When covering trials, the media tends to glamorize the winner, and you could see it last week when Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs was acquitted of all charges related to the notorious shooting at Club New York in December 1999. On March 17, even The New York Times cashed in on the fun, publishing an exclusive interview with Combs that had been conducted days earlier, on the condition that it not be printed until the verdict came down.
“I am definitely the fault of my own image,” Combs told Katherine E. Finkelstein, who covered the trial for the Times. The interview was a great scoop, a case study of a pop star for whom celebrity is a double-edged sword. And Combs put a smart spin on his situation, dismissing it as some kind of aesthetic misunderstanding.
You see, even though he promoted himself as a “bad guy” and a “crazy genius,” in reality, the “glitzy, glamorous thing” was just “rapper-type stuff,” a role he played. He never expected to actually be treated like a gangster. And while celebrity was once mother’s milk to him, these days he can’t stand getting “scrutinized” by the media and picking up tabloids to see pictures of himself with his mouth hanging open.
Coincidentally, on March 17, photos of Combs with his mouth hanging open appeared on the front page of the New York Post and the Daily News. Both tabloids gave the verdict four more pages of coverage. But while the News remained sober, the Post joined the party with a showcase of tabloid packaging: photos and thumbnail sketches of all the key players, a breakdown of Combs’s business assets, and the juicy gossip that the star and his friends partied at Lotus, a club in the meatpacking district, until 2 a.m. the night before the verdict.
The most embarrassing moment came in a column by Steve Dunleavy, who had defended Combs throughout the trial. Shortly after the verdict, Dunleavy confessed wetly, Combs “grabbed my hand” and thanked him for the fair coverage, saying that from now on, “You’re my uncle.”
On March 18, the Post scored again, with a Cindy Adams exclusive. On top of pending lawsuits from three people who were shot at the crime scene and others, it seems Combs is now facing a child support suit from Kim Porter, an ex-girlfriend who wants “a couple of million” dollars to raise their three-year-old son, Christian, in the manner to which Combs is accustomed. The Post milked the rogue daddy angle for all it was worth, running photos of Combs’s three ex-girlfriends and two sons.
Let it not be said that the News was without gossip. On March 18, they scored with a story on how Combs spent the night after he beat the rap. According to a source who was hanging with him, Combs turned down offers from “several hot nightspots” to celebrate his acquittal and met with friends in a private residence instead.
The trial even washed up on the pages of the Times SundayStyles section. There, John Leland unearthed the most important element of Combs’s courtroom wardrobe, a red woven bracelet known as a bendel. Worn also by Combs’s lawyer Benjamin Brafman, the bendel is sold by beggars in Israel, where it is thought to be a good-luck charm. As Leland wrote, it is used “to deflect the evil eye or envy (what Mr. Combs, as a hip-hop mogul, might call ‘player-hating.’)”
The only note of skepticism came from the News‘ Michael Daly, who wondered if Combs retained any concept of the damage he’d done.
Meet ‘The Columnist’
I could not wait to read the galleys of The Columnist, a novel by Jeffrey Frank that comes out from Simon & Schuster this spring. It’s not just because I know Frank, who is an editor at The New Yorker, or because his protagonist, the self-important Brandon Sladder, is believed to be a composite of many newspaper columnists working today. Most of the book’s action takes place in the ’60s, which probably helps protect some identities, and the unreliable narrator has a prissy, old-fashioned tone. But Frank’s portrait of naked ambition is dead-on and applies just as much to the post-Clinton era as it did to the Vietnam days.
Without giving away too much of the plot, here are some of the elements that make this book so damn scary. Even as a student at the mythical Darleigh College in Massachusetts, Sladder is a budding asshole, blind to the consequences of his actions. He rats on his roommate for fucking in their dorm room, but then cannot understand why he is subsequently blackballed from “every fraternity, even the one that admitted outcasts.”
After graduating, he lands his first newspaper job in Buffalo, where his father works for an insurance company. Desperate for a scoop, he mines his father’s clients’ files for confidential info—only to see his father get fired after the story comes out.
By then, there is no turning back. Sladder moves on to the art of seducing sources while trying to pry secrets out of them, and using any dirt he picks up on his fellow citizens as potential blackmail material. In 1963, at the age of 24, he lands a job in Washington, writing for a political magazine called New Terrain.
Hmm. Housed “a block or so south” of Dupont Circle, New Terrain is a hotbed of politicos, including an “arrogant” literary editor with gleaming hair by the name of Lionel Heftihed. Sladder soon makes the acquaintance of Madeleine Whitbridge, a gossipy widow who, he claims, “was unfairly labeled a ‘Georgetown hostess.’ ” Other familiar types make appearances along the way, including a skirt-chasing senator named Bob Hudnut and an aging talk-show host known as Morton Manatie.
The Washington Post has already seen in Sladder a few hints of Sidney Blumenthal and George Will, and no doubt the book will get a lot of publicity as insiders speculate about the real people on whom these caricatures are based. But what makes my skin crawl is the slowly unfurling pattern of manipulation and betrayal that underlies Sladder’s brilliant career. Every woman he meets is a stepping stone; every social invitation turns out to be fungible in the event a better one comes along. And for every insightful piece Sladder writes, it seems he is doomed to publish something so naive and wrongheaded that it boomerangs, bringing disgrace on his employers.
Frank was formerly an editor for the Outlook section of The Washington Post, but he says that has nothing to do with his fictional descriptions of the daily Washington Telegram, where Sladder finally lands his dream job. Shortly after our hero is hired, he inserts a pro-Vietnam spin into an unsigned editorial, whereupon the newspaper’s owners embrace him and his colleagues denounce him as a government “shill.”
No sooner does Sladder become a Telegram political columnist than karma kicks in and this sleazy bastard begins to get what’s coming to him, over and over again. It’s an ugly story, but a necessary one that should put the fear of God in us all.
Peter Noel’s coverage of Puff Daddy in the Voice.