Jewish World Review Feb. 16, 2005/ 7 Adar I 5765


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Starved Like a Wolff: Lost in the 21st Century | Starved Like a Wolff Lost in the 21st Century Michael Wolff made a cameo in March's Vanity Fair, although his essay "Twilight of the News" was probably lost amidst the glitz of Graydon Carter's annual Hollywood fanzine. As usual, there very several funny bits, perhaps not all intentional. I've always liked Wolff because he's one of the few Manhattan-based journalists who has thick skin and is honest about the fact that he chases and sucks up to media moguls like the young Jann Wenner used to cream in his jeans over Mick Jagger and John Lennon. It makes you wonder what New York would be like had Wolff's investment group succeeded in buying the weekly; as it is, Adam Moss has upgraded the editorial quality considerably, although considering he inherited Caroline Miller's empty shell that's not exactly scaling Mt. Felker.

Wolff has all but ceded his once ubiquitous role as the country's most interesting media critic/enabler, since his move to move to VF was lucrative but stilled his voice. Writing maybe eight times a year from the monthly, with stories that are often dated, is a far cry from his weekly perch at New York, constant talk-show appearances and regular appearances in the gossip columns. Anything's possible—say The New Yorker's David Remnick dumps the laughable old Seymour Hersh on Carter in exchange for Wolff—but for now, the man who used to be on a first-name basis with both Sumner Redstone and Mort Zuckerman is a relic of the 1990s.

You can sense that he knows that, too. His current article about the downfall of the broadcast news shows is an exercise in nostalgia, even while he (not too successfully) tries to detect something, anything, new to say about a media world that's more confusing than it's been in decades. Wolff recalls last December's holiday party at CBS— there's the timeliness issue— and discusses the awkward situation of speaking to Dan Rather. "He began his walk across the large room at Black Rock…when I realized, with horror, he was coming toward me. I hurriedly considered the etiquette of dealing with professional disgrace: Do you inquire directly? (What were you thinking?)… Or do you just stand there and grin stupidly? After strained pleasantries, Rather inconsiderately failed to move on."

This is one of the great things about Wolff: He's an unabashed Upper East Side liberal, unashamed, proud even, of doing his Democratic duty and speculating that Bush has fallen off the wagon, but if there's an opportunity to kick a dying dog he enthusiastically takes it. When one of Wolff's colleagues at the gathering suggests that people still associate Rather with Richard Nixon, the lame-duck anchorman leaps at the opportunity. He says, "Civil rights. Vietnam. Watergate. These were the stories we told. We're now being blamed for them." Whatever. A man in full meltdown ought to be allowed a final cigarette even if he's completely delusional.

Wolff continues: "That we were back in the 60s was certainly pathetic. That we were blaming all our troubles on the great right-wing conspiracy was equally weak. Recalling all this was another way of saying that Rather, at 73, was not just a screw-up, but misty with age. And yet, I confess, I wasn't so clear-eyed myself, here in the faded mid-century ambiance of Black Rock… I was, or could be with just a little push, helplessly back in the cool and hegemonic world and liberal network world. Our world. Our lost world. Our better world. When the news was the news. When we were young. When our side was winning. What had happened?"

That's Wolff: a completely entertaining mix of cynicism, social climbing and schmaltz. When we were young. Our better world. Certainly Wolff is smart enough to know that very few of his readers, those that remain, are buying this baloney. If, say, Rupert Murdoch took momentary leave of his senses and offered Wolff the editorship of The New York Post tomorrow, does anyone believe that the MIA media critic would turn him down, even at a lower salary?

It's surprising that Wolff, if only to recover his profile, hasn't prevailed upon Carter to start his own semi-weekly blog, sort of like James Wolcott's. Unless he's really lost his juice, which I doubt, Wolff could've posted the Rather obit before the year ended, when the story was still interesting. Not many media critics—certainly not workaday joes like the Los Angeles Times' David Shaw, CNN/Washington Post typist Howard Kurtz or Ken Auletta—can be as contradictory yet insightful at the same time. For example, while Wolff writes about when "the news was the news" he admits that he wasn't watched a network evening news broadcast for 20 years. (As if to somehow burnish his social bona fides he adds that "nor do I know anyone who has." And he obviously doesn't know anyone who voted for Bush.)

And then this beauty: "[W]hile the evening news broadcast is dying—soon to be as dead as the telegraph or typewriter—while virtually everyone who matters to its continued existence wants it dead (surely the oligarchs and moguls who own it want it dead), it's still there. Amputated, but still pulsing. It's like the two-party system, or the once glamorous airline, or the Kennedys. Nothing quite like it ever existed; nothing quite like it will exist again."

Anyway, while Wolff's dated article is currently on newsstands and coffee tables he's unable to comment on the ouster of CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan because of intemperate remarks about the U.S. Military at the World Economic Forum in Davos late last month. Wolff would've had a ball skewering the overwrought coverage of Jordan's "resignation," and I'm betting he'd come to the conclusion that it was only a matter of time before the loose-lipped exec was booted from the ratings-challenged channel.

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Reading the dailies and blogs on Feb. 14 you couldn't escape what lazy journalists referred to as "Easongate." An editorial in The Wall Street Journal ("The Jordan Kerfuffle") probably confused the Howard Dean wing of the Democratic Party by saying that unlike Rather, Jordan's offense wasn't actionable. The Journal wasn't completely supportive: "It is true that Mr. Jordan has a knack for indefensible remarks, including a 2003 New York Times op-ed in which he admitted that CNN had remained silent about Saddam's atrocities in order to maintain its access in Baghdad. That really was a firing offense. But CNN stood by Mr. Jordan back then—in part, one suspects, because his confession implicated the whole news organization. Now CNN is throwing Mr. Jordan overboard for this much slighter transgression, despite faithful service through his entire adult career."

That's in contrast to Cathy Young's column in The Boston Globe, which stood by the bloggers who ultimately brought Jordan down. (An aside: When will The New York Times realize it no longer has to include explanations like the following in its stories: "For some bloggers—people who publish the sites known as Web logs…"?) Young wrote, "Mainstream journalists should resist the temptation to view Jordan a victim of a right-wing lynch mob. His fatal wound was ultimately self-inflicted. And, if the 'old media' don't learn some lessons from this incident, there will be more such wounds."

Wolff, once the arbiter of All Things Media, must be grinding his teeth today.

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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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