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Press Clips takes solace in the knowledge that the publishing business forgives and forgets, that it always gives a second chance to those who commit youthful indiscretions, as long as their hearts are in the right place and they have the right connections.
Case in point: most pundits seem willing to cut John Kennedy some slack for not making a runaway success out of George. At least he was willing to take a risk on it, when everyone knows that start-ups can be a colossal headache even for seasoned professionals like Tina Brown and Steve Brill— and that few achieve the perfect pitch of SPY in the late 1980s.
And unlike many journalists, Kennedy was a stand-up guy who didn’t lie and could laugh off bad publicity. He even managed to publish a few memorable stories, notably Lisa De Paulo’s February/March 1996 exposé of Ruth Shalit, in which she laid out the basis for the plagiarism charges that dogged Shalit until she quit her job as a staff writer for The New Republic. Shalit has, of course, been given a second chance by Salon, for which she now writes regularly about the advertising business.
And speaking of start-ups, it’s worth noting that Salon gave itself a boost last year by adopting a sensational approach to journalism. Remember all the publicity they got for exposing Henry Hyde’s adultery? Well, the irreverent approach continues. This month, Salon takes the sex columnist craze to a new extreme by paying “working girl” Tracy Quan to embellish anecdotes for a fictional series, “Nancy Chan: Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl.” No doubt Quan, who Salon says is out of the business for now, is getting lots of page hits; but, as one Salon reader pointed out, “An escort’s life in New York is not glamorous.”
Another journalist to resurface this year is Mike Barnicle, who was fired by The Boston Globe in 1998 for shoddy reporting and picked up as a columnist by the Sunday News a few months ago. Last week, after the fateful plane crash, Barnicle started “pimping himself out to every network, cable and local news show as a Kennedy confidant,” in the words of the Boston Herald‘s gossip columnists Gayle Fee and Laura Raposa.
On July 17, CNN interviewed Barnicle on the street in Hyannisport, and by the next day, NBC had signed him up as a news consultant, in which capacity he appeared frequently on prime time over the next several days. Much of what Barnicle had to say consisted of platitudes (e.g., John and Caroline Kennedy were “emotional twins”) and at least once, he labeled his comments “conjecture.” According to Fee and Raposa’s July 20 column, Barnicle fabricated his report that Ted Kennedy took a “midnight sail” to work out his grief, causing CNN to issue a retraction. The Daily News columnist recalled last seeing John “with the wind at his back” after a Thanksgiving sail (“I think last Thanksgiving”) and, at one point, said John had “lived for 39 years,” when, in fact, he died at 38.
Returning to Barnicle on July 23, Fee and Raposa reported on a 1997 Globe column in which Barnicle mocked Kennedy for having “the brain of Sonny Bono.” The next day, the New York Post‘s Page Six reported on the mocking column as if they’d found it themselves, and on July 25, Barnicle rounded out his Daily News column on Kennedy with his own reference to the 1997 piece, omitting the attention it had received and recalling ruefully that the editor of George had responded “by sending me a funny note.”
In an unrelated case of media cannibalization, the Post reported July 22 that Talk publisher Ron Galotti sent copies of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker to an advertiser in a trash can. It was a good story— so good that the Times repeated it without crediting the Post in a July 26 business story on Talk. Even worse, the Times story was accompanied by a photograph of Talk editor Tina Brown with executive editor David Kuhn; the caption underneath mistakenly identified Kuhn as Galotti.
Learning To Talk
During these final days before Tina Brown lays claim to the Talk brand once and for all, it seems only right to pay homage to that other Talk . . . remember? The original Talk, The New Yorker‘s
Talk of the Town. This section had a distinctive personality until Brown took over in 1992. Then, in the space of five years, she tossed Talk into the hands of a succession of editors— Alexander Chancellor, Gerald Marzorati, David Kuhn, Brendan Lemon, and Charles Michener— under whom its tone veered from the publicity-baiting to the quietly eccentric. The section finally settled into a long-term relationship with Susan Morrison, who was appointed by Brown in 1997 and has called the shots at Talk for a record-breaking two years now.
How does Morrison keep the section consistent, week after week? Her secret is a trademark formula so elemental that a monkey could learn it— a carefully edited monkey, of course. Press Clips reviewed the last 12 issues of The New Yorker in order to offer the following analysis of a typical Talk story.
Above all, think Hollywood, celebrity, and media. Publicity events are likely sources for stories, as is litigation, or any conflict that can be framed as a Celebrity Death Match. No story is too speculative, no rumor too premature. But plotted or not, all stories must drop the names of numerous celebrities, media outlets, and upscale products. (There are no quotas; trust the editors to know when enough is enough.)
Once the necessary marketing stimuli are in place, writers should let go and imitate the ingenuous tone of an old-time Talk story. Use metaphors. Tell readers something profound. And don‘t forget to mention Senator Clinton whenever possible (current target goal: a Hillary story in every other issue).
Data from the Press Clips study follow.
Subject: Brandi Chastain, the U.S. women‘s soccer star who took her shirt off after a recent victory (7/26/99). Product placement: Nike. Media mentioned: Gear, Sports Illustrated. Flattering comparison: Chastain and Victory, the Greek goddess. Category: Celebrity women who get publicity by disrobing.
Subject: A group of New York professionals who get together to eat organ meat (7/26). Product placement: Frito-Lay, Café Loup. Media mentioned: Word, The Village Voice, Time. Flattering comparison: Word
editor Marisa Bowe calls herself a vampire. Categories: Scary New York women, media eating habits.
Subject: Batman director Joel Schumacher hires lawyer to stop small-town newspaper from reporting the location of his new barn/house (7/26). Media mentioned: Carpinteria, California Coastal View News, Farmer’s Almanac. Category: Celebrity litigation.
Subject: Marc Shaiman, who helped create the soundtrack for the South Park movie (7/19). Product placement: South Park. Sample quote: “I think one of [South Park co-creator Trey Parker‘s] biggest thrills was the day he and Matt came and heard a ninety-five-piece orchestra playing ‘Uncle Fucka.‘ ” Category: Hollywood puff piece.
Subject: Hugh Hefner redux (7/12). Media company mentioned: Playboy Enterprises. Celebrities mentioned: Brande, Mandy, and Sandy. Sample quote: “Where else would the editor of a magazine earn more than the company C.E.O.?” Category: Celebrity coasters.
Subject: The rumor that Hillary may run for president some day (7/12). Celebrities mentioned: Mario Cuomo, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Media mentioned: NBC‘s Tim Russert, The New Yorker’s Connie Bruck. Sample sentence: “The new rumor clearly derives its force from the old rumor, which, improbably enough, has turned out to be true.” Categories: Political rumors, Hillary Clinton.
Subject: Georgette Mosbacher, three-time wife turned fundraiser for John McCain‘s presidential campaign (7/5). Product placement: The Four Seasons. Celebrities mentioned: Michael Bloomberg, Pete Peterson, Ron Perelman. Favorable comparison: Mosbacher and Melanie Griffith in Working Girl. Category: Scary Republican women.
Subject: The New York Times‘s internal dispute over the correct spelling of the exclamation “D’oh!” (7/5). Product placement: The Simpsons. Media mentioned: The New York Times, The Hartford Courant. Favorable comparison: Times disputes over spelling and Times disputes over national security issues. Category: Any minutiae about The New York Times.
Subject: Gay men in New York throw a bridal shower for a woman they love (7/5). Product placement: Jack Daniel’s, Pucci, Bergdorf Goodman. Media mentioned: CBS News, VH1. Favorable comparison: the engaged woman and Britt Ekland, Ann-Margret, Lina Wertmuller, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Lolita. Sample sentence: “She air-kissed violently.” Category: stories that might have run in The New York Times SundayStyles section.
Subject: Bianca Jagger’s advocacy of Kosovo intervention (6/7). Media mentioned: Tucker Carlson of The Weekly Standard (and of Crossfire, and of Talk magazine). Sample observation: Carlson was afraid to ask Jagger a prepared question on Crossfire, for fear she might know the answer. Cate-
gory: Silly celebrity causes.
Subject: Anachronistic movie reference to a cell phone emitting a dial tone (5/31). Product placement: Never Been Kissed, starring Drew Barrymore. Telecommunications companies mentioned: AT&T, Bell Atlantic. Sample sentence: “What is the purpose of this sound, as common and plain as a dulled penny, which we encounter dozens of times a day?” Category: Tech stories with a Hollywood twist.
Subject: Party for new book on Audrey Hepburn (5/17). Product placement: Bergdorf Goodman, Prescriptives. Celebrities mentioned: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn. Sample sentence: “Whether Audrey Hepburn’s sophisticated–schoolgirl look owes everything to Givenchy or is a reflection of her own taste, as well, is the stuff of bitchy speculation.” Category: Plugs for New York stores we love.