What the World Needs Now? A News Blackout The plane crash that took the lives of John Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn and sister-in-law Lauren Bessette was an unspeakable tragedy only exacerbated by the coldhearted mass media intrusion on their families' privacy. The perpetrators will counter that the Kennedys are public figures, America's "Royal Family," and other such nonsense, but the plain fact is that three young people are dead and their relatives and friends should be left alone to mourn. Instead, for the next month it'll be Lady Di-II, U.S.-style, and it makes me ashamed to be a journalist. The Kennedys lived a few blocks from my family in Tribeca, and so we witnessed the surreal neighborhood scene last weekend. Television crews stood in front of their empty N. Moore St. apartment, filming what? Radio reporters interviewed the "little people" at local hangouts like Bubby's, Fourth Estate and Socrates, who dutifully said John was a regular guy who bought flowers at the same deli they did, and would gladly sign autographs. On Sunday morning, MUGGER III and I went to see our friend Mary Parvin at Fourth Estate, and strolled around the block to see if the "journalists" were still keeping vigil. What a question. Of course they were, to the extent that one reporter even asked my four-year-old son for his reaction. CNN and the major networks broadcast almost nonstop coverage?and don't tell me it's cynical to assume that behind the scenes the gleeful expectation of higher ratings was on the minds of producers, as their teams worked overtime and called out for pizza and indulged in gallows humor?of the search for the plane, as if any new information would be immediately forthcoming. Time and Newsweek had to call in their suburban troops to remake their covers and inside features, which is legitimate, especially since these will be the bestselling issues of the year thus far. What really irks me is the minutiae of the coverage: the examination of Kennedy's flying record, what Carolyn was wearing on the flight, the weather conditions, the questions of whether or not they should've boarded a commercial airline. In the end, obviously, it doesn't matter: They're dead and the story should end there. God only knows what Oprah, Larry King, Barbara Walters and Geraldo have up their sleeves; it was painful opening the dailies to find pundit after pundit bemoaning the end of Camelot once more. How many times can the American public lose its innocence?
And, as usual, Bill Clinton will go even more overboard in the emotion department. Granted, it's his place to make a statement to the country, but you just know he'll continue to debase the sad occasion with poll-conscious oratory. Initially, he's been restrained; just wait until the funeral. Other politicians will exploit the deaths as well. Count on Al Gore; I hope George W. Bush, who's had little contact with the Kennedy family, will be simply gracious in paying his respects. Sen. Orrin Hatch was already groaning on for CNN's King about the near-mystical Catholic faith of the Kennedys. I believe that was true about matriarch Rose Kennedy, and Ethel Kennedy, but the third generation of the family has never worn religion on their sleeves, in either words or actions.
There's already been column inch upon column inch in the newspapers about an entire nation in "mourning." That's simply not true. This is an instance of a celebrity meeting an untimely death; unfortunately, it'll be given more attention than Littleton, Kosovo and Rwanda combined. I want no part of it, don't want to hear the eulogies, don't want to read the sick postings on the Internet from those who hated anyone named Kennedy, don't want to hear blabbermouths like Liz Smith groan on about a man who was so successful, so drop-dead handsome, such a brilliant editor with the failing George. The lying will be outrageous. Yes, when someone dies, especially prematurely, it's natural for a family to put him on a pedestal; that doesn't mean the entire country has to.
Still, newspaper writers have to fill space, and some do so better than others. I don't begrudge the New York Post's Jack Newfield his heartfelt words at all; he truly was a close friend of the family. I could argue about the headline of his July 18 column, "Good night, sweet prince of a noble family," but his writing is sincere: "John was never arrested. He never stained his family's name. He didn't run around with a posse of goon bodyguards. He was good in a way very few famous men are."
Newfield's colleague Andrea Peyser, on the other hand, let on to readers on the same day that she can't write on deadline. Read this hysterical bit: "The first reaction upon waking is: It can't be true. Not him. Not now. Then, denial: This must be some kind of hideous mistake! He wasn't on that plane. He's safe. And anger: Why was he flying in that dinky aircraft, in the dark? John, don't you know what could happen to you?... My heart is broken this sad, dreary day. This can't be true. He can't be dead."
At the Daily News, Stanley Crouch had a strange lead to his eulogy on July 19: "When Princess Di got it, I didn't get it."
Newsday's James Pinkerton, also writing on July 19, concluded his column with an oddly sentimental line that's uncharacteristic of his work. "And now he's lost, and we're facing a stiller world." That's what Time's odious Lance Morrow would claim is the beer talking. The world is no more "still" after Kennedy's death; he was just one more person who died, although far too young.
Jimmy Breslin, big surprise, was just downright mean. Not about Kennedy, of course. Instead, he wrote in Newsday on Monday: "Jack Kennedy was president for 1,000 days. Jimmy Carter was president longer than that. Who would you rather hear about, Carter or Kennedy? Ford was a president? Who was he? Who is he? Who cares? He bores. Clinton has been president for three more years than Kennedy and I want somebody to tell me one phrase he turned in his whole time of flat, banal English. Except for that finger wagging, 'that woman.' This is a president? That is all he could add to the language? All the rest, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, are minor names. You say Kennedy and all these years later something comes alive. Go ahead, go to the moon. Because it is hard." Nixon and Reagan are "minor" names? Jimmy, you hittin' the sauce again?
Then there was the Times' John Tierney, on Monday, with his condescending twaddle: "The Kennedys became everyone's surrogate family, a balm for the many rootless people here and across America." Speak for yourself, John.
Again in the Times, on Monday, Douglas Brinkley wrote on the paper's op-ed page: "Americans in their 30's, like me, grew up with John Kennedy... With his earnest demeanor, handsome countenance and admirable devotion to being a socially responsible citizen, he was my generation's photogenic redeemer." Brinkley, an historian and professor at the University of New Orleans, diminishes his reputation with such sentimental slop.
In the July 26 Newsweek, Jonathan Alter was just as presumptuous, writing that Kennedy's magazine George was "underrated." No, it wasn't. It's a trivial, often silly, publication that most likely would've folded soon even if Kennedy hadn't perished. But the conclusion to Alter's column tells me that all members of the Beltway media should take a yearlong vacation. He writes, incomprehensibly, "He was more than our 'Prince Charming,' as the New York tabs called him. We etched the past and the future on his fine face." No, Jon, "we" didn't, even if you did. Which I doubt.
A Kennedy death (but not Michael's) wouldn't be complete without a remembrance from Arthur Schlesinger Jr. And so in the July 26 Time, Schlesinger writes with atrocious elitism: "That is why he took up flying. When he traveled on commercial aircraft, fellow passengers would ask questions, seek autographs, exchange memories. He understood that they were people of good-will, and he could not bear to be impolite, but the benign interest of others was a burden. Once he got his flying license, he seemed a liberated man, free to travel as he wished without superfluous demands on time and energy. Nor was he a reckless pilot. The mystery of his death remains."
Finally, as to the continuous talk of the "Kennedy curse" and allusions to Shakespearean and Greek tragedies, that's all in the minds of imaginative writers. The Kennedy family is huge and is known for its aggressive, risk-taking lifestyle. It's all in the odds of life.
I never met John Kennedy Jr. But if what friends tell me is true, that he was a likable, generous man, I have no doubt he'd be acutely embarrassed by this outpouring of confusing, and often self-serving, punditry.
Besides, after all the Kennedys' years in public life, isn't it time the media left them alone? On Hold: The Daily Observer Mostly, it was a typically slow summer week at the MUGGER household. Nothing wrong with that. I like routines: Each morning, I arise at 5, pop open a can of Coke and scan The Drudge Report. The dailies arrive at Morgans, the local deli, at about 6, and so I go downstairs, chat with the concierge Ray about the previous night's ball games and then buy a large coffee. Soon, the boys are awake and we wrestle and josh around?Junior's new nickname for me is Pickle-Face?and then they wander off to the tube to watch Animaniacs, Pokemon and Arthur, while I work at my orange iMAC. On Thursday, Junior and I finished a game of Monopoly, and he was pissed that I won in the end, even though he had the lucrative Boardwalk and Pennsylvania Ave. properties. I was ruthless in the match; Monopoly is probably the most instructive board game ever created as far as life lessons go. The art of negotiation, managing money, luck, skill and a sense of humor are all included: A repetition of Monopoly contests is no doubt more important than any grade-school course, with perhaps the exception of learning how to type. Mrs. M and I then escort the boys to their nearby camp, stopping along the way to buy lunch and chat with other parents in the park. The other day I saw my friend Rick, an unapologetic liberal whose political views are outweighed by his devotion to the Red Sox. It's been a pretty good season so far for the team, and we were both pleased with Pedro Martinez's spectacular turn at the Fenway Park All-Star Game last Tuesday night, and found it not at all upsetting that Yankees fans are already booing Roger Clemens.
By the way, count me among Sox fans who are entirely in favor of a new park in Boston. True, Fenway is legendary, but it was built in 1912, another era, and its limited capacity (some 33,000), as well a load of obstructed seats, don't make sense today. Boston's sportswriters and editorialists are of different minds about the project, debating the sense of bilking taxpayers on the one hand, and of creating a spiffy new tourist attraction on the other, but as a New York resident, I say build the damn thing. Ted Williams agrees. In a July 17 piece in The Boston Globe, he wrote: "Boston has to have a team that is competitive in every way that is affordable to the fans. The Red Sox deserve a chance to be able to procure the best players possible and to keep the outstanding ones they have now. The Red Sox have the greatest fans in baseball, and a new park would benefit them as well as the Red Sox organization. Now's the time." Coming from Old Man Grumpus, I'll bet Williams' opinion will sway a lot of bench-straddlers.
A lot of kids came to our rooftop for a pizza "barbecue" one day last week. I managed to sneak off from work to attend for an hour or so, which was a lot more fun than reading letters to the editor from morons whose IQ levels are below even those of Gary Bauer and Lanny Davis. The group of six-year-olds, plus MUGGER III, waded in a pool, squirted each other with water pistols, ate chips, slurped Orangina and a few even sunbathed.
Last Wednesday, I was surprised to find not a word about Conrad Black's rumored purchase of The New York Observer in that week's issue. Chat about the deal between mogul Black, who controls Hollinger International, Inc., and is the third-largest newspaper proprietor in the world, was bandied about for at least a month before Alex Kuczynski's New York Times article on July 9 made it official. Black, who owns London's finest daily, the Telegraph, as well as The Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times and Canada's National Post, is itching for a toehold in Manhattan, and buying the tiny-circulation but uptown Observer makes a lot of sense. Certainly more than taking the Daily News off Mort Zuckerman's hands and inheriting an avalanche of union problems, the likes of which must infuriate the conservative Black just on principle. In addition, it's said by industry insiders that he has plans to transform the Observer into a five-times-a-week daily, which would potentially be a splendid antidote to the insufferably liberal New York Times.
Anyway, last Wednesday in the media-obsessed Observer there was just the usual blend of infuriating and intelligent articles. There was a gorgeous illustration of Tim Zagat by Victor Juhasz that dominated the front page; a who-cares story about former Met Keith Hernandez; a letter to the editor from Time Out New York's president Cyndi Stivers, who criticized the previous week's "Off the Record" column, in which Carl Swanson wrote about that sleazy weekly's lack of factchecking; and of course a story about Conde Nast's move to Times Square.
The juxtaposition of the Observer's political views is one reason I buy the paper every week. On page four there was an anti-Hillary Clinton editorial, headlined "Hillary Go Home (Again)," which read in part: "Who does Mrs. Clinton think she's fooling? Perhaps she thinks Jewish voters will forget her support for a Palestinian state with this silly exercise in ethnic politics. Perhaps she thinks that by saying something she believes to be popular, Jewish voters will forget her tawdry past, her carpetbagging opportunism and her arrogant belief that New Yorkers can be fooled into buying a dubious product with a scandalous track record."
Across from that acidic editorial, Clinton administration loyalist Joe Conason has a different take on Hillary's "listening tour." He writes: "If he is as smart as he thinks he is, Rudolph Giuliani must be starting to realize just how formidable an opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton could be in next year's Senate race. Her recent incursion has been judged a success even by bitter critics, and she escaped cleanly without a disastrous error." Apparently, Conason doesn't include his own paper's editorial writers in the company of "bitter critics."
But not a word about Black, which struck me as odd, since the Observer remakes its front page when a Vogue assistant editor sneezes. Requesting anonymity, one Observer staffer told me that the paper "operates without a first-person voice emanating from its core, speaking for the paper's intentions, so there wouldn't be any place for the paper itself to talk about this?unless it happens, in which case I guess we'd probably write something."
On Thursday, a source of mine in London called to say that he'd had dinner with Black the night before and indeed the deal would be announced the next day. He said that Black insisted the paper would go daily and tilt conservative; the staff, including editor Peter Kaplan, was due for a momentous shake-up. Black was reportedly disgusted that the Observer recently printed a piece by Christopher Hitchens; other left-wing writers were to walk the plank. Later that day, Business Week Online reported on the Web that a deal had been completed. On Friday, however, Arthur Carter denied it all, confusing everyone who'd been tracking the deal. Business Week Online claimed, "Disagreements arose at the last minute over the Observer's finances [and a source says] 'as a result of which Hollinger has decided not to proceed with the transaction.'"
What does it all mean now for the Observer? One, it's sort of a lame-duck newspaper that will be correctly or incorrectly assumed to be on the auction block. I imagine the fax machine is busy at their offices now, with writers and editors sending out resumes. I hope Black and Carter get back together, for a couple of reasons. One, it would be grand to have another daily, especially an upmarket conservative one, to buy during the week. Two, the fits it would cause the holier-than-thou owners, editors and reporters at the Times would be spectacular theater. It's somewhat analogous to The Washington Times going against The Washington Post in DC, but without the Moonie baggage. The Daily Observer would always struggle for its share of tony advertising, going against the Times money machine, but Black would have his voice in New York and has the cash to make a go of it. It Just Gets Worse for Gore A few weeks ago in this column I gave some smart advice to Al Gore: Resign the vice presidency, team up with Bill Bradley and campaign for president full-time, unburdened by the baggage of Bill Clinton. So far, he's taken a different fork in the road, adding layers of bureaucracy to his organization, spending money lavishly and still tumbling in the polls. Democrats of every bent?from Southern legislators to left-wingers like Paul Wellstone (who's endorsed Bradley) to the vast majority of the mainstream press?are clearly spooked. (By the way, don't believe for a second the line currently being peddled that the Beltway poohbahs are soft on George W. Bush: They're still hoping against hope that Sen. John McCain's candidacy will ignite. And after that honeymoon, the vast majority of the media elite will fall behind the Democratic nominee.) They see that Gov. Bush's widespread support throughout the country threatens, right now, to swamp their party in the 2000 election. They recognize that Bush's fine-tuned campaign apparatus, his Clintonesque skill on the stump, his buoyant optimism and, yes, his incredible amount of money, will not only win him the White House, but could very well increase the GOP hold on the Senate and House as well. Pundits like Crossfire's Bill Press scream that Bush is "buying the election," an outrageous charge given the felonious manner in which Clinton and Gore were elected in 1996.
I almost feel sorry for Gore. He's been reduced to being the honorary chairman of a July 22 dinner, sponsored by the National Albanian American Council, to kick off the "Bean Bag Toys for Kosova's Children" relief effort. Fittingly, Liddy Dole is the cochair and Cokie Roberts is the master of ceremonies. My house is filled with Beanie Babies and one thing is certain: You can put Erin, Roary, Spinner, Twigs, Baldy, Iggy, Kicks, Peace, Millennium, Princess Bear or Batty on a plate, douse them with salt & pepper and the meal will still come up zero on a nutrition scale.
So here's another idea for depressed Democrats to consider. Gore is not going to turn this election around. In fact, he might even lose the nomination to Bradley, who in turn will go down to defeat against Bush. Clearly there's time for a celebrity candidate to challenge both Gore and Bradley for the Democratic prize, someone who can excite the party and raise money quickly. Someone who President Clinton will not sabotage by making campaign appearances instead of playing golf or looking for another 21-year-old to screw around with.
Obviously, that person is Hillary Clinton. Why should she settle for a Senate contest in New York, which she has only an even chance of winning, when she'd have a lot more fun, and possibly success, going for it all? Gore is on track to lose California; Hillary could win it. Gore might even go down in New York and New Jersey; Hillary could take them. And the money wouldn't be a problem. Why, Terry McAuliffe, the sleazy fundraiser who's done so much for the Clintons, would rise to the challenge. After all, Hillary's already set a goal of picking up $25 million for her New York Senate race, a number that would shatter the record for a non-incumbent. (But I don't suppose Crossfire's Press would suggest she's trying to "buy" that election.) As far as her husband goes, there's a chance that he would actually try to help her, figuring this would be his way around the 22nd Amendment.
(One digression: Voters' minds are usually decided by symbolic moments rather than arcane policy proposals. One remark by Clinton last Tuesday proves that she must never deviate from a prepared script. At Jones Beach, she said: "I feel like I'm on Baywatch. I've heard about [the famous beach] literally all my life, from many friends who would come here and spend lots of glorious summer days. I'm just delighted to be here.")
A goofy scenario? Not in this election cycle.
Aside from John Kennedy's death, it was another extraordinary week in presidential politics. Sen. Bob Smith left the Republican Party and will instead seek the White House in a third party bid. This, in turn, caused a lot of ridiculous yammering from also-ran right-wingers like Gary Bauer and Pat Buchanan, who claimed it was an ominous sign for their party when such a valued senator deserted their ranks. Forget all this rhetoric, from disappointed candidates outflanked by Bush, that there isn't any difference between the Governor and Gore. (Or Bradley: Another trend this past week is that the Vice President's campaign is flailing so much that Democratic partisans, perhaps unconsciously, are speaking about the Democratic nominee as Gore or Bradley.)
When Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are all either outright supporting Bush or praising him despite pledges of impartiality, the cry that "grassroots" GOP activists will reject Bush rings hollow. The questions Republicans have to answer are these: Do you want Bush or Gore filling the next Supreme Court vacancies? Who is more likely, with a GOP-controlled Congress, to deliver meaningful tax cuts, such as the abolition of the "death tax"? Who will promote an agenda of less government regulation and not be beholden to corrupt labor unions? And who will restore dignity to the White House? The answer to all these questions, of course, is Bush, and crybabies like Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes, Bauer and Smith look ridiculous and self-absorbed as they attempt to the derail the best GOP presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan.
I get a kick out of partisan journalists like Press who claim that Bush has too much money. In fact, Steve Forbes (!) has received a free ride, despite his vast inherited wealth, because he's rightfully put in the loser category. Typical of this hypocrisy is a paragraph found in Dana Milbank's latest New Republic piece (Aug. 2): "Those of us who don't carry around plastic fetuses should be encouraged by the right's loathing of Bush. If he's making those kinds of enemies, he's probably a sensible fellow. Still, the conservatives are right that there's something obscene about his $36 million take. Gore would have been able to make an issue of it were it not for his own fund-raising controversies from 1996. Absurdly, the greatest voice now the little guy is Steve Forbes, who will spend his personal millions to make sure the Republican primary is competitive."
It must be tough working in the Gore Republic bunker right now. Imagine owner Marty Peretz on his cell phone, yelling at his reporters, "Do something for Al!" What Milbank chooses not to mention is that, Bush aside, Gore would've broken the record for a first-half-of-the-year financial filing on contributions with his $18 million. Would that have been obscene? Of course not, 'cause You Can Call Me Al.
Another liberal columnist, Mark Shields, just doesn't like the fact that Bush has the nomination all but in the bag. Hmm, he furrows his brow, it's bad for democracy, bad for the Constitution and especially bad for Democrats! He concludes a column in the July 17 Washington Post: "A cakewalk to a coronation for the Republican front-runner would be harmful to his chances in the fall. A competitive, robust, rugged conflict for the nomination would better serve the eventual chances of the party nominee, better serve his party and, more important, better serve the country."
Horsefeathers. Bob Dole had the shit scared out of him in the '96 primaries, losing New Hampshire, and his presidential campaign was still a nightmare. A "rugged conflict for the [GOP] nomination" would better serve Bradley or Gore. Why can't journalists look themselves in the mirror and say, "Hey, I think I'll be honest today!" It would better serve their families and, more important, better serve the country.
John Kasich was smart to drop out of the race even before the August straw poll in Iowa. As a result, it's likely that the influential Ohio congressman, who won't be running for reelection, will receive an important position in the Bush administration. Alexander, when he finally packs it up, will be lucky to be appointed as a White House usher.
It says something when even Lars-Erik Nelson, the Daily News columnist who's probably never voted for a Republican, writes a piece called "Bush Smears Are Low." On July 9, Nelson called the Los Angeles Times story questioning Bush's military record?why that paper has it out for Bush I haven't figured out yet?"careful and balanced," but "part of a destructive trend" among journalists to destroy presidential candidates.
He writes: "It is not partisan malice. [I'll let that whopper go for the moment, since Lars is making so much sense here.] We are more like thoughtless children pulling the wings off flies, just out of curiosity. Any time some new political figure pokes his head up and decides to run for high office, the press now feels obliged to find some fatal character flaw, some crooked deal in his past... His spouse, Laura, has been derided in The New York Times as a 'Betty Crocker wife,' meaning, no doubt, that she cooks for her own children. How bourgeois! How five minutes ago!
"Enough is enough. Bush has been a popular governor of Texas. He courageously stood up to the yahoos in his own party when they wanted to throw the children of undocumented immigrants out of the public schools. He remains a mystery on many important national issues, and he should be asked to explain where he stands. There may be excellent reasons not to vote for him. But there is no reason to destroy his character or question his intelligence or sneer at his family. That's not journalism. It's destructive mischief, and it hurts the country."
Apparently, Nelson, unlike so many of his ostrich colleagues, has realized that short of a gigantic scandal?it would be hard to beat rape?Bush will be the GOP nominee. Nelson's ready for the general election, and will no doubt write thousands of words on behalf of either Gore or Bradley, but at least he's come to grips with the political reality of Bush's dominance. After all, it's no accident that Republicans in Congress have suddenly awoke from their slumber and are actually proposing legislation that has some teeth. It's because Bush is now the titular leader of the GOP. Ever since Newt Gingrich self-destructed in '95 the party has been adrift. That's all about to change. Stop the Whining! The recent heatwaves have brought out the worst in The New York Times?if you can believe it, given the paper's daily skein of transgressions against the reading public. On July 7, not content to settle with a boilerplate editorial about the high temperatures and humidity, the writer also slipped in another plug for Al Gore, and not at all subtly at that. The edit read: "[T]he city's discomfort offered an unpleasant reminder that if the globe continues to warm, a warning that looms beyond this week's heat emergencies, these heat waves may become more common. For now it is sobering enough to think that it is still only the first full week of July." What nonsense, even without the pitch for Mr. Global Warming. I grew up on Long Island and summers were hot. Period. Usually, Northeasterners get hit with one month out of three that has a 10-day stretch of days where the thermometer rises above 90 degrees; if it's a particularly scorching season, two of those months will be uncomfortable. To some, that's a disadvantage of living in New York as opposed to Los Angeles, where the climate is superb. Talk about minuscule tradeoffs.
The Post's John Podhoretz wrote a smart column on the same day as the Times editorial, pooh-poohing the absurd amount of media silliness about the heat wave. Sure, you had to ignore the Pod's usual grab-bag of rhetoric?Spike Lee's an idiot; a crazy suggestion that thanks to Rudy Giuliani it's safe to sleep in the parks again?but he was right on the mark about the hysteria that ensued because of a stretch of unseasonably hot days. Recalling that New Yorkers used to figure out ways to live with the heat, like going to movies for the air conditioning, without a brainless radio reporter sticking a microphone in their faces asking how they're coping, Podhoretz put the weather in perspective. He wrote: "Americans weren't quite so health-obsessed in those days. They remembered when people died from strep throat, so the notion that ordinary daily life might be fatal was ingrained in them. This is a fact we are happily unfamiliar with. But it's still no reason for the media to sound collectively like an overanxious grandmother who forces galoshes on your feet when it's drizzling outside."
(Not that the Post is immune to heat hyperbole. It's not Podhoretz's domain since he's editorial page editor, but last Saturday the paper ran a headline across pages two and three that read "Another Weekend of Hell on Earth," with the subhed "Baked Apple goes on blackout alert.")
The Boston Times, I mean Globe, also ran last Saturday with a stupid, meaningless edit on the weather. What a waste of space. An example: "Strategy for the day: Find air conditioner, but don't try to buy it, because the stress of a bidding war on the last unit will only make the heat seem hotter. Go to the mall and look at fall clothes. Go to the grocery store and look at frozen food." Who writes this shit? Probably a union member whose only job at the grossly overstaffed Globe (just like every "prestigious" daily in the country, with the exception of the New York Post) is to churn out drivel like this once or twice a week. The person responsible for this editorial is even worse than the Globe's Mark Jurkowitz, possibly the worst media critic in the country; a guy so lazy that he makes the Voice's Cynthia Cotts look like the late Geoffrey Stokes in comparison. Peter Kaplan: Talk's Next Hire? A short update on Talk, Tina Brown's monthly that's scheduled to hit newsstands in just a matter of weeks. About 10 days ago, I finally received my first direct-mail solicitation for the magazine, as did a few other people I know. Its lateness is still a mystery to me: Usually, startups appeal to potential subscribers five or six months before the first issue is printed. But nothing about this impending publishing disaster is less than mysterious. The pitch was typical ad-speak, no more offensive than any other copy that publicity departments churn out. It reads, in part: "Finally, the bold, new magazine from Tina Brown...the new magazine the publishing world and Hollywood have been buzzing about for months on end...the new magazine you can be a part of from the very beginning, starting right now... Introducing talk. You've been selected to enjoy the Premiere Issue free, without risk or obligation. May we send it to you?"
But of course.
And now a word from Tina herself: "I'm Tina Brown. And I'm pleased to introduce you to the new magazine I've been given the opportunity not just to edit, but start from scratch... TALK is the exciting new magazine for the new century. Interestingly different. Refreshingly provocative... TALK is the new magazine that provides illumination, depth, and perspective to the issues, passions, and pleasures that surround us, and obsess us. Entertainment. And entertainers. Films. And filmmakers. Politics. And politicians. Spin. And spinmeisters. Technology. And the digerati. Publishing. And publishers. Writing. And writers. News. And newsmakers. Saints. And scoundrels."
Okay, so Tina's not a natural writer, a fact she proved in the latter days of The New Yorker when she swooned in print over the dashing Bill Clinton and besmirched a record of making many remarkable, innovative changes at the sleepy magazine she inherited.
Maybe it was this sort of drivel that caused respected author and critic Walter Kirn to cancel his contract with Talk. Kirn, who reviews books for New York, switched allegiance two weeks ago to competitors Vanity Fair and GQ. Kirn told Daily News reporter Celia McGee that he left on cordial terms with the magazine, citing the usual "creative differences." (Wouldn't it be swell if someone, anyone, came up with another euphemism for a resignation or firing?) He said: "As my image of what the magazine would be sharpened, I began to feel it wasn't the kind of place I would do well at. I kept receiving celebrity profile assignments, which I felt didn't play to my strengths as a writer, and I'm not confident that the kind of longer, reported, in-the-American-grain stories that I'm eager to write about would find a place there."
This was a diplomatic way of saying he didn't want to interview Leonardo DiCaprio or Adam Sandler, a reasonable enough position to take. He also told McGee that he was "uncomfortable with Talk's out-of-the-starting-gate coziness with the Clintons and their associates." Sharing space on a masthead with George Stephanopoulos and Lucinda Franks would give me the willies, too.
Then again, maybe it was the astonishing hire of former Details editor Michael Caruso, who produced an awful magazine for Conde Nast, as a consultant for the first issue that woke Kirn up.
The Hearst Corp./Miramax partnership that's funding Talk is a very strange hybrid, not to mention the silent role that Disney, owner of the film company, is taking in the operation. I'm betting that Hearst, which isn't attracted to "buzz"-driven publications, but to cash-cow/circulation leaders like Cosmopolitan (2.7 million), Good Housekeeping (4.5 million) and House Beautiful (890,000), has a number of options for pulling out of the deal. A July 12 Mediaweek article gushed about Hearst's plan to launch a bimonthly magazine next spring starring Oprah Winfrey, with an initial printing of 850,000. Hearst's part-ownership of Talk was only mentioned in the last sentence of the article.
Brown's notion that Talk will resemble Paris Match, with stapled stitching rather than perfect binding, is one that appeals to the New York-L.A. cognoscenti (perhaps), but I'd imagine the bulk of the 500,000 readers the magazine is hoping to attract will take one look at it in their local Waldenbooks, see Hillary on the cover (that is, if Tina didn't remake the issue this weekend and feature John Kennedy instead, an even-money bet) and say, "How odd, Mildred, The National Enquirer looks a little bit different this week."
And maybe that's an idea that will work, sort of like Hello! in England. But a combo of lowbrow and highbrow writing would seem to turn off every demographic category.
Last Friday, The Drudge Report had a link to a Talk parody, which was yanked within a matter of hours. According to Jim Romenesko, who produces the invaluable website obscurestore.com, the send-up, created by Mike Colton, vanished because of a "cease-and-desist letter from Miramax/Talk Mag lawyers." Not long after, "Miramax had a change of heart and let the site go up again."
It's pretty funny stuff. Go to mediagossip.com for the full treatment, which takes pages, but here's a sample.
"WHO IS TALK. Talk is a man who loves it when a plan comes together, and a woman who loves that same man. Talk is a small child staring out a big window, looking at a dog, or a plane, or a poster supporting the campaign of Hillary Clinton for U.S. Senate. Talk is F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bjork, funny black people, stoic Filipinos and daring Asians. Talk is astronauts and kremlinologists, people who read the New York Times Book Review but don't actually read books, and Helena Bonham Carter. Talk is a foreigner, often a mysterious foreigner, who kills for pleasure. Talk is gay people, and lesbians. Talk is civilians who've slept with celebrities. Talk is celebrities who have died. Talk is celebrities who are more interesting than other celebrities who have died. Talk is celebrities who have died but still sleep with other celebrities, some of whom have died, others of whom have yet to die, and still others of whom will never, ever die...ever. Talk is celebrities who kill for pleasure. Talk is not Walter Kirn.
WHAT IS TALK. Conversation! Discussion! Chatter! Banter! Emotion! Solipsism! Pretension! Cold fusion and Krispy Kremes! A really close, well-played Super Bowl! The little feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you look at the sea, with your eyes squinted, drunk. Talk is interestingly nice, and nicely interesting. Physically challenged. Challengingly physical. Writing. And writers. News. And newsmakers. Baking. And bakers. Flimflam. And flimflammers. Talk is something that we should do. Talk is something for me and you. Talk is natural! Talk is good! Not everybody does it, but everybody should."
The New York Observer, at least in its editorials, is no fan of Tina Brown. On July 12, reacting to the canceled Talk party at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the paper praised Rudy Giuliani's decision to scotch the planned celebration at that site. "The fact is," the edit read, "that the party had a thinly veiled political agenda... One doesn't have to read Talk to understand the magazine's fondness for the Clintons. Mr. [Harvey] Weinstein, who escorted Mrs. Clinton to the premiere of Shakespeare in Love, has called Mrs. Clinton 'the First Lady of all of our hearts'... [Brown's] husband, Daily News editorial director Harry Evans, is also a zealous Clinton partisan who reportedly urged the tabloid's writers to go easy on the President during the impeachment scandal.
"Of course, the magazine got lots of free publicity from the city's canceling of the party. But both Mrs. Clinton and Talk face long odds?a lot longer than a ferry ride to Brooklyn."
But wait! Super-shill Liz Smith rides in on her horse to the rescue! In her July 13 syndicated column, Smith is distressed at the drumbeat of criticism aimed at Tina and her Euro-style monthly. Now, Liz is an equal-opportunity publicist, flacking for any magazine, such as Vanity Fair, that's nice to her, but she's roaring for Brown's success. "What is it about [Brown] that scares the rest of the press?" Smith wrote. "I think many in the Fourth Estate won't be happy until they can burn Tina at the stake. Maybe they could make it a double-feature, Tina at one stake and Hillary Clinton at another."
Then again, Liz is so easy that when fellow Texan George W. Bush puts his spurs on the Oval Office desk, I'm sure she'll be there with lavish words for his wife Laura's taste in furniture, and the stunning beauty (and intelligence!) of their twin daughters.
As I've written before, I think Tina Brown made a career mistake, especially if she had any interest in retaining her celebrity status. A wiser choice might've been a Barbara Walters-like weekly interview program on a major network (or perhaps on CNN); she's a natural successor to the repellent Walters. Brown is attractive, intelligent and shrewd. She'd have access to almost any politician or movie star she'd want to submit to her questions. A show like this would be the next step in a logical trajectory: from Tatler to Vanity Fair to The New Yorker to television. When Talk tanks, however, her jig is probably up, and the next the public will hear about the famous expatriate will be in a People "Where Are They Now?" paragraph, perhaps alongside other forgotten notables like Al D'Amato and Sting.