Vanity Un-Fair?

It seems that everywhere you go these days, journalists are whispering bad things about Brill's Content: either it's boring, or it's a bad place to work, or it's guaranteed to fold any day now. That's just the gossip du jour, but in fact editor in chief Steve Brill has some truly bad karma in store: Vanity Fair writer Jennet Conant has written an expose of his magazine, despite Brill's alleged attempts to dissuade her. In the course of her interviews, sources say, Conant gave many people the impression that she would be writing a hatchet job. As evidence of Vanity Fair's agenda, a source at Content cites the following message left by Conant: "I hear Content's folding. Give me a call." On the contrary, Brill is said to be closing on a 10-year lease for new office space.

Sources at Content say they were waiting for the inevitable call from V.F., but that by late March, when Conant filed her first draft, she had yet to interview Brill or any editors or staff writers. Not so, says a source close to Conant, who claims the writer talked to other staffers and tried repeatedly to interview Brill. At first, says the source, Brill asked Conant to hold the story for several months. Conant waited a bit, but when she called again, he refused to cooperate.

Brill tells a different story. He recalls that one day last January, a few hours after he called V.F. editor Graydon Carter to get a comment for a mildly critical item Content was printing on V.F., he got a call from Conant, who said, "Graydon's ordered up a story on how you guys are doing. He hears you have some problems." Brill says he suggested that Conant wait until the first audit of Content is published in September before assessing the magazine's financial status. By the time she called again, he says, it had become clear that she was going to give credence to the negative rumors. Asked whether Content is folding, Brill told the Voice he has enough financing to publish for five years, at least.

Vanity Fair publicist Beth Kseniak scoffs, "Steve Brill can't be serious. I can't believe the media watchdog entertains such paranoid theories about how magazines are run."


Kosovo to Hell

Two weeks ago, most of the foreign press corps stationed in Pristina, Kosovo, fled en masse, after Serb police pounded on some of their hotel doors with the butts of their AK-47s and ordered them out. Hacks on the run included correspondents from CNN, the BBC, and The New York Times, but when they were gone, one man was left standing: Paul Watson, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

Last week, Watson gave the L.A. Times the honor of publishing dispatches under an exclusive dateline: Pristina, where he witnessed the evictions of ethnic Albanians firsthand. The New York Times covered the gap in its reporting by stationing journalists in Macedonia and Albania, where they could document the evictions through interviews with newly arrived refugees. Meanwhile, only two major U.S. papers, The Washington Post and Newsday, acknowledged the L.A. Times's exclusive by reprinting stories under Watson's byline.

By staying in Kosovo, Watson was privileged to all kinds of riveting details. For example, after Serb police killed human rights lawyer Bajram Kelmendi, the lawyer's widow talked to Watson at length, explaining how five uniformed men broke into her house and pointed rifles at her children's heads, before taking her husband and two sons away to be shot point-blank in the street. At the end of last week, when TV networks were showing footage of the U.S. POWs, Watson was offering expert analysis on how the Serbs had won the propaganda war so far.

Simon K.C. Li, foreign editor at the Los Angeles Times, declined to discuss the logistics of Watson's situation, saying that to do so would only "raise his profile" and further expose him to danger. But Watson's ballsy reputation precedes him: while stationed in Africa, the former Toronto Star correspondent reported on Rwandan massacres and watched a rapist get stoned to death in Somalia. In 1994, he won a Pulitzer for his photograph of a dead U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by a jeering mob.

So who is this guy? In a 1994 Maclean's interview, Watson explained how he came by the award-winning photo. Upon hearing that Somalis had a prisoner, he assembled a driver, an interpreter, and two guards with assault rifles to cruise the streets of Mogadishu looking for leads. They were about to give up, he recalled, "when my driver suddenly did a U-turn, because he'd seen a crowd down a side street."

Watson photographed the dead soldier on the ground, stripped to his underwear with his genitals hanging out. Then he jumped back in the car. But as they drove away, he realized that the genitalia was "the first excuse any editor's going to use not to run these things." He asked his driver to turn around, and when they found the crowd, "I just jumped out . . . and banged off six more. I was there no more than ten seconds when my guards physically pulled me back into the car and we sped off. The crowd was quite angry at that point."

Watson's latest dispatches from Kosovo have been more surreal than grotesque. An April 2 story describes four mechanics preparing to steal "a foreign journalist's armored Land Rover" by ripping out the ignition, "which they replaced with their own rather than simply ask for the keys."

Watson's April 5 dispatch evokes what it's like "being through the looking glass" in Kosovo, where nothing is as it seems. While a top Serb official tells him that Serb police are protecting the home of Ibrahim Rugova, the elected leader of the Kosovo Albanians, NATO claims that the police actually have Rugova under house arrest. More doublespeak: Watson writes that in Pristina, "forced deportations" are "officially escorted evacuations, and thug justice is law and order." Last Sunday, he wrote omi-nously, he was picked up by police and questioned at the central police station.


Reporting 101

Which is nobler: to stay in Kosovo reporting on Serb atrocities, or to save your butt by fleeing the country? Last week, a group of war correspondents hashed out that dilemma at a panel sponsored by the Center for Communication and New York University's School of Journalism.

They had fascinating stories to tell, but it seems that some budding journalists have already ruled out the Hemingway paradigm, perhaps hoping that journalism in the new millennium will place a higher value on creativity than on reporting from the trenches. The following conversation took place before the panel began, when a young man chatted up the woman sitting next to him.

"I need someone to take notes for me," he coaxed. "I'm such a poor reporter."

"Oh, I'm a good reporter, but not a very good writer," she cooed.

"Once I made up a story— "

"For Features?" piped up a young man in the row ahead.

"Yeah. The teacher liked it so much, she said I should submit it to the Times and if they reject it, send it to the Daily News." Our young hero had his colleagues' attention, and his tone grew ever more didactic. "Either you make it up or . . . one time, I was at an event. This woman said something really great, but I didn't get her name, so I attributed it to someone else." He went on to praise his colleague for a piece she had published recently, even though it had angered the subject.

"You were tough. But you were fair, right? You're a reporter," he shrugged. "People are going to get mad at you."

Mitchell Stephens, acting chairman of New York University's Department of Journalism, said he was not aware of any incident of fabrication that fit the young man's description. "Could I guarantee that this sort of thing has never happened? I can't," he told the Voice. "Do we preach that this sort of thing is unacceptable? We do— repeatedly, forcefully, obsessively. This department is as tough as any journalism program or newsroom on the subject of piping quotes, or, God forbid, making up stories."


Smugger

Who is he in café society? That's the question New York magazine's Michael Wolff asks about New York Press publisher Russ Smith this week.

Smith, a/k/a "Mugger," is definitely an outsider. But he gives the impression that he's a small-town guy who wants to make an honest living exposing the high rollers. The article recounts how Smith grew up "in a working-class family," launched the City Paper in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and then sold both for $3 million before launching the Press.

According to Wolff, Smith invested $4.5 million in the Press, which resembled a "vanity-publishing" proposition until it "broke even" in 1995.

If Wolff thinks the Press is a financial "success," he doesn't tell us about Smith's investors or his profit margin. He does write that Smith is "reluctant to admit that his brothers have helped him." And in recent "Mugger" columns, Smith has let on that his family recently moved into a new loft. What neither of them has reported is that Smith now lives in a co-op building at the corner of Hudson and Duane streets, where apartments go for no less than $1 million.

Mugger, who's paying the bills?

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