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December 18, 2006

Was Judith Regan's firing sexist? (Updated)

Publisher Judith Reagan was abruptly fired by HarperCollins on the night of December 15. Regan was the "brains" behind O.J. Simpson's If I Did It, a purportedly counterfactual confessional in which the former football star described how he "would" have gone about stabbing his wife and her friend to death. The ensuing public outcry prompted HarperCollins to withdraw the book and shred the 400,000 copies already in print.

"Judith Regan's employment with HarperCollins has been terminated effective immediately," HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman said in a terse statement last night.

The usually talkative Regan could not be reached for comment.

The announcement of her dismissal was sent out while most News Corp. employees were at the company Christmas party.

Regan's firing by Friedman ends what many publishing insiders knew to be a tense relationship between the two women that was marked at times by verbal clashes.

The last straw may have been a discussion about the Mantle book that Regan taped Thursday for her weekly talk show on Sirius Satellite Radio.

An account of the taping that was posted yesterday on Mediabistro.com said her conversation with author Peter Golenbock and her other guests turned to "people in the media elite who have it in for Judith Regan, not to mention the backstabbers at HarperCollins."

The Mediabistro account makes clear that Regan did talk about the "backstabbers . . . and with perhaps her fiercest vituperation at that."

And she did have enemies in the business. Publishing sources last night said they admired her successes, but had few other compliments for her. One said Regan was a "such a pain the neck" to work with, while another grumped, "She screwed a lot of people."

Regan was known for her ability to draw media attention to her work and to herself and for producing moneymaking projects - like A&E TV's "Growing Up Gotti" - for her boss Murdoch.

But the plan for the O.J. book and televised Fox interview creeped out much of America, spurring a public revulsion so intense that Murdoch was forced to scrub it the day before the books were shipped to stores.

At one point, Regan sought to justify the book and interview, saying she decided "to sit face to face with the killer, because I wanted him, and the men who broke my heart and your hearts, to tell the truth, to confess their sins, to do penance and to amend their lives."

Murdoch ended up personally apologizing for the "ill-considered project," and said he regretted any pain inflicted upon the families of the late Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

Publishing sources said Regan did not gracefully accept Murdoch's call to kill it. [NY Daily News]


So, Reagan gambled big and lost spectacularly. She then became a thorn in her boss's side and used her considerable media access to make a spectacle of her rambling, incoherent self-justifications. On top of all that, she was reportedly difficult to work with. The final, final straw may have been an angry phone call to HarperCollins' lawyers.

Furthermore, as zuzu of Feministe points out, Regan's big flop was also a sly wink at domestic violence. So, not only did HarperCollins have excellent business reasons to let Regan go, there's also a feminist case to be made against her. If a hypothetical pro-feminist version of Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins had fired Regan, they would have made a strong feminist argument for special outrage over the OJ pseudo-confession.

Many of zuzu's commenters suspect that Regan is being judged especially harshly by the media, if not by her employers because she's a woman. One complaint is that the press has been "slut shaming" Regan various news accounts mention that she had an affair with disgraced former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik.

It should be noted that as far as the New York tabloid press is concerned, the Kerik/Regan affair is a gender-neutral gift that keeps on giving. Kerik will never be allowed to live down the fact that he commandeered an apartment reserved for Ground Zero rescue workers to host his trysts with Regan and another mistress. In fairness, maybe Regan didn't know that Kerik was using the apartment without authorization. If not, then Kerik is the abuser of power, and Regan is being unfairly slut-shamed for sleeping with a married man.

Other Feministe commenters observe that the New York Daily News has a general fondness for stories of female comeuppance. Twisty's look at a days NYDN headlines is consistent with that observation.

Another argument that crops up on the Feministe thread is that manifestly guilty women like Regan and Martha Stewart still don't have the same license to abuse their power and screw up their jobs as their male colleagues. That's a reasonable supposition, but it's a difficult hypothesis to test in individual cases.

Certainly, being privileged means being insulated from the consequences of your behavior. Privilege means that you get more credit for what you do right, and less flack when you screw up. It's impossible to say whether a male HarperCollins executive who acted like Regan would have enjoyed more latitude to waste the company's money offensive and unprofitable publicity stunts. Maybe so. However, there's no particular evidence that sexism played a major role in Regan's downfall.

Update: Regan's former employers say she was fired after she accused a group of HarperCollins executives of being a Jewish cabal bent sabotaging her OJ project. Regan's lawyer admits that his client accused specific Jewish executives at HarperCollins of being a cabal bent on her destruction.

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Comments

As for the tabloid press being especially hard on female figures, I remember well sitting in Shea Stadium at a 1988 Mets game when the scoreboard announced that, "Bess Meyerson [America's first Jewish Miss America was] arrested for shoplifting." This at the height of the "Bess Mess" where Bess was accused of corrupting judge Hortense Gable to get her to go easy on Bess's mob boss boyfriend, Anthony Tony-the-Horse Capasso in his divorce hearing.

Shea erupted in sustained applause and yelling. I also remember that same year standing outside the Waldorf Astoria covering the scene for WBAI when Imelda Marcos's limo pulled out of the parking garage. The guy next to me yelled, "What about them shoes!!!" Everybody cheered.

Then there was the Leona Helmsley fixation.

All in just one year!

Is it the tabloid press that's hard on women or is it New Yorkers? Or were these particular women just notable for their corruption? One could ask the same questions about history's treatment of Marie Antoinette.

People hate let-them-eat-cakeism, and there was certainly an element of that in Ms. Regan.

A for-cause firing can still be sexist. I'm fairly convinced that Martha Stewart's prosecution was still sexist, regardless of if she broke the law. The difference there, though, is that her prosecution was an arguable departure from normal practices. I assume/hope/desperately wish that the normal practice when a publisher behaves like Regan did is termination.

That said, you'd have to have your head in a sack to miss the sexism in some of schadenfreude. Plus, if Regan were a man, she might be able to spin otherwise reprehensible behavior as a macho bad boy thing, a la Roman Polanski. I don't know that there's a comparable option available to powerful women.

As ABC reported over the weekend, Ron Goldman's family has plans to file a lawsuit charging that OJ received money for the book as the result of a "fraudulent transfer" meant to circumvent the civil judgment against him.

I think that's the key issue, or a key issue, in this. This book exposed the Murdoch empire to a potentially expensive and embarrassing lawsuit. So she's being thrown under the bus.

Leona Helmsley was/is a uniquely horrible creature, esp as compared with her soft-spoken, courteous husband, the guy who actually built the empire that she married into. I'm not surprised why that story got so big. People loathed her before the story even hit the media.

Fred Goldman files suit against OJ.

The father of Ron Goldman today sued O.J. Simpson, claiming that the disgraced athlete fraudulently profited from "If I Did It," the canceled book that reportedly contained Simpson's fictionalized account of how he could have killed Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. In the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Fred Goldman alleges that Simpson pocketed about $1 million in the deal for "If I Did It," which was to be published last month by ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

As the ABC story noted, "Judith Regan and executives from HarperCollins and News Corp. may be deposed." That's the sort of thing that might have made Rupe a tad cranky.

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