Cracking Up


The May issue of Talk features “When Crack Comes to Town,” an exclusive account of a DEA sting in Fernandina Beach, Florida. This cinematic story recounts the agency’s aggressive tactics without comment, inviting readers to draw their own conclusions. Indeed, the piece is so nonjudgmental that Talk could submit it to the drug czar’s office for financial credit.

They wouldn’t be the first to jump on the bandwagon. Two weeks ago, Salon revealed that the White House has arranged to pay select magazines either to run antidrug ads or to publish features with an antidrug message. But Richard Vietri, who oversees the government’s “magazine buys” at Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, said, “We don’t have any activity with Talk” at this time.

According to Tom Watson, who edited the story, the drug czar’s office “had nothing to do” with it. He opposes any such deal. “We cover the government,” Watson explains. “We don’t participate in its programs.” The author, Miami New Times writer Jim DeFede, says the piece was his idea and doesn’t consider it “pro-DEA.”

No one denies that DeFede got extraordinary access to the sting, which took him to Fernandina Beach for a total of about 50 days over four months. He says the supervising agent, whom he has known a long time, got him the access—but that the arrangement made some Florida U.S. attorneys “furious” because he has written critically about a major DEA case in the past. Since the Talk piece was published, he has heard that DEA brass disliked the ending and found the agents “too fresh-mouthed.” A DEA spokeswoman declined to comment.

But what’s not to like? In what DeFede calls a “Rorschach test” that’s open to interpretation, he gives center stage to the “smart” and “dedicated” DEA agents, while treating the 43 black defendants interchangeably. Even though the sting failed to produce enough evidence to arrest the suspected kingpin, DeFede names the guy anyway. He says the name was “relevant” and the agents’ suspicions credible, if not provable. The “kingpin” denies wrongdoing.

Here’s the kind of balance that’s missing: As a result of the sting, Vincent Baker is facing 120 years in jail for selling a little under 30 grams of crack. His attorney, Mitchell Stone, says Baker was lured into selling by an informant who was “offering him sex.” Stone says his 20-year-old client “is just a naive kid” who is “shocked” to be facing federal charges for his actions.

Public defender Courtenay Miller represents about a dozen defendants nailed in the sting. Miller says the DEA succeeded in targeting crack addicts “who would be better served by medical treatment than by prosecution.” Rather than arresting “users who will be replaced by other users,” says Miller, “their time and money would be better spent trying to cut off the supply.”

DeFede says he pointed out the potential for entrapment when agents “make buy after buy from the same person, until you get them to the mandatory sentence.” But just as criminals are stereotyped as victims, he says, drug agents are too often cast as “storm troopers goose-stepping their way over the civil rights of these young men.” Instead, the writer tried to present the agents as human beings.

Brill’s Gets Bitchy

The May issue of Brill’s Content offers hard-hitting pieces on Early Show host Bryant Gumbel and Lynn Hirschberg, respectively. The Gumbel story has an obvious peg—the show’s Nielsen ratings are down—but there’s no news on Hirschberg, who covers Hollywood for The New York Times Magazine.

Brill’s Katherine Rosman does a great job with the gossip, but she strains to make the case that Hirschberg’s habit of cultivating powerful friends has tainted her reporting. In the strongest allegation, nameless sources accuse Hirschberg of slipping Jerry Seinfeld a copy of a story she wrote about him for Vanity Fair before it was published. The 1998 incident got Hirschberg banned from VF—but that’s old news.

Rosman is shocked to hear Times Magazine editor Adam Moss defend a writer “whose methods have been called into question.” But what has Hirschberg done wrong lately? In celebrity journalism, doesn’t everyone write high-concept stories, save attack jobs for easy targets, and use connections to benefit themselves and their friends? Hirschberg may have at times embroidered her personal life and befriended subjects only to betray them, but her stories are accurate and psychologically revealing.

Brill’s is brave to take on this manipulative diva. But you can tell the piece is character assassination by the meandering lead, which never arrives at a clear thesis. Instead, we get a full-page caricature of Hirschberg as a bloodthirsty queen of hearts.

Strange Times

Speaking of hit jobs, The Hunting of the President, by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, just got trashed in The New York Times Book Review, on the heels of a dismissive review in The Washington Post. The book, which chronicles how the anti-Clinton camp fed allegations to the mainstream press, may not be perfect, but it is carefully documented. One has to wonder if the poor reception stems partly from the fact that the book skewers both the Times and the Post.

The Times is especially heavy-handed. Using a standard rhetorical device, Times Washington reporter Neil Lewis overstates the book’s premise, then faults the authors for not proving it. What follows is a sneering catalog of flaws, apparently designed to cover up flaws in the Times‘s own reporting.

You’d never know it from Lewis’s review, but the book blasts the Whitewater reporting of Timesman Jeff Gerth. It also calls attention to a January 13, 1996, Editor’s Note that ran in the Times, clarifying Stephen Labaton’s report on the testimony of Richard Massey, Hillary Clinton’s former law partner. In a tit for tat, Lewis calls Conason and Lyons’s account of Massey’s testimony “misleading,” even though the book comports with the Times‘s own correction.

Lewis’s conflict of interest is especially apparent when he chides the authors for repeating the saga of conspiracy backer Richard Mellon Scaife, “which has already been written about at length.” Actually, Conason first broke this story with Murray Waas, in the February 4, 1998, issue of The New York Observer—a fact Lewis failed to note when he filed his Arkansas Project story for the Times two months later. (Full disclosure: Conason and I are old friends.)

Last week, Times Book Review editor Chip McGrath defended his choice of reviewer. “Why should we assign a book to a so-called neutral party who doesn’t know as much as Lewis?” he told the Daily News. “People downstairs knew I was doing this—[executive editor] Joe Lelyveld and [managing editor] Bill Keller.”

On April 10, the greeting on Lewis’s voice mail said, “I’m out of the office for a couple of weeks.” McGrath was out of the office as well.

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