John R. “Rick” MacArthur is the president and publisher of Harper’s magazine and the board chairman of the Harper’s Magazine Foundation, which owns the periodical as well as the Harpers.org website and the closely-linked book publisher, Franklin Square Press.
Born in New York City on June 4, 1956, MacArthur grew up in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Winnetka, Illinois. His great-uncle Charles MacArthur co-wrote with Ben Hecht the famous Broadway comedy about tabloid newspaper reporters, The Front Page. Rick’s father, Roderick MacArthur, became a millionaire through ownership of the Bradford Exchange and Hammacher Schlemmer stores. Politically, Roderick was far to the left of his own father (Rick’s grandfather), the billionaire real-estate and insurance tycoon John D. MacArthur, and was disinherited. “We were a liberal, pro-civil rights, anti-Vietnam War family,” Rick told one interviewer. “My mother’s foreign [French], my father’s left-wing. We didn’t involve ourselves in the same activities as the WASP Republicans.”
At age 12, Rick MacArthur worked zealously for the 1968 presidential campaign of Democrat Eugene McCarthy. In his teens, he worked for the campaigns of presidential hopeful George McGovern and congressman Abner Mikva. And in 1978 MacArthur graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in history.
After completing his education, MacArthur worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal (1977), the Washington Star (1978), The Bergen Record (1978-79), and the Chicago Sun-Times (1979-82). He was also an assistant foreign editor at United Press International in 1982.
In 1980, MacArthur and his father persuaded the boards of the MacArthur Foundation and the Atlantic Richfield Company to create and fund a Harper’s Magazine Foundation, which purchased the nearly insolvent Harper’s magazine for $250,000. With his father’s help, Rick maneuvered to take control of this new Foundation. When Rick became the president and publisher of Harper’s in 1983, he reinstalled its previously-fired editor, Lewis H. Lapham, and together they reshaped the magazine in 1985 into one that featured shorter articles and quotable features such as the “Harper’s Index” of odd facts.
Along with members of his family, Rick MacArthur in 1987 established “Article 19, The International Center on Censorship,” an organization that seeks to promote people’s “right to express and disseminate opinions.”
In 1990 MacArthur founded the Death Penalty Information Center, which uses research reports and statistics to discredit the use of capital punishment.
As a reporter during the First Gulf War in 1991, MacArthur broke the story that the young woman who had famously accused Saddam Hussein‘s troops of stealing Kuwaiti hospital incubators (and discarding the babies kept alive in them), was the daughter of a Kuwaiti diplomat making anti-Iraq propaganda.
MacArthur has long despised the Internet and its influence on the publishing industry. In December 2010, for instance, he asserted that the Internet “wasn’t much more than a gigantic, underthinking Xerox machine (albeit with inhuman ‘memory’), and thus posed the same old threat to copyright and to the livelihoods of writers and publishers alike.” In May 2012, he added: “The recent Internet-and-conglomerate-driven decline of publishing has reduced book advances and promotions, especially for mid-list authors. If you want to get your book on prime-time TV or radio, you had better be ready to dumb down your message and round off your edges.” Because of his negative feelings regarding the Internet, MacArthur was reluctant to give Harper’s a web presence; even after he did (in 2004), readers could not access any of the publication’s articles unless they first subscribed to the physical magazine. Today, readers can access a small handful of articles for free each month, before they are required to subscribe in order to read more.
For many years, MacArthur was a board-of-trustees member of the Columbia University student newspaper, The Spectator. But in April 2014, he resigned from the board to protest its decision adopt a “web-first” (as opposed to a print-edition-first) format.
In addition to his writings for Harper’s, MacArthur has contributed extensively to other left-wing publications such as Common Dreams, the Huffington Post, In These Times, The Nation, the Spectator (U.K.), the Toronto Star, Le Monde Diplomatique, and Le Monde. From 2013-15, he wrote a monthly column for the Providence Journal. He currently writes a monthly column, in French, for Le Devoir on topics ranging from politics to culture.
MacArthur once described himself as a “naive liberal” regarding politics. An ardent foe of the death penalty and a booster of many leftist causes, he is the author of four books: Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War (1993, 2004); The Selling of “Free Trade”: NAFTA, Washington and the Subversion of American Democracy (2000); You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America (2008, 2012); and L’Illusion Obama (published in France and Canada, 2012).
Aside from his aforementioned pursuits, MacArthur also served a stint as a board member of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, which contends that the American criminal-justice is awash in inequities targeting nonwhites and poor people. Today he is a Board of Directors member with the Author’s Guild.
For additional information on Rick MacArthur, click here.
Further Reading: “John R. MacArthur” (HuffingtonPost.com); “Rick MacArthur ’78: Maverick Journalist” (Columbia College Today, May 2003); “How PR Sold the War in the Persian Gulf” (PR Watch); “A Brief History of John R. MacArthur Hating the Internet” (NYMag.com, 1-18-2013); “I Won’t Hug This [Digital] File — I Won’t Even Call It My Friend” (by John R. MacArthur, Harper’s, 12-13-2010); “Harper’s Publisher Rick MacArthur Quits Columbia Spectator Board Because the Internet” (NYMag.com, 4-29-2014).