By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Last weeks announcement that Tina Brown had hired Bob Wallace as the new editorial director of 'Talk' sent shock waves through the magazine world. But the buzz was less about the rise of Wallace than about the future role of 'Talk' executive editor David Kuhn, Brown's longtime number two. When Kuhn jumped from 'The New Yorker' to 'Talk' in 1998, his job was defined as a combination of assigning and editing and working on movie and TV development. Now Kuhn is up in the air-he may or may not work on editorial with Wallace. Though Talk sources insist that Kuhn is fine with Brown's new hire (whose name surfaced while Kuhn was vacationing in Cuba last week), one writer calls the move "a real fuck-you" to Kuhn.
The following account is based on off-the-record interviews with 20 magazine professionals who have worked with Brown and Kuhn over the years, many of whom were curious to know more about behind-the-scenes events in September. That's when, the Voice has learned, Talk's Unabomber story fell apart because it didn't match up with a secret deal David Kaczynski had worked out with the Walt Disney Motion Picture Group. Coincidentally, September is also when gossip began flying around the mag world that Kuhn was looking for a new job.
The Kaczynski story is a cautionary tale of synergy gone south. We already know that Stephen Dubner, who wrote the Unabomber story for Talk, did not see eye to eye with Talk editors on some last-minute revisions. He pulled the story, later selling it to Time. But there's more, according to a well-placed source. When Dubner began reporting, he interviewed David Kaczynski, the "good brother," who believed his altruism would be the focus of the story-which would in turn move the Disney deal along.
But when Dubner landed an interview with Ted Kaczynski, he decided to give the "bad brother"center stage. David Kaczynski threw a fit when he got a call from a fact checker, apparently because he wasn't the center of the piece. The next day, according to the source, "Tina wanted all the Ted stuff out." Another source differs, saying Brown had second thoughts about giving such a strong platform to a murderer.
Subjects rarely get editorial control-unless there's a movie deal involved. As it turns out, David Kaczynski had been quietly negotiating to sell the rights to his life story to Disney, which is backing the production of a Unabomber movie. Disney owns Miramax, and Miramax owns Talk, so someone must have thought that a heroic story about David Kaczynski had been prearranged by Talk. But Dubner didn't cave, and the version that ran in Time gave more weight to Ted's point of view. Three days after the Time story came out, Disney announced it had acquired the rights to David Kaczynski's life story.
A Talk spokesperson denied that Disney tried to shape the magazine story, but could not pinpoint the date when Brown found out about the deal. The fallout didn't end there. By mid October, Features Editor Lisa Chase, who had edited the Unabomber piece, quit without landing a new job. (She has since been hired to work on another start-up, Offspring magazine.) Dubner did not return calls, and Chase could not be reached.
Brown's cast changes come in the middle of a season when Talk has been in free fall. The hoopla surrounding the launch party and first issue faded quickly. By the release of the Arnold Schwarzenegger issue in October, newsstand sales were slow, nobody in Hollywood was buzzing, and four top staffers had quit. For Brown, who has turned her charisma and instincts into a bankable brand, the ensuing spate of bad press must be "intolerable," according to one editor who knows her well. "It's like the time Baryshnikov was booed at the Kennedy Center-he'd never heard that sound."
Now even Brown loyalists are predicting Talk's demise, and the staff mood is tense, with "everybody putting the knife in everybody's back." But according to one insider, "Tina is very aware of the problems that she has. She's not wearing blinders about anyone." Indeed, she has begun revising the masthead on an almost daily basis, and is expected to name a new managing editor any day.
But magazine insiders care only about one thing: the fate of David Kuhn. Over the last 14 years, while following Brown from Vanity Fair to The New Yorker to Talk, Kuhn has defined himself entirely by his proximity to the queen, in a role variously described as "lackey," "courtier," "Iago," "regent," "heir apparent," and "pretender to the throne." Says one writer, Kuhn "loves power more than he loves words." And of course, the man who has the queen's ear will always inspire fear and loathing.
But Kuhn is legendary for the way he has acquired and wielded power. After graduating from Harvard, Kuhn started at VF in 1985, rising quickly to edit the Vanities section and, eventually, features. According to one writer, "David had this incredibly finely tuned radar for what Tina wanted. . . . His brief was to get his writers to get as much dirt on everybody as possible." A typical comment from Kuhn might be, "If Tina finds out this piece didn't go forward because she knows something you don't, you're dead meat!"