Seined, Sealed, Delivered

Did Vanity Fair freelancer Lynn Hirschberg, author of this month's cover profile of Jerry Seinfeld, provide an advance copy to the comedian, in violation of the monthly's policy? That is the conclusion reached by an internal Vanity Fair investigation into how Seinfeld ended up making changes on his own, already favorable profile.

But Hirschberg flatly denies that she leaked the piece: "I did not give the article to Jerry Seinfeld," she told the Voice on Monday. She said she had a theory as to how Seinfeld acquired an advance copy, but declined to say what it was.

Whatever her theory, the editors at Vanity Fair are not buying it. They say they no longer intend to use Hirschberg's work.

"It's a fucking pain," Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter told the Voice on Monday. "You set up things so that this can't happen, and all you can do if it comes from the reporter is not to use that reporter in the future."

This might be considered--given the subject--a controversy about nothing. Moreover, in classic Seinfeldian fashion, the entire brouhaha erupted over a tiny but significant detail: desired changes to a single sentence in a piece that is over 6000 words long.

The Seingate scandal, however, created headaches for Vanity Fair staffers for two weeks, as bits of it dripped out onto the New York Post's Page Six. "It took three days of doing nothing else but getting to the bottom of this," Carter says. The spat appears to have been a catalyst for Seinfeld firing his longtime publicist Lori Jonas, right in the middle of the program's largest publicity blitz. It also masks a serious ethical question: how far is celebrity-profile journalism willing to go in exchange for access to the entertainment industry's most glittering sources?

According to VF staffers, the magazine first became aware something was amiss during a phone call Hirschberg made to senior editor Ned Zeman, saying that she wanted to make changes in her story, following a conversation with Seinfeld.

This phone call took place late in the editorial process: the piece had already been edited and set into "mechanicals," which reproduce the story in the way it will be laid out when published. Changes at this stage are costly, and must preserve the exact number of lines in the story. Zeman took note of a fact-checking change, apparently about the number of cars Seinfeld owns. They also changed the wording of a Seinfeld joke about the ubiquity of bloody T-shirts in detergent ads. Zeman balked, however, at Hirschberg's request to soften a phrase in a paragraph about what has happened to the Seinfeld series since co-creator Larry David departed.

The paragraph began as follows: "For the last two seasons, much has been made of [former producer Larry] David's absence from Seinfeld. 'I know the critics say the show is not as good,' says Seinfeld, showing a rare sign of vulnerability." The portion that Hirschberg says she wanted to alter was a sentence saying that after David's departure, "a certain broadness set in" to the characters and plot. She wanted it to say instead that "the characters shifted" after David left.

Zeman told Hirschberg he was unwilling to change this material, and found the conversation "a little suspect," in the words of a VF staffer. (Hirschberg, for her part, says that she only suggested the change, and did not fight when Zeman declined.) Zeman then consulted the story's fact checker, James Buss, and asked him to double-check the car statistic. During that confirmation, Zeman's suspicion that Seinfeld had seen the story deepened. He notified the managing editor, Chris Garrett (Carter was in Los Angeles).

Garrett in turn told features editor Jane Sarkin, who called Seinfeld's publicist, Lori Jonas, and confronted her with Zeman's suspicions that she had an unauthorized advance copy of the story. Jonas confirmed that she had it, and said it had come from Hirschberg. Jonas provided VF with a copy of an envelope that had Hirschberg's name on it, implying that the story had been enclosed. Jonas also faxed a copy of the story that included a routing slip indicating that it had come from Zeman's office, and he claims the only copy he gave out was to Hirschberg. (Shortly after that, Seinfeld dumped Jonas as a publicist.)

Even against this assembled paper trail, Hirschberg continues to deny that she gave the piece to Seinfeld, Jonas, or anyone else. According to Hirschberg, Jonas ended up with the envelope only because Hirschberg had spent part of Oscar night with Seinfeld, and left him tickets to various parties in that envelope.

"It's very unfortunate that he got a copy, and he should not have gotten a copy," insists Hirschberg. "But it did not come from me." She notes that the leak ultimately had no journalistic consequences, since nothing of importance was actually changed.

In a way, that's what is at stake here: the appearance of following rules in a magazine culture so obsessed with celebrity that rules can seem irrelevant. In practice, entertainment celebrities and their high-octane publicity squads control much of what we read in glossy outlets like VF. They can, for example, reject writers whose work they feel is too critical, declare certain subject matters to be off-limits, and negotiate for photo and cover placement.

Next Page »