policy pieces favored by Kuttner, a Boston-based economics expert. To be successful, Cox had to put herself in the crossfire. Some have suggested that Meyerson stood by as Kuttner shot down his number two, while others insist that Cox’s personality cost her the job. Either way, the firing of a top staffer was traumatic; managing editor Lisa Hisel quit the next day.
Of course, troubles at the Prospect go beyond the public ouster of an outspoken female editor. Indeed, in the past few years, insiders have detected a suspicious pattern of turnover. First, former Kuttnerites Jonathan Cohn, Jonathan Chait, and Jason Zengerle left to work for The New Republic. This past summer, Prospect writer Joshua Green took a hefty pay cut to work for The Washington Monthly. While it’s natural for staffers to move on, says one ex-Kuttnerite, “Right now, people would rather work at Enron than go to the Prospect.”
And at least some of it has to do with Kuttner. According to one insider, the top editor is “really insecure and paranoid. He’s not unfriendly when you meet him, but when he’s mad, he’s just vicious. He keeps it all bottled up and then he lashes out.” Another describes Kuttner’s “animus, shining like a lighthouse, first on one person, then on another,” adding that stories abound about employees who have had “bad experiences and who are eventually driven out or ground down by him.” The two things required to get along with Kuttner, says this source, are “ideological fidelity and personal obeisance.”
Two names of departed writers surface again and again—Joshua Micah Marshall, who was too far to the center for Kuttner’s taste, and Robert Dreyfuss, who was too far to the left. Marshall became the first Washington editor of the Prospect in September 1999. But over time, sources say, Kuttner began strong-arming Marshall to “toe the line ideologically.” Kuttner thought Marshall “liked Al Gore too much,” says one. Things came to a head this past March, when Marshall announced he was quitting to freelance.
Marshall’s successor was Robert Dreyfuss, who contributes to Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, and The Nation. But Dreyfuss quit this fall, after clashing with Kuttner over the proper editorial response to the September 11 attacks. Dreyfuss wrote a piece for the Prospect‘s Web site, he recalls, in which he said that “what happened on September 11 was a crime” and called for the attacks to be handled “by the appropriate international authorities.” A few days later, the piece vanished, and Dreyfuss soon learned that Kuttner expected every voice in the magazine to support the war effort. When Dreyfuss submitted an interview with Barbara Lee, the only anti-war voter in Congress, his editors didn’t want it. “I quit,” says Dreyfuss, “because I felt that there was no receptiveness to my point of view.”
Julia M. Klein is a freelancer and Philadelphia Inquirer veteran who thinks highly of the Prospect and its editors—except for that one incident with Kuttner. Things were going well this past summer, when Klein reviewed Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed for the Prospect. Klein had three new assignments for the Prospect, she says, but soon after the Ehrenreich review came out, her editor killed them. The reason: Kuttner had not read the review until it was published, and when he did, he “was in a rage” because the review had criticized Ehrenreich. Says Klein, “If I had known Ehrenreich was a sacred cow, I would not have taken the assignment.”
In an interview, Kuttner explained that Meyerson is now in charge of putting out the bi-weekly Prospect, while his own role is one of “chief kibbitzer,” fundraiser, and editor of the quarterly supplements. He took umbrage at the ad hominem complaints, which he said came from a handful of former staffers.
“I’m 58 years old,” Kuttner said. “A lot of what animates me is being in the role of teacher and bringing out the best in young writers. I take particular pride in treating writers well. I don’t claim to walk on water, but if you shine a spotlight on any publication, you’ll find instances in which the writer feels burned. I hope you’ll put that in the context of the hundreds of writers and dozens of staffers who have had happy experiences here.”
Kuttner declined to comment on Marshall’s departure. Of Cox, all he would say is that “nobody here is ever fired frivolously or capriciously.” Notwithstanding a “radical difference” of opinion, he said, “We very much regret Bob Dreyfuss’s departure. I wish we’d handled that differently.”
Of course, all the Kuttner bashing may soon be moot. On December 21, Mickey Kaus reported that since a recent meeting with Schumann Foundation president Bill Moyers, executive editor Meyerson has been telling staff that he, not Kuttner, now has day-to-day control over the magazine.
Meyerson declined to comment, but an insider says Meyerson “seems to have really gotten serious” about the Prospect and is “ready to throw himself into it.” Time will tell if Meyerson and Kuttner make good on their New Year’s resolution.