Jewish World Review Jan. 28, 2002/ 15 Shevat 5762


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Consumer Reports

A Times deception -- EARLIER this month, The New York Times ran a lengthy editorial about the Enron meltdown, and, after paragraph upon paragraph of pious proclamations about the skullduggery of big business, predictably called for campaign finance reform as the antidote for similar financial scandals in the future.

Although the writer included one sentence about the Clinton administration's interventions on behalf of Enron (as opposed to mention of Bush Cabinet members Paul O'Neill and Don Evans, who refused to bail out the radioactive company), the focus was on Republicans.

I agree that Sen. Phil Gramm must recuse himself from any Enron investigation, just as John Ashcroft did, but what about Sen. Joe Lieberman (his New Democrats Network bagged $25,000 from Enron; Citigroup has given the presidential aspirant $112,000 since '97), who's chairing one of the inquisitions-I mean inquiries? What about Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer ($68,857, more than Rep. Tom DeLay, by the way), Jeff Bingaman and John Breaux? Why no mention of Robert Rubin's call, on behalf of Citigroup (where he's chairman of its executive committee), to treasury official Peter Fisher?

In its Jan. 19 issue The Economist writes of Rubin: "What he did was legal, but only because Bill Clinton, in his last days as president, canceled an executive order that barred top officials from lobbying their old department for five years after leaving office. The order was in place throughout Mr. Rubin's tenure at Treasury."

But as Andrew Sullivan pointed out in an invaluable post on his, the Times is no position to criticize elected officials for alleged breaches of ethics. The paper's economics op-ed columnist, Paul Krugman, a man whose mission is to skewer the Bush administration's tax cuts (and ties to Enron and corporate America in general), was paid $50,000 to serve on an Enron advisory board in 1999, which he partially disclosed in a column last year after he began writing for the Times. Conveniently, he left out the tiny fact that he was compensated for his services. Krugman told The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz: "No bad blood would explain why I have ridden Enron hard. The only moral here, for good or bad, is how closely intertwined the modern establishment, including me, has become."

However, the Times' conflict of interest goes beyond a mere crank columnist. The Enron collapse, which will likely lead to deserved criminal charges against some of its executives and auditing firm Arthur Andersen, is mostly about Houston and Wall Street, not Washington, DC. The problem for the Times, if the investigations are fair, is that New York-based companies, such as Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase and the like, which pump millions of advertising dollars into the paper's coffers, will be tarnished. In the midst of a recession, which has disproportionately affected the media, that wouldn't sit well with Times shareholders. So the paper will continue to focus relentlessly on the political dynamics of Enron's failure, hoping to minimize a maze of financial complications that could shred its bottom line.

The Wall Street Journal, which has provided the best coverage of this business bust-up so far (and I'm referring to its news pages, not editorials), will continue its dogged reporting, which is based on fact, not an agenda. That's an obstacle for the Times, but one that probably can be surmounted by the mere fact that it, not the Journal, dictates the agenda for the liberal newspapers and tv networks.


THE CLOSING of Talk magazine was far more interesting for the media-saturation it elicited rather than the actual demise of the glossy itself. Considering the money Tina Brown and her backers spent on the monthly's editorial content, Talk was an awful magazine, maybe even a notch below the atrocious Esquire. Its political articles were dated-a problem Brown didn't figure on after running the weekly New Yorker and Vanity Fair (also a monthly, but one with a shorter leadtime)-and its Miramax-related celebrity stories were dime-a-dozen fluff. Chelsea Clinton's account of her travails on Sept. 11 was downright embarrassing (the notion young Clinton expressed about being a real New Yorker was breathtaking in its dishonesty), another example of Brown preferring "buzz" over substance.


And when the occasional worthwhile article appeared in Talk, the magazine's publicity machine trotted out its author to the talk shows weeks before the piece even appeared on newsstands. For example, last summer Lisa DePaulo wrote a fine story on the Chandra Levy-Gary Condit mystery, but with her nightly appearances on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, etc.-which were somewhat unseemly-by the time Talk was released there was no reason to read it. (Also, there were so many new developments in the case by that time that the article was only a partial accounting of the affair, so to speak.)

Miramax's 50-percent partner in the enterprise, the Hearst Corp., never seemed to take the publication very seriously, which was odd considering its reputation for squeezing nickels. One of the advantages of Hearst's participation, it was said at the outset, was the company's circulation expertise. What a joke. Like many people, I succumbed to Talk's direct-mailing come-on and signed on as a charter subscriber. I never received a single issue. And there's a reason that Talk's newsstand sell-through was a disastrous 20 percent: the placement at stores was inconsistent, and old issues were often underneath the current copy.

But back to the media's rapid, and gleeful, reporting of Talk's folding. Matt Drudge (still dubbed an "Internet gossip" by the clueless CNN/Washington Post critic Howard Kurtz) posted the news on his website hours before the magazine's staff was given the bad news in person. The New York Observer's Gabriel Snyder filed a remarkably complete report even before the magazine's employees had downed their third cosmopolitans. The New York Post put Brown on Saturday's front page with the headline "Talk Shuts Up"; the Daily News one-upped their competitor with a banner that read "Tina's Talk Buzzes Off."

The New York Times, which purportedly eschews celebrity journalism (notwithstanding op-ed columnists Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd), ran two page-one articles about Brown's downfall, one on Saturday, the next on Sunday. It's true that 100 people lost their jobs, but in an environment where not only is the media laying off employees almost every week, but entire industries are downsizing, the attention given to a relatively tiny company was absurd. Do you suppose if, on this Thursday, say, a prosthetics manufacturer goes bust, leaving 1000 employees without jobs, the Times would give the story similar play? Would it even merit a 5-inch story in the bowels of its abysmal business section? Doubtful.

Nonetheless, Alessandra Stanley's Jan. 20 Times article was a snippy hoot. She began: "Her announcement to the staff about the suspension of Talk magazine on Friday evening was emotional, but Tina Brown's tears had dried in time to spin the first colossal failure of her glittering career. 'There is nobody more boring than the undefeated,' Ms. Brown said jauntily three hours after the staff meeting. 'Any great, long career has at least one flameout in it. I'm very proud of having taken the risk.'"

Stanley collected one beaut of a statement from New York's media critic Michael Wolff, who apparently had time on his hands since his weekly had just published a thin "double issue" (unusual so soon after the traditional holiday "doubles" that most weeklies put out these days) and thus had no pressing deadline. Wolff was right on the mark: "I think the curtain comes down now-she has to go home. This is no ordinary failure. She staked everything and was wiped out. She's a little Enronish. There was a lot of illusion. But over time at Talk you could see Tina as the depreciating asset. She started out fully valued. She wasn't just a genius editor, she was the social arbiter of New York."

Wolff was probably eager to sound off about something. He missed President Bush's adventure with a pretzel on Jan. 13-he'd already turned in his first decent column in an eon, a critical look at the Times' Adam Moss-and the opportunity to theorize once again that Bush was back on the sauce.

Few will miss Talk. Newsday's pedestrian columnist Ellis Henican broke out of a two-for-41 batting slump with his take on Brown. He wrote on Jan. 20, ridiculing the false excuse given by publisher Ron Galotti, among others, that Sept. 11 crushed the monthly: "What a self-serving crock that was! The problems at Talk went so much deeper than one day's terror attacks. And they began a whole lot earlier than four months ago... But, oh, the stories you hear from people at Talk! About junior staffers storming from the office in tears. About long-planned cover stories jettisoned on closing night. About pieces enthusiastically assigned and unceremoniously dumped... I'd love to see how much of [the money invested] was spent on writers and editors-and how much on Cristal and canapes. I'll bet Talk's caterers did a whole lot better than its writers and associate editors. I assume they got paid quicker too."

The magazine's editorial content, which read like a mid-90s primer on the "zeitgeist," never articulated a reason to even exist, didn't find a niche that wasn't already occupied by superior publications. Brown, after a successful stint at The New Yorker, refused to leave the print media as a champ. She could've hosted a David Frost-like tv program, for example, instead of frittering her allure on a vanity project like Talk.

Then again, it wasn't her $50 million that went down the toilet.

JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press ( Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2002, Russ Smith