How Tina Met Eddie

Fungus Among Us

Sorry, Al

How Tina Met Eddie

Last month, Eddie Dean was just a writer for Washington’s City Paper, filing his first story for Tina Brown. Now, he is living the dream of every alternative press writer: he has crossed over into the glossy magazine world, with a feature byline in the first issue of Talk. Brown even told Liz Smith that Dean is one of the new voices she’s especially “excited about.”

Upon arriving in New York last Friday, Dean had lunch with Brown (“She liked certain ideas and we were clicking,” he says), bought $50 worth of books at the Strand, and found a few minutes to call Press Clips before running off to buy a new shirt. Asked if he was looking forward to the Talk party, he said, “Yeah, I’m hoping to get into a brawl with Martin Amis.”

It all started a year ago, when Dean attended the Association of Alternative Newspapers convention in D.C., where his editor introduced him to New York Press managing editor Sam Sifton. “We were kindred spirits,” says Dean, “rolling around Washington and staying up until four in the morning. We started talking about stories and I said, ‘I got to write for you some day.”‘

As luck would have it, Brown hired Sifton a few months later as one of the young editors who would man her startup. Talk is backed by Miramax and Hearst, but they didn’t give Brown the budget she wielded at Condé Nast, so she couldn’t afford her usual stable of stars. In typical Brown style, she turned this to advantage, promising that Talk would be a showcase for new talent.

Cut to last spring, when Sifton asked Dean to go live in a trailer park for six weeks. The result is “Paradise, Yeah,” a deadpan chronicle of the lives of a bunch of poor people. It’s not particularly dramatic, and doesn’t have any heroes—just damaged characters like Guido Newbrough, a flagman for a road-paving company whose trailer is “as dark and pungent as an Elizabethan tavern, packing a husky wallop of whatever happens to be cooking and whatever hasn’t been washed.” Dean, who lived in this trailer park 10 years ago, has a knack for making its residents sympathetic, whether they are singing karaoke versions of Lynyrd Skynyrd or flying bikes into a gravel pit. The story is illustrated with photographs by City Paper‘s Darrow Montgomery, a longtime collaborator with Dean.

At 34, Dean is a hit in the alternative press world. Salon‘s Jake Tapper, who used to write for City Paper, says Dean “digs the moonshine and smokes the cigarettes. He
drives a beat-up car with crap all over it and his desk is a mess. He’s an original. It’s not a pose.” Another writer friend describes Dean as “a lighter-haired version of Eraserhead” and City Paper‘s “best writer,” adding that he feared Talk would turn Dean’s salt-of-the-earth characters into caricatures. But not to fear. Of the finished piece, Dean says, “It’s what I wrote really. It’s not as long, but the style is the same.”

Sifton bristles at the suggestion that working for Talk might be a corrupting influence on Dean. He says most alternative press owners call their shops a “stepping stone to wider circulation, and that’s exactly what Eddie’s got now—wider circulation.” He also praises Brown’s outreach to the alternative press, saying it proves “there are, in fact, some lively, fresh, and above all, good journalists” in the world of free weeklies. Who knew?

Dean went to high school in Richmond, Virginia, where, he says, “I didn’t read literature at all. I listened to music and read [music critic] Lester Bangs.” After majoring in English at the University of Virginia, he drove an ice cream truck, discovered Stephen Crane, and wrote for two newspapers, the Stafford Sun and the Potomac News. “But I wasn’t that good at the daily school-board kind of journalism,” he says. In 1988, he wrote his first story for City Paper, a feature about a fiddlers’ convention.

In 1994, Dean was hired to write for City Paper by then editor Jack Shafer, now deputy editor of Slate. Under Shafer and current editor David Carr, Dean has been free to practice his form of literary journalism, which he describes as “talking to people that no one bothers to talk to…the kind of people who live in D.C., but have never been to the White House in their lives.” Shafer describes Dean’s writing in the romantic manner used by his fans, saying, “Eddie is as close as a writer can come to our poetic animal roots. Think of Eddie as a savage from the bog.”

Occasionally, Dean departs from his lyrical descriptions of common folk, as when he stalked John Hinckley for four days on the grounds of St. Elizabeth’s hospital. But to hear Carr tell it, it is Dean’s delivery that has earned him a special relationship with his readers. “They trust his voice,” Carr says, “because even though he gambles and speculates with narrative, he doesn’t cheat. He is not silky. He is archaic in construction. He is like that old-timey mountain music: same themes, same riffs, same eternal conflict.”

Dean plans to continue working for City Paper while writing Dialing America, a regular column for Talk. He says Talk will give him “a bigger audience” and a chance to write about new locales—perhaps getting “a few states closer to the Mississippi.”

At the same time, Slate‘s Shafer thinks Dean will be an asset for Brown. “She talks about creating buzz,” he says, “and Eddie is the buzz. He is Americana without artifice. He is the real thing and he’s nobody’s fool.”

Fungus Among Us

Media coverage of the drug war has been pretty toothless this year, even as drug czar Barry McCaffrey is asking Congress for a $1 billion “emergency” budget to destroy the coca and poppy fields in Colombia, while fighting the left-wing insurgents. In the wake of complaints about chemical herbicides, drug warriors are contemplating a new weapon of choice: a fungus they think will eliminate every unwanted cannabis, coca, and poppy plant on the planet.

You don’t read much about this kind of biological warfare. But it surfaced briefly on July 27, when The New York Times published a front-page story by Rick Bragg about a fungus that was developed specifically to attack marijuana plants. The fungus is the subject of dispute in Florida, where Governor Jeb Bush’s Office of Drug Control wants to test and deploy it, while environmentalists fear the fungus will destroy Florida’s legal crops as well.

The Times did a good job with the Florida conflict—a story that had appeared on July 17 in the St. Petersburg Times. Both papers identified the anti-marijuana fungus (fusarium oxysporum), the Montana company that developed it (Ag/Bio Con) and the congressman who is pushing it (Florida’s Bill McCollum, who calls the species the “silver bullet” in the drug war). Both referred to the $23 million allocated by Congress last year for developing fusarium, which has the natural potential to destroy cannabis, coca, and poppy plants. The Times reported that the research into anti-
narcotic fungi has cost taxpayers $14 million.

But crucial information was missing: the fungus money goes directly to the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), a division of the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and many consider the research top secret. The role of ARS in bio-war was first exposed in the spring 1998 issue of Covert Action Quarterly (CAQ), in an article by Jim Hogshire.

According to Hogshire’s story, ARS scientists have been researching the fusarium species for years, in both its natural and genetically engineered form, and have discovered that certain strains are safe, while others are out of control. Citing an ARS press release, he wrote, “A virulent mutation of fusarium…has been a bane to Florida and Georgia farmers who have trouble controlling it with even the strongest fungicides.” (Hogshire is an old friend of Press Clips, but did not contribute to this column. His latest book, on pharmaceuticals, is just out from Feral House.)

The CAQ story offered a crucial lead for any interested reporter—the existence of an ARS project at Montana State University (MSU). Armed with that information, Press Clips quickly established that Ag/Bio Con, the Bozeman, Montana, company that developed Floridaanti-marijuana fungus, is owned by David C. Sands, an MSU professor, who has received funding for similar work from the ARS. According to a report on the USDA Web site, Sands and MSU were involved in a five-year study of “Papaver-specific and Cannabis-specific mycoherbicides,” one of the objectives of which was to perform “domestic and foreign field tests.”

No one wants to talk about the field testing in Montana. In the past, McCollum declined to reveal the location of domestic fungus research because of “security concerns.” There is no phone listing for Ag/Bio Con in Bozeman, Montana. Yet, in January 1999, a trade magazine reported that Ag/Bio Con hired a prominent D.C. consulting firm “to lobby on bills affecting mycoherbicide development.”

An ARS spokeswoman explained that the USDA gets about $3 million to $4 million a year for anti-narcotics research, which includes the development of naturally occurring fusarium. She acknowledged Sands’s participation in the five-year project, part of which took place in Kazakhstan, but said that ARS is not involved with Ag/Bio Con. Sands did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Sorry, Al

It’s official : the smart money is betting on Bill Bradley. On July 30, the day the Daily News‘s Celia McGee reported that Bradley is hiring Time senior editor Richard Stengel as a speechwriter, the New York Post‘s Jack Newfield was counting Bradley’s advantages over Al Gore. Not only has Bradley spent the last few years out of office, listening to America, but he is a former Knicks hero who counts Michael Jordan among his backers—and lacks Gore’s considerable baggage. On August 1, the Times‘s Richard Berke added sticks to the fire, noting that Bradley has spent his resources “far more carefully” than Gore and that labor has looked twice at Bradley, delaying its likely endorsement of Gore. All things considered, Newfield wrote, “The contest for the Democratic nomination may come down to the equivalent of a two-punch bar fight.”