By Albert Samaha
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On September 22, the day of opening arguments at the Robert Durst murder trial in Galveston, Texas, a squabble broke out between two members of the press corps. Author Matt Birkbeck was chatting with other reporters outside the courtroom when a petite blonde charged up to him and said, "If I were a man and as big as you, I'd tell you to step outside, put up your dukes, and I'd take you." Birkbeck, who is 63 and broad-shouldered, calmly replied, "Do you want me to get down on my knees?"
After the blonde disappeared, Birkbeck recalls, a colleague informed him that she was Julie Baumgold, the same woman who had elbowed him in the courtroom earlier that day. Baumgold is a relic of a past era. After making her name as a feature writer for New York in the 1970s, she married Ed Kosner, who published her work in New York and Esquire for years when he edited those magazines. In his latest incarnation, Kosner, 66, is the lame-duck editor of the Daily News, where his wife is a "special correspondent." Her stories make much of the fact that she was a childhood friend of Durst, the New York real estate heir who is on trial for killing his Texas neighbor.
Wait a second! Isn't it a conflict of interest when someone covering a murder trial is the editor's wife and a friend of the defendant? Birkbeck calls this "journalism in its lowest form," and he's not the only one who thinks so. In his 2002 book, A Deadly Secret: The Strange Disappearance of Kathie Durst, Birkbeck recalls how Kosner enraged many News staffers by publishing Baumgold's 2001 front-page "exclusive," "My Friend Bobby Durst," a piece which Birkbeck calls "part love letter, part defense."
Baumgold did not reply to a request for comment. In an e-mail, Kosner defended his wife, saying she has "never proclaimed Durst's innocence." However, she did try to pick a fight with Birkbeck, he said, because Birkbeck's book "disparaged her integrity . . . something no one has ever done in her long career."
Kosner denied giving his wife special treatment, saying, "Any editor would love to have a top writer who has known a murder defendant since childhood contributing to coverage of a headlined trial." He said Baumgold's features and sidebars are intended to supplement the daily coverage (which is being written by veteran trial reporter Richard T. Pienciak). Baumgold is paid a standard freelance rate, according to Kosner, who called her stories "good writing, good reading, good journalism."
If Baumgold is not getting special treatment, why did she get a press pass from U.S. News & World Report? According to Kosner, at the beginning of the trial there was talk that only one reporter from each company would be allowed in the courtroom, and the rest sent to an overflow room. Because two News reporters wanted to be in the courtroom, U.S. Newseditor Brian Duffy gave Baumgold her credentials. Ultimately, everyone got in, Kosner explained, but Baumgold "would have contributed to U.S. Newshad the occasion arisen." (Both U.S. News and the News are owned by Mort Zuckerman.)
On September 3, the News trumpeted Baumgold's name on the front page "skyline, and News staffers joked that it was as if the paper had hired Dominick Dunne to cover the trial. Since then, the editor's wife has published two more pieces and attracted attention for all the wrong reasons. Courtroom sources find it odd that she flies back and forth frequently, doesn't take notes, shows a poor grasp of legal procedure,. and insists on dining at the best restaurants instead of the dives where most reporters have lunch. (Her September 3 piece mentions "the terrific restaurant Rudy and Paco's.")
Baumgold's connection to Durst may be more liability than asset. For example, there was Baumgold's first encounter with Eleanor Schwank, a friend of Durst's wife Kathie, who disappeared in 1982. Upon arriving in the courthouse, Schwank was surrounded by reporters, and the New York Post's Andrea Peyser began interviewing her. Baumgold butted in, asking Schwank, "Who are you?"
"I was a friend of Kathie's," Schwank said.
"I was a friend of Kathie's, too," Baumgold replied.
According to two witnesses, Schwank stared at her and said, "I know you are friends with Bob and the Dursts, and I feel your pain at losing your friend, but you have to understand that he killed Kathie and he must be brought to justice." Though Schwank gave interviews to other reporters, including Pienciak, there is no evidence that she gave an interview to Baumgold. Kosner says his wife "has not interviewed Durst but spoke to him by phone before the trial began."
Baumgold made another scene on the day the district attorney announced that he would be giving the court tapes of Durst's phone calls from jail. As soon as he said that, according to one witness, Baumgold gasped and everyone turned to look at her. She began asking which jail the calls had come from, the Pennsylvania jail where Durst was before or the Galveston jail where he is now. She asked local reporters to find out if calls to the Galveston jail are taped, and when the answer came back no, she let out a loud sigh.