Did Vanity Fair freelancer Lynn Hirschberg, author of this month’s cover profile of Jerry Seinfeld, provide an advance copy to the comedian, in violation of the monthly’s policy? That is the conclusion reached by an internal Vanity Fair investigation into how Seinfeld ended up making changes on his own, already favorable profile.
But Hirschberg flatly denies that she leaked the piece: “I did not give the article to Jerry Seinfeld,” she told the Voice on Monday. She said she had a theory as to how Seinfeld acquired an advance copy, but declined to say what it was.
Whatever her theory, the editors at Vanity Fair are not buying it. They say they no longer intend to use Hirschberg’s work.
“It’s a fucking pain,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter told the Voice on Monday. “You set up things so that this can’t happen, and all you can do if it comes from the reporter is not to use that reporter in the future.”
This might be considered–given the subject–a controversy about nothing. Moreover, in classic Seinfeldian fashion, the entire brouhaha erupted over a tiny but significant detail: desired changes to a single sentence in a piece that is over 6000 words long.
The Seingate scandal, however, created headaches for Vanity Fair staffers for two weeks, as bits of it dripped out onto the New York Post‘s Page Six. “It took three days of doing nothing else but getting to the bottom of this,” Carter says. The spat appears to have been a catalyst for Seinfeld firing his longtime publicist Lori Jonas, right in the middle of the program’s largest publicity blitz. It also masks a serious ethical question: how far is celebrity-profile journalism willing to go in exchange for access to the entertainment industry’s most glittering sources?
According to VF staffers, the magazine first became aware something was amiss during a phone call Hirschberg made to senior editor Ned Zeman, saying that she wanted to make changes in her story, following a conversation with Seinfeld.
This phone call took place late in the editorial process: the piece had already been edited and set into “mechanicals,” which reproduce the story in the way it will be laid out when published. Changes at this stage are costly, and must preserve the exact number of lines in the story. Zeman took note of a fact-checking change, apparently about the number of cars Seinfeld owns. They also changed the wording of a Seinfeld joke about the ubiquity of bloody T-shirts in detergent ads. Zeman balked, however, at Hirschberg’s request to soften a phrase in a paragraph about what has happened to the Seinfeld series since co-creator Larry David departed.
The paragraph began as follows: “For the last two seasons, much has been made of [former producer Larry] David’s absence from Seinfeld. ‘I know the critics say the show is not as good,’ says Seinfeld, showing a rare sign of vulnerability.” The portion that Hirschberg says she wanted to alter was a sentence saying that after David’s departure, “a certain broadness set in” to the characters and plot. She wanted it to say instead that “the characters shifted” after David left.
Zeman told Hirschberg he was unwilling to change this material, and found the conversation “a little suspect,” in the words of a VF staffer. (Hirschberg, for her part, says that she only suggested the change, and did not fight when Zeman declined.) Zeman then consulted the story’s fact checker, James Buss, and asked him to double-check the car statistic. During that confirmation, Zeman’s suspicion that Seinfeld had seen the story deepened. He notified the managing editor, Chris Garrett (Carter was in Los Angeles).
Garrett in turn told features editor Jane Sarkin, who called Seinfeld’s publicist, Lori Jonas, and confronted her with Zeman’s suspicions that she had an unauthorized advance copy of the story. Jonas confirmed that she had it, and said it had come from Hirschberg. Jonas provided VF with a copy of an envelope that had Hirschberg’s name on it, implying that the story had been enclosed. Jonas also faxed a copy of the story that included a routing slip indicating that it had come from Zeman’s office, and he claims the only copy he gave out was to Hirschberg. (Shortly after that, Seinfeld dumped Jonas as a publicist.)
Even against this assembled paper trail, Hirschberg continues to deny that she gave the piece to Seinfeld, Jonas, or anyone else. According to Hirschberg, Jonas ended up with the envelope only because Hirschberg had spent part of Oscar night with Seinfeld, and left him tickets to various parties in that envelope.
“It’s very unfortunate that he got a copy, and he should not have gotten a copy,” insists Hirschberg. “But it did not come from me.” She notes that the leak ultimately had no journalistic consequences, since nothing of importance was actually changed.
In a way, that’s what is at stake here: the appearance of following rules in a magazine culture so obsessed with celebrity that rules can seem irrelevant. In practice, entertainment celebrities and their high-octane publicity squads control much of what we read in glossy outlets like VF. They can, for example, reject writers whose work they feel is too critical, declare certain subject matters to be off-limits, and negotiate for photo and cover placement.
Still, allowing a subject to retract material that has already been written and edited is considered beyond the pale–even at VF. As Columbia journalism professor James William Carey puts it, “Once you concede authority over the text, you end up in endless argument, and it becomes unclear who is the writer. We might as well let the source write the piece and save ourselves the work and the public the deception.”
VF‘s publicist, Beth Kseniak, called the episode “a very serious breach of the editorial process.” And Carter says that nothing like this has ever happened at Vanity Fair in the five-and-a-half years he’s been editor.
The magazine did explore the possibility that a staffer at VF could have surreptitiously snuck a copy of the profile to either Seinfeld and/or his erstwhile publicist. Last week, the magazine’s management convened a meeting with everyone who worked on the story to see whether or not there had been a leak. Management concluded that while VF cannot prove Hirschberg responsible, access to the piece was so limited that she is the only plausible suspect.
One significant person who might be able to clear up this explosive disagreement is Seinfeld himself. Elizabeth Clark of Castle Rock Entertainment, who’s currently handling Seinfeld’s publicity, said: “He’s stepping back from this, and not commenting. I don’t even know what happened.”
Jones’s Landmark Decision
Paula Jones–as of this writing–is still unannounced about whether or not she will appeal the decision to toss out her sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton. But a number of journalists have been posing a question about a decision she made four years ago.
Supposedly, Jones’s outrage began when she read David Brock’s original Troopergate story in The American Spectator in December 1993. It quoted a trooper’s recollection of bringing a woman identified only as “Paula” to a room in the Excelsior Hotel where governor Clinton was. Upon exiting, according to the trooper, “Paula” said that she was willing to become the governor’s “regular girlfriend.”
If Jones was offended by the implication that she’d had consensual sex with Clinton, why did she pursue the very risky strategy of suing the president? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to sue the Spectator–or at least to force it to run a retraction?
Brock himself addressed–but did not answer–the question in his renowned April Esquire mea culpa. “That she sued you,” Brock wrote in a parenthetical addressed to the president, “rather than me may have been an early clue to her motives.”
The question arose again in the April 12 front-page Washington Post profile of Jones. The Post quoted an unidentified friend of Jones’s who said: “She just wanted a retraction at first….There was no talk about suing. In her mind, she thought [attorney Danny] Traylor would just call The American Spectator and say, ‘Hey, you have to take this back. It didn’t happen. She said no to Bill Clinton.’ Traylor never got the retraction.”
There’s a reason he never got a retraction from the Spectator. According to two knowledgeable sources, neither Traylor nor anyone working on Jones’s behalf ever contacted the Spectator about correcting their original story.
Why would that be? Well, if you believe a recent Salon story by Murray Waas, it’s because attorneys for the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation “advised Jones and Traylor not to sue the American Spectator.” Landmark, as reported here last week, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the anti-Clinton billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who also happens to have generously funded the Spectator. An important Spectator source confirmed to the Voice that “at the time, I was told she was persuaded not to go after the Spectator by the Landmark lawyers, that there was a feeling like we were all on the same side.”
Landmark president Mark Levin did not return calls seeking comment.
Research: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 21, 1998