Why ruin a good story with the truth? That’s the credo of many journalists, who would gladly downplay accuracy and fairness for entertainment value. They rarely cop to that standard, but you don’t have to look far to see it in action. Case in point: last week, Christopher Hitchens and Matt Drudge peddled stories that sounded good at first, but fell apart under scrutiny.
Drudge’s story was so gloriously dramatic it could have been a movie pitch: a former prostitute named Bobbie Ann Williams claimed that she had given birth to Bill Clinton’s love child, Danny, as a result of a paid sex encounter in Little Rock in the 1980s. “I know it’s his!” Drudge quoted Williams as saying. “He’s the only white man I slept with that month!” Never mind that Clinton denied ever meeting her.
Versions of the story had surfaced before, but last week, Drudge led every dispatch on his Web site with a heavy-breathing teaser: any day, Star magazine would announce the results of DNA tests that would prove Clinton had done it with a black prostitute! Drudge must have known the story didn’t meet the standards of the mainstream press, but he longed for it to be true. On January 6, after watching a Hard Copy interview with Williams, he wrote that the tape made it “immediately obvious” that “this is clearly not gossip, rumor, or anonymous charges being maliciously directed at a politician.”
Four days later, Drudge pulled a screeching U-turn. After reading reports in the New York Post and Time that the DNA test came up negative, the Web wunderkind decreed that Williams’s paternity claim “must now be viewed as a cruel hoax.” He repeated what had seemed like compelling evidence— the taped interview, the report that Williams had passed a lie detector test, the photo of a young boy who everyone said was a dead ringer for Clinton. Then Drudge concluded with a specious defense. “And while the elite media will bark that it was wrong to report the DNA chase that was unfolding behind the scenes,” he wrote, “Drudge Report readers of all stripes have come to expect details on events rocking and shocking those unfortunate souls who rise to power!”
Uh-huh. In the same vein, Christopher Hitchens began his column in the January 1118 issue of the Nation with a little behind-the-scenes gossip about Henry Kissinger. The scene: at a party two years ago, a Nation colleague was introduced to Kissinger, who growled, “The Nation? So I suppose that to you I am a war criminal?” Nervous laughter ensued. When the leftie pointed out that, these days, the Nation was just as likely to call Clinton a war criminal, Kissinger deadpanned: “Mr. Clinton does not have the strength of character to be a war criminal.”
It’s a great story, beloved by journalists of all stripes. The Nation‘s Eric Alterman tells it often, as does New York Press publisher Russ Smith, a/k/a Mugger. Indeed, Smith helped put the story in play, misquoting it first in his New York Press column of January 612 and then in the short version of his January 8 column in the online Jewish World Review (headline: “DRUDGE IS THE HERO”).
Only one problem, boys: Dr. Kissinger denies it. Through a spokesperson, he told Press Clips that the first quote attributed to him is correct, but the second is not, and the Nation never checked the story with him.
Ironically, the Nation published the Kissinger quip in the same issue as a Jonathan Schell editorial called “Land of Dreams” in which Schell laments the rise of a “new media machine” whose primary purpose is to entertain. One of the machine’s characteristics is its preference for fantasy over reality, thereby giving journalists the “capacity to mistake a world of their own making for the real one.”
Nation editor in chief Katrina vanden Heuvel says, “We stand by the story,” and notes that Kissinger was speaking in jest.
The fantasy world is a big draw for book publishers, too. Especially for Nicholas Callaway, the president of Callaway Editions, which has offices on Bedford Street in the West Village. Founded in 1980, Callaway Editions is best known for its art books. But Nicholas Callaway is ambitious, and in the last few years he launched two new companies, Callaway & Kirk and Callaway Golf Media Ventures. One is a dream come true, the other, a nightmare involving New Yorker writers clamoring to get paid.
First, the dream. It features the work of children’s-book illustrator David Kirk. Callaway discovered Kirk back in 1992, when the artist was running a toy store in Soho and had just landed a $5000 book contract with Rizzoli. Callaway offered him a $20,000 contract, and presto!— the Miss Spider series became a Callaway bestseller. In 1996, the two men incorporated Callaway & Kirk, to better market Kirk’s artwork.
The result, known as Nova the Robot, is a marketing concept involving dozens of characters with names like Ohm the Mule, Panic the Monkey, Filament, Yikes, Zik, Trang, and Ko. Here’s the hook: The originals of Nova and his gang all exist in three-dimensional computer-generated imagery, or 3-D CGI, the same technique used in the movies Toy Story and A Bug’s Life. And that means the menagerie can be replicated endlessly (and shamelessly).
So while Nova the book will be published in March, animated promo clips are already running in selected theaters showing A Bug’s Life. There’s a Nova Web site (www.novasark.com) and a 15-foot inflatable robot. In March, Callaway says, he will begin selling limited-edition Nova prints for anywhere from $49 to “several thousand” dollars. The final frontier: Nova the movie.
You can see why Callaway is so juiced up about Nova, which seems guaranteed to make him a fortune. But in an interview last week, he refused to talk about Callaway Golf Media Ventures, and for good reason. Instead of marketing a single artist and a malleable little robot, that other company requires that he absorb the frustration of dozens of writers who expect to be paid for work they’ve completed.
It all started happily enough a year ago, when Callaway Golf Media Ventures was launched as a joint venture between Callaway Editions and Callaway Golf Company. (Get the connection? Here’s a hint: The golf company was founded by Ely Callaway, Nicholas’s father, who’s famous for making the Big Bertha golf club.) Last year, the board of Callaway Golf agreed to help finance Nicholas Callaway’s latest brainchild, which he pitched as a series of golf books featuring the best sports and literary writers money could buy. (For legal reasons, Ely Callaway recused himself from the vote.)
Armed with a budget of $18 million, Nicholas Callaway hired David McCormick, then deputy editor of Texas Monthly and a big golfer, to be the series editor in chief. McCormick is extremely well connected. He worked as a fiction editor for The New Yorker and moved to Texas in 1993. While at Texas Monthly, he was offered jobs at Harper’s and GQ. In 1996, after quitting Texas Monthly, he accepted the Callaway offer, and started assigning golf stories to all his favorite writers. He moved to New York a year later.
The word on the street is that many of these writers would never have agreed to write for Callaway Golf Media Ventures if not for David McCormick. People who were approached include George Plimpton, Charles McGrath of The New York Times, Steve Rushin and Michael Bamberger of Sports Illustrated, and past and former New Yorker writers Ian Frazier, Mark Singer, Susan Orlean, David Owen, John Seabrook (who wrote about the day he almost gave up playing golf), Jeffrey Toobin (who asked to be paid in golf clubs), and Rich Cohen (who wrote about knocking his brother-in-law unconscious with a golf ball). Other writers were suggested by Larry Dorman, a former golf writer who quit the New York Times to ghost-write Ely Callaway’s autobiography and now runs PR for Callaway Golf.
By last fall, McCormick had moved to New York, and the manuscripts began rolling in; his editorial staff grew so large they relocated from Bedford Street to an office on Fulton Street. Then disaster hit: on November 11, the elder Callaway announced that because of a drop in sales, his company was laying off 700 people and getting rid of its “noncore” businesses. That meant no more money for golf books. And, before long, a freeze on payments to writers who had already turned in their stories.
Nicholas Callaway arranged to keep David McCormick and a few others on the project, while giving most of the rest of the full-time staff two weeks severance. As a result, about 10 people lost their jobs, including the talented writers Alex Prudhomme, Colin Moynihan, and Bill Vourvoulias. Callaway sent an e-mail to “personally thank” all staffers for their work, which one disgruntled employee called a “chickenshit way” to let people go. This ex-staffer said of Callaway, “He’s a great salesman, but as a businessman, he’s horrible.”
McCormick declined to comment, saying only that his top priority is to see that all writers who have submitted work get paid for it. Indeed, a letter was sent to “all contributors” on December 15 from Ed Brash, president of Callaway Golf Media Ventures. Brash wrote that “the ownership of Callaway Golf Media Ventures is being transferred from Callaway Golf to Callaway Editions” within “a week or two,” and promised that all story and expense fees would be paid “as soon as the transfer documents are signed.”
But four weeks later at press time, the deal has not gone through, and writers who have not been paid are said to be owed more than $200,000. Nicholas Callaway declined to comment. But when the deal goes through, according to Callaway Golf spokesman Larry Dorman, the completed work will be reviewed and “everyone will be remunerated one way or another.” Which means some people who are used to getting paid in full will only be getting a kill fee.