Condé Nast has declared war on us!” At least that was the word last week from an insider at Tina Brown’s new magazine, Talk, which is scheduled to debut in August. Brown’s editors have spent the winter scouring Condé Nast magazines, The New York Times and beyond for talent, raising hackles everywhere they go. But this week, now that Brown has announced her staff writers, the question is whether the sniping will get louder or just taper off.
And sniping is not too strong a word. One freelance writer who would like to write for Brown recalls that his New Yorker editor “asked me if I intended to write for that magazine. He couldn’t get the word Talk out.”
Meanwhile, over at Condé Nast headquarters, some freelancers have picked up a subtle message from editors: if you do an assignment for Talk, don’t expect to stay on our good side. The idea that a Condé Nast editor like Graydon Carter would deliver an ultimatum against Brown strikes some as a fantasy, but then again, says one Condé Nast insider, it’s the kind of thing that actually “could have been said in a moment of fierce competitive spirit.” Another Condé Nast source calls the practice of defending freelancers “business as usual.”
“There’s no sense of panic,” says the first Condé Nast source, “but there’s certainly an awareness that [Brown] is gearing up and that some attention has to be paid.”
Just how much attention is yet to be seen: Brown’s hires, while respectable, lack flash. They are occasional New Yorker contributors Lucinda Franks (legal) and Dr. Abraham Verghese (medicine), Science‘s Jon Cohen (science), Slate‘s James Surowiecki (business), The Weekly Standard‘s Tucker Carlson (politics), the Times‘s Constance C.R. White (fashion), and British TV critic Ian Tucker.
Si Newhouse will no doubt be pleased that not one of his stars has flown the coop to the new venture, which is jointly owned by Hearst Publications and Disney’s Miramax. Indeed, the threat to Condé Nast reached a head in February, when Brown tried to hire Vanity Fair photographer Harry Benson. In response, the editors of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and GQ put together a six-figure, two-year deal to keep Benson, as reported in the New York Post.
When it comes to spurned offers, Benson is just the tip of the iceberg. Sources say that Brown and Talk executive editor David Kuhn have “approached everyone,” including a number of New Yorker and Vanity Fair writers who were happy to stay where they were. Two Times writers, Don Van Natta Jr. and Jeffrey Goldberg, who were courted for staff jobs, both said no. For the first time, Brown seems to have known she was making an offer that might be refused.
In anticipation of rejection, Brown and company were hedging their bets. “Some of her approaches were done in oblique ways,” says a Condé Nast insider, “so if she got turned down, she could take the position that she wasn’t [turned down].”
One writer who didn’t bite says the Talk approach was not, “We want to hire you,” but “If we offer you something, would you come?”
A Condé Nast writer whom Brown approached with a one-time assignment became nervous after several discussions. “She said she had a great idea for me, but she never said how much she would pay.”
The most frequent reasons cited for declining a Talk offer are that Brown was not offering enough money, and that she wanted to own part of the rights. A Talk source denies that rights have ever been a dealbreaker, because every writer can negotiate a tailor-made contract.
Carping aside, Brown and her editors have made progress with freelance writers in recent months, assigning pieces to former Spin editor Michael Hirschorn, author Gerald Posner, and Tony Schwartz, who cowrote the biography of Disney chief Michael Eisner.
“I couldn’t be happier to be writing for the magazine,” says Schwartz. Other writers said to be waiting for an opportune moment to write for Talk include New Yorker contributors Fredric Dannen, Edward Jay Epstein, and Lawrence Wright.
The contents of Brown’s magazine will be not unlike that of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, including features, celebrity profiles, and first-person pieces. Former Legal Times editor Tom Watson is in charge of investigative reporting, while former New York Observer editor Lisa Chase has the delicate task of assembling essays on sex.
But detractors are not impressed with specific story ideas they’ve heard so far. Gerald Posner is said to be writing a story on Princess Di, while editors are pursuing a story on Formula One racing. (A Formula One story ran in the Wall Street Journal in December.) And the sex essays may not be that much different from those of say, Candace Bushnell: one writer was asked to write a column about how being married to another writer had affected his sex life.
Miramax publicist Andrew Stengel declined to comment on specific writers or assignments, while issuing the following statement: “Those who say do not know, and those who know do not say.”
Meanwhile, many writers who have worked with Brown continue to keep
the faith. “If you’re going to put money
on a horse,” said one, “I would put it on Tina’s horse.”
Almost a year after Stephen Glass was exposed as a fabricator, glossy magazines are still trading on his name. Indeed, the same editors who once fell all over themselves to assign stories to the rising star now rely on his notoriety to justify publishing any little crumb of Glass gossip.
That would seem to explain an unsigned item called “Tripping Over Glass,” which appears in the front of the book of the March issue of George magazine. The item begins with a snicker: “What do you do after you’ve been drummed out of journalism because of a lack of ethics? Become a lawyer!” Then it gets down to reporting the “news,” which is that Glass, now a law student at Georgetown University, made law review last summer— only to withdraw after colleagues complained that he might stir up controversy.
The item certainly meets the schadenfreude test, but it ain’t news: the same story was reported by Howard Kurtz in an August 31, 1998, media column for The Washington Post. In fairness, Kurtz pointed out that it was Glass’s excellent grades and writing skills that qualified him to work on the law review.
George executive editor Richard Blow says the magazine was not aware of the Kurtz story, but should have been (ironically, Kurtz is a contributor to the magazine). “We’re not the first publication to be scooped by Howie,” he added. Neither is it the first time they’ve suffered from the Glass curse: last spring, after the New Republic fired Glass for fabrications, Glass admitted that the profile of Vernon Jordan he wrote for George also contained a number of cooked quotes.
Says Blow, “Stephen Glass has not been good karma for George.”
Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?
New York Post reporters Gregg Birnbaum and Douglas Montero have won much praise for their investigation of New York’s state-run psychiatric institutes. Since January, the series has exposed a netherworld in which pharmaceutical giants pay millions of dollars a year to state facilities, which in turn conduct risky drug experiments on “human guinea pigs,” including mental health patients, teenage criminals, and children under the age of 10.
But some fans of the exposé were alarmed to read a March 3 editorial in the Post, called “A Thank You for Pharmaceuticals.” Without mentioning the series by name, the editorial downplayed the reporters’ revelations and sent what some interpreted as an order to lay off the drug industry. “Pharmaceutical companies . . . have done wonders— literal wonders— for people,” the editorial singsonged. “They should be celebrated, not demonized. And the doctors and scientists who help them deserve a lot of credit too.”
The editorial took aim at Birnbaum and Montero’s latest scoop, a February 28 cover story called “Shrinks for Sale?” which revealed that key figures at the New York State Psychiatric Institute “are raking in extra personal income from consulting deals, board memberships and speaking fees from the world’s pharmaceutical giants.” Doctors on the take include an NYSPI deputy director who received $140,000 in lecture fees and travel expenses in the last year alone. Drug money is also lining the pockets of two psychiatrists who serve on the panel that approves and oversees NYSPI clinical trials.
To critics, these payments create the appearance of a conflict of interest, because doctors on the take are more likely to approve the drugs of their benefactors than to protect the rights of their patients. But that’s hogwash, according to the March 3 Post editorial, which said blithely, “The revelation that New Yorkers in charge of testing new drugs on mental patients get payments and honoraria from the drug companies doesn’t disturb us.”
The editorial defended such payments as a routine practice in a competitive world, accused anyone who opposes them as having an “anti-business bias,” and argued that if a scientist put out biased research, it would be exposed very quickly.
Was the editorial meant as a rebuke? Post editor Ken Chandler did not return calls for comment, and Montero denies that any pressure has been exerted from above. “In fact, my supervisors are encouraging me and Gregg to march forward,” he says, “which is what we intend to do.”