Cracking Up

Is Talk Jumping on the Antidrug Bandwagon?

The May issue of Talk features "When Crack Comes to Town," an exclusive account of a DEA sting in Fernandina Beach, Florida. This cinematic story recounts the agency's aggressive tactics without comment, inviting readers to draw their own conclusions. Indeed, the piece is so nonjudgmental that Talk could submit it to the drug czar's office for financial credit.

They wouldn't be the first to jump on the bandwagon. Two weeks ago, Salon revealed that the White House has arranged to pay select magazines either to run antidrug ads or to publish features with an antidrug message. But Richard Vietri, who oversees the government's "magazine buys" at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, said, "We don't have any activity with Talk" at this time.

According to Tom Watson, who edited the story, the drug czar's office "had nothing to do" with it. He opposes any such deal. "We cover the government," Watson explains. "We don't participate in its programs." The author, Miami New Times writer Jim DeFede, says the piece was his idea and doesn't consider it "pro-DEA."

No one denies that DeFede got extraordinary access to the sting, which took him to Fernandina Beach for a total of about 50 days over four months. He says the supervising agent, whom he has known a long time, got him the access—but that the arrangement made some Florida U.S. attorneys "furious" because he has written critically about a major DEA case in the past. Since the Talk piece was published, he has heard that DEA brass disliked the ending and found the agents "too fresh-mouthed." A DEA spokeswoman declined to comment.

But what's not to like? In what DeFede calls a "Rorschach test" that's open to interpretation, he gives center stage to the "smart" and "dedicated" DEA agents, while treating the 43 black defendants interchangeably. Even though the sting failed to produce enough evidence to arrest the suspected kingpin, DeFede names the guy anyway. He says the name was "relevant" and the agents' suspicions credible, if not provable. The "kingpin" denies wrongdoing.

Here's the kind of balance that's missing: As a result of the sting, Vincent Baker is facing 120 years in jail for selling a little under 30 grams of crack. His attorney, Mitchell Stone, says Baker was lured into selling by an informant who was "offering him sex." Stone says his 20-year-old client "is just a naive kid" who is "shocked" to be facing federal charges for his actions.

Public defender Courtenay Miller represents about a dozen defendants nailed in the sting. Miller says the DEA succeeded in targeting crack addicts "who would be better served by medical treatment than by prosecution." Rather than arresting "users who will be replaced by other users," says Miller, "their time and money would be better spent trying to cut off the supply."

DeFede says he pointed out the potential for entrapment when agents "make buy after buy from the same person, until you get them to the mandatory sentence." But just as criminals are stereotyped as victims, he says, drug agents are too often cast as "storm troopers goose-stepping their way over the civil rights of these young men." Instead, the writer tried to present the agents as human beings.

Brill's Gets Bitchy

The May issue of Brill's Content offers hard-hitting pieces on Early Show host Bryant Gumbel and Lynn Hirschberg, respectively. The Gumbel story has an obvious peg—the show's Nielsen ratings are down—but there's no news on Hirschberg, who covers Hollywood for The New York Times Magazine.

Brill's Katherine Rosman does a great job with the gossip, but she strains to make the case that Hirschberg's habit of cultivating powerful friends has tainted her reporting. In the strongest allegation, nameless sources accuse Hirschberg of slipping Jerry Seinfeld a copy of a story she wrote about him for Vanity Fair before it was published. The 1998 incident got Hirschberg banned from VF—but that's old news.

Rosman is shocked to hear Times Magazine editor Adam Moss defend a writer "whose methods have been called into question." But what has Hirschberg done wrong lately? In celebrity journalism, doesn't everyone write high-concept stories, save attack jobs for easy targets, and use connections to benefit themselves and their friends? Hirschberg may have at times embroidered her personal life and befriended subjects only to betray them, but her stories are accurate and psychologically revealing.

Brill's is brave to take on this manipulative diva. But you can tell the piece is character assassination by the meandering lead, which never arrives at a clear thesis. Instead, we get a full-page caricature of Hirschberg as a bloodthirsty queen of hearts.

Strange Times

Speaking of hit jobs, The Hunting of the President, by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, just got trashed in The New York Times Book Review, on the heels of a dismissive review in The Washington Post. The book, which chronicles how the anti-Clinton camp fed allegations to the mainstream press, may not be perfect, but it is carefully documented. One has to wonder if the poor reception stems partly from the fact that the book skewers both the Times and the Post.

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