Synergy Goes South
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!"
In 1992, shortly before Brown took over at The New Yorker, Kuhn quit his position as senior editor at VF to work for Longview Entertainment, Rosalie Swedlin's production company. But he soon returned to the queen's court, editing a special movie issue of The New Yorker in the spring of 1994. That summer, Brown hired him to edit the Talk of the Town section, and he went on to become features and special issues editor. By the time she tapped him for Talk, he was making a rumored $250,000 a year.
It's easy to explain Brown's effect on Kuhn, which one writer describes as "the same juju she does on most men, that combination of mother and seductress and ice queen." But less obvious is his value to her, which one source calls a combination of sycophancy and the desire to carry out her will. This combo came in especially handy at The New Yorker, where some editors and writers actively resisted Brown, intentionally doing the opposite of what she wanted.
Kuhn is described as "hardworking," "organized," "efficient," "witty," and "charming," as well as one of the few people willing to "put up with Tina's extremes." But making him editorial gatekeeper had a downside. At The New Yorker, he thought like a producer, often rejecting stories that could not be reduced to a high-concept pitch, and exhibiting a Machiavellian worldview. "David will either kiss up to you or devour you, depending on what he perceives as your size," says one writer. In keeping with the Hollywood ethos, he treated all writers as interchangeable, once telling an assistant, "My policy is always to keep the writer in the dark."
At Talk, insiders say Kuhn was given too much control over the assigning process and has been constantly "inserting himself between Tina and the rest of the staff." He is an ace executioner, they say, but hasn't been asking Brown tough questions or trouble-shooting for the staff. And while it may be good insurance to nail down the editing strategy before a story is assigned, this tends to strangle the creative process, sources say. Finally, many question Kuhn's ability to second-guess Brown, saying that he turns down promising stories, like one about a female police officer on the Santeria beat, while assigning profiles of familiar types like Ian Schrager. "If he was controlling the magazine, it would be all celebrity profiles," snipes one observer.
A Talk spokesperson declined to comment on the criticism of Kuhn, calling it "way too harsh." Of course, if Talk fails, the blame falls squarely at Brown's feet. Managing Editor Howard Lalli has been consumed with day-to-day operations, while Kuhn has been pushed into planning future issues, says one insider. That left no one to oversee the current issue, while Brown assumed the role of chairman of Talk Media. Everyone on staff needs to "ease up and be more constructive with each other," says one observer, while Brown needs to "give people the time they need to do things right."
Last month, sources heard that Kuhn was talking about going to Vogue or Martha Stewart Living, where he might be better off. Many Talk editors come from the newspaper world, and one source says it's odd to see someone so dapper surrounded by a "rumpled group of people. It's not his gang at all." Then again, no one can picture Brown and Kuhn breaking up. When apart, they are said to mock each other, but their relationship has thrived for years. "It's a real tango," says one writer, who isn't sure if the current cooling is "an oscillation" or if "something really did change."
Tina's mercurial instincts have always been "hard to decipher," says one insider. Now that Wallace has stepped up to meet that challenge, another Talk source says, Kuhn is actually feeling relieved and plans to stay. "She needs someone who she can trust and who can figure out what she wants and make it happen," says one Brown admirer. "If anyone is enough of a pro to pull it all together, it's Bob Wallace." Hey, Bob: Welcome to the jungle.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.