Jewish World Review May 20, 1999/ 5 Sivan 5759
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For example, in the last edition, the cover pictures Sonny Bono with the headline 'Our First Annual Celebrities Who Skied Into Trees and Died About A Year And A Half Ago Issue!!' Fishwrap roasts NAMBLA, Judy Garland, Claire Danes, Jerry Seinfeld, Esquire, Spin, Gear, Michael Stipe and Spike Lee. It celebrates the often groundbreaking publications that mainstream journalists still refer to as 'supermarket tabloids.'
There's an incongruous, but not entirely dull, cartoon of Bob Dole as Hitler.
My favorite item in the latest Fishwrap was written by Wombacher, a stupid but funny sendup of editors' letters in more 'respectable' publications like Details and Esquire.
He writes about a media party he crashed, and while he partook of the food and drink, he says, 'It was a typical magazine party filled with public relations phonies, pompous writers and editors and...publicists.' Wombacher doesn't fit in, he says, but doesn't mind being the biggest jerk in the crowd. He continues: 'Anyhoo, I'm minding my own business, drinking and thinking hateful thoughts and pretty much wishing death on the whole stinking party. Then a friend of mine introduces me to one of the many female publicists in attendance that night.
'I know I'll get in trouble for this, but the woman was a little, umm, how should I put this...well, she was a big fat slob. And don't get me wrong, I don't judge people by their weight. I'm in pretty rotten shape myself, so I'm the last person who should care about weight on people. And I think a few extra pounds on a woman more often than not looks pretty good. Remember when Madonna started out and she had that little roll around her tum-tum? I liked that. A lot.'
Curious? Call Wombacher at 212-243-6197 and see what this odd misanthrope has to say. Or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's Always The Yellow Brick Road: A Twist of Manhattan's Elite
I'm somewhat tardy in reporting on the Mother's Day festivities at the MUGGER household, but with good reason: a 24-hour virus no doubt caused by a batch of beef lo mein fried in rancid oil. That Sunday morning started off just swell. I awoke with MUGGER III and we played until Junior awoke and dialed up Nintendo 64's Zelda, which was far more interesting for my younger son than the makeshift wrestling matches we'd been having. Meanwhile, Mrs. M slept in, but when she made her entrance, the boys quickly gathered a bunch of gifts. And what a haul: a collection of MAD comics from the 70s, some homemade flowers Junior made in school, a few framed pictures and three photo albums that chronicled the past year's holidays and our trips to Bermuda, Los Angeles, London and Paris.
My troubles didn't start until five minutes into the splendid production of The Wizard of Oz at the Garden; it was a whiz-bang show, with dramatic pyrotechnics, and the story moved along briskly with no intermission. Jo Anne Worley was a convincing Wicked Witch of the West-the boys' favorite-and Mickey Rooney proved he still has about 15 steps on Bob Hope and other geezers from his era playing the hapless Wizard. When we left, we ran into NYPress' Kim Granowitz, along with her mother and nephew, while Junior bought cotton candy with a cool rasta hat, and MUGGER III-or rather, Dad-got snookered on a $20 plastic replica of the Tin Man.
No, what got to me was one whiff of MUGGER III's hotdog. From that point on, I knew I was in for a day of bed rest, along with continual trips to the facilities. I slept, caught up on reading, but was mostly down for the count.
Fortunately, the malady subsided largely by Monday afternoon, just in time to attend The New Yorker's party at Da Silvano in honor of their staffer Kurt Andersen's new novel Turn of the Century. Mrs. M met John Strausbaugh and me at the restaurant on lower 6th Ave. and it was a little odd seeing so many journalists who've appeared in this column in a less than flattering light. It was comforting that Andersen, his lovely wife Anne Kreamer and Random House publisher Ann Godoff provided us entree to the affair, so we felt somewhat immunized from the bad vibes that hacks like David Granger, Ken Auletta and Calvin Trillin sprinkled throughout the environs like puff-clouds of mediocrity.
(Actually, I was tempted to ask Trillin's advice on barbecue in Memphis, a city I'm visiting in two weeks, but didn't have the bad taste to introduce myself. I'm sure he hasn't seen my suggestions that he be sent to a retirement home for over-the-hill writers like Richard Berke and Timothy Noah, but just in case, I kept my distance.)
The New York Times' Alex Kuczynski, a perky reporter with a husky voice, mock-strangled me for my nasty remarks about her mistake-riddled media articles in that paper's business section. Michael Hirschorn, late of Spin and now writing for the increasingly kooky Michael Kinsley's Slate, was gracious, diplomatically insisting he was satisfied with any ink at all. Larry Doyle, a writer for The Simpsons, was in from L.A. and complained that I once wrote he went to Harvard (since he was a Spy and New York alumnus under the Andersen regime, what would you surmise?) and maintained, proudly, that he matriculated at a school in Illinois.
Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter and his wife Cynthia breezed in and immediately felt at home, not letting on, at least to me, the upcoming storm with writer Jennet Conant, who resigned later in the week when her VF article about the horrific Brill's Content was spiked. Conant let everybody in the world know that it was a 'sad day for Vanity Fair,' but who knows, maybe the piece just plain sucked. GQ editor Art Cooper was beaming, and his wife Amy made my day by complimenting a new windowpane suit and gold-patterned tie.
I snapped a few pictures, and hung out in a corner by the entrance and watched the biggest collection of notables I've seen in a coon's age. I guess I'm just not used to these affairs, but New Yorker editor David Remnick really threw a star-studded party for Andersen. I chatted with former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld for a few minutes and he let on that while he's mostly aboard the George W. Bush bandwagon, he also has shreds of enthusiasm for Lamar Alexander (bringing the bitter Tenneseean's followers to about four) and John Kasich ('a fellow who's 47 going on 35'). Tom Brokaw strolled in, just minutes after he completed his NBC broadcast, and I didn't have the nerve to introduce myself to Joan Didion, one of my favorite writers of the past generation. Who else: Conan O'Brien, Andersen's old Spy partner Tom Phillips, Charlie Rose, Kathleen Turner, James Cramer, Harvey Weinstein, Nora Ephron, Newsweek's Rich Turner and Stanley Crouch. Tina Brown was nowhere in sight.
It was when Eric Alterman and George Stephanopoulos cruised into Da Silvano that I put away the camera and stayed outside for good. While getting a mineral water from the bar I did see the duo deep in conversation with Time's Walter Isaacson and the thought of what could emerge from that meeting rattled me enough to last a week. I ran into my old friend Susan Orlean, an accomplished author and New Yorker staff writer, as well as the Post's Mary Huhn and finally 'Page Six''s Richard Johnson, who was rather subdued, except to say that he fully approved of the Brill's Content May gossip issue. Johnson and I have had numerous feuds in the past, but they're always short-lived; he's a fine fellow. I wasn't so jolly last Sunday when his column plumped a Toby Young bit from Taki's NYPress 'Top Drawer' section without mentioning our paper, but what the heck.
On May 17, Kuczynski, in a Times piece called 'Fact, Fiction and the Media Fishbowl,' chronicled the event, eliciting a post-mortem from Andersen the next day at lunch. He told Kuczynski about meeting Kathleen Turner, the actress whose finest role, in my mind, came in John Waters' underappreciated Serial Mom. Andersen: 'She was the one famous person I didn't know. She asked me to sign her book. It was one of those surreal moments where I felt like I was in some specific, high-end Disney attraction where you can feel like a celebrity for five minutes, having flashbulbs go off in your face while you sign a book for a famous actress.'
Satiated from such a strange gathering of self-absorbed journalists and the like, Mrs. M and I walked home, tucked the boys in and ordered takeout from Kitchenette down the street. No fear of ptomaine poisoning from that cozy beanery. The shells with marinara and garlic were just fine, as was the turkey meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Andersen's first novel has received mostly glorious reviews, particularly Daniel Akst's in last Friday's Wall Street Journal. Akst wrote: 'Can a book destined for every beach blanket and nightstand in the Hamptons really be any good?... The answer to [this question] appears to be yes, judging by the evidence of Kurt Andersen's elegant and relentless fictional sendup of the way we live now, or at least of the way a few of us live-the rich, noisy, media-obsessed few for whom Seattle and Silicon Valley have lately supplanted Washington as the most important places outside of New York and Los Angeles.'
The book, which had an astonishing first printing of 100,000, also received raves from Salon's James Poniewozik ('[W]hat he has created is impressive: a well-imagined picture of an info-teeming, overmediated, very possible near future, and, more important, of a class of people whom words, literally, fail'), The New York Times and Suck. Less enamored was The New York Observer's Adam Begley, who wrote a pissy, passing-as-smart, I-Know-Tom-Wolfe-And-You're-No-Tom-Wolfe review in that paper's May 17 edition. It's my suspicion that Begley, and the Observer's editors, anticipated a stream of gushy reviews and decided to start the backlash. Begley whines about Turn of the Century: 'It's good but not great, smart but not brilliant, engaging but not astonishing... Part of the problem is that Mr. Andersen is not good with emotion. He can do a speakerphone but not a crying jag.'
Begley's article screams out that he's not the 'player' that he describes Andersen as; that the author has gotten a free ride because of his fabled track record in New York journalism. It's jealousy, if you ask me, for even though I know Andersen, before I did I'd always considered him the finest journalist (with the exception of John Strausbaugh) in Manhattan.
On the subject of the Observer, I detect that editor Peter Kaplan is running the show on autopilot. What else can explain his allowing 'Off the Record' columnist Carl Swanson to get away with a cliche like 'There's always been a bit of friction between The New York Times Magazine and the legions of ink-stained wretches who fill that paper every day.' Ink-stained wretches! My bet is that if one of the stiffs at the Times spills a drop of mayo on his Brooks Bros. or Gap dress shirt he'd bellow, 'Eeehhheww, gross.' That's how close they get to ink in the 90s. That said, Swanson's piece on the battle between Magazine editor Adam Moss and the daily Times writers was his best item in many weeks.
He took out both factions. Moss expressed concern that the daily reporters might not report the 'ruthless' pieces he's looking for, as if his product actually has teeth. On the other hand, Swanson writes: 'Occasionally a Times Magazine editor is confronted with an angry daily mandarin who demands, "Do you know who you're dealing with?'' But back to Kaplan and the increasingly lethargic Observer. Sure, it's a bonus that Joe Conason is on vacation, but Tish Durkin's takes on New York politics aren't filled with insight; columnist Anne Roiphe is allowed to soil the pages with her racist tripe; the paper still employs Rex Reed; and if Kaplan has taken a look at 'The Eight-Day Week' quasi-listings section in the last year I'd be surprised, judging by what gets printed.
(I've had my ups and downs with the Observer, as a reader, and don't think my current observations are compromised by unsuccessful attempts to raid two of the paper's best columnists, Michael Thomas and Ron Rosenbaum.)
Uh-Oh, Someone's Gone Over The Edge
Manhattan's insular journalism society is quite unbelievable. It's not even high school stuff we're dealing with here-strictly kindergarten. Last Saturday morning, while I was editing an article for this week's issue, I received an instant AOL message from Joe Conason. The transcript reads as follows:
Conason: I have a question for you.
JC: If it's not true then why not let me listen to the tapes?
JC: But she sounded sincere-told me she complained to you.
RS: She didn't complain to me. No one has ever complained to me or John after being interviewed, even Bobby Kennedy, who was pleasantly surprised by the way his interview turned out.
JC: You keep changing the subject to other interviews.
RS: Why don't you let me interview you and you'll see that we conduct and edit our interviews in a completely professional manner. You up for it?
JC: Don't have time for that right now. I would consider it later but only if I could establish that you edited others' comments about me fairly...
RS: I don't hate you. I hate your writing. I don't know you. But if you
did an interview with us you could tape it too.
RS: I think it would make interesting reading. What clip is that? I don't know you. Why would I hate you. I think your writing is wrong and you're arrogant as hell on tv but I don't know you so I don't hate you.
RS: Well, I'm done with this. Email me later.
Conason never did get back to me. But I did receive the following statements from Lucianne Goldberg and Kurt Andersen. Goldberg: 'What the hell is he talking about? I think he's on some kind of tear. Maer Roshan, of New York, QUOTING ME in an interview in February wrote that I said Conason was a "sniveling Clinton toadie.' Now Conason is not speaking to Roshan. He should go back and finish high school before he plays with the big boys. Maybe he will stop speaking to YOU if you tell him I said to get lost. Conason is right. He shouldn't trust Trixie. I'd stab him in the back the first chance I got. Go out in the sunshine. I have to do my show but there is no reason you should suffer.'
Andersen: 'Joe, with whom I am passingly friendly, phoned me about my comment in the New York Press q&a. I was glad he did, so that I could reiterate to him what I had said to you guys-that he's smart and that I don't (Muggerishly) hate his writing, but that his diehard pro-Clinton predictability is why his Observer column has left me pretty cold over the last year or so.
'I also pointed out to Joe, by way of quasi-excuse-making for my quasi-dis, the context-that it was in response to Russ' suggestion that Joe is to the media left what Laura Ingraham is to the media right. And I also mentioned, after he brought up a story of his I once published, that Salon, to which he contributes, had finally published an important correction concerning that piece. I can only speculate that one or both of those remarks of mine may be what he took as some confirmation of his distortion allegation.
'But what you said I said about Joe Conason was, I'm confident, what I said: that I tend not to read his columns because they so seldom surprise me.'
No Panic On the Upper West Side
Oh, c'mon! You can stomach another story about 'blue collar' populist/millionaire Michael Moore, right? Last Friday, the Post's 'Page Six' ran a funny item about how Moore has now targeted MUGGER's friend Lucianne Goldberg, no doubt for his horrendous Bravo show The Awful Truth.
Moore has set up a camera trained on Goldberg's apartment, apparently in retaliation for her alliance with Linda Tripp. On his website, Moore says, 'Lucianne, it seems, does not respect the privacy rights of others. She believes in keeping an eye on persons who are a threat to the country. So do we.'
Richard Johnson writes about a recent talk show on which they both appeared: 'Moore makes the dubious claim that when Goldberg politely kissed him on the cheek, he whipped out a cotton swab and a baggie and saved a sample of Goldberg's saliva. "With someone like Lucianne, it's best to be prepared. Now I have this if ever I should need it,' Moore dead-panned.
'"Oh please,' Goldberg groans. "If this is a joke, it isn't funny, and if it's serious, it's probably actionable. Which is fine, since my lawyers haven't had anything to do in weeks.''
And now, as the geriatric pundit William Schneider would say, here's the story behind the story. Goldberg told me later that Friday afternoon: 'I have retracted my invitation for him to use my guest room because the cost of fumigation is too high. The man is a yutz but his biggest crime is that he isn't funny. When I met him he fawned, literally reached out to touch my sleeve like some lovesick kid. I have turned down several offers of money to put up various signs. I think I'll just go with "Moore Sucks.''
I guess I'm a publicity whore like so many other journos, as Taki might say, but I did get a hoot out of Joanna Coles' take on the Geo Stephanopoulos breakfast at the 92nd St. Y that I wrote about some weeks back. I mentioned her in my piece; we sat next to each other and marveled at the antipathy the crowd seemed to harbor toward the press, as if they were all stand-ins for Lanny Davis.
Coles' article ran in the April 14 London Times, and although she's based in New York she's clearly still amazed at the pace here, describing the reaction of a friend who thought she was daft for attending a morning lecture. 'And in London,' Coles wrote, 'it's true, nothing would have persuaded me to attend a breakfast lecture. But here, the hours from 6 to 9am are viewed as time aching to be filled, and not just by joining the early-bird run around the Central Park reservoir.'
She then gently mocked the power-breakfast ladies who bragged, in between bites of 'bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon,' 'decadent chocolate muffin[s]' and 'swollen mulberries,' who claimed they could extend their working day by getting up so early.
Coles caught the drift of the lefty crowd filled with lawyers much as I did, as well as Time managing editor Walter Isaacson's obsequious introduction of the currently well-compensated Stephanopoulos, who was one of the lucky few survivors of Bill Clinton's corrupt administration.
(Fine, call me a 'Clinton-hater.' You tell me what president has disgraced this country, both at home and abroad, more than Clinton. And don't even dare mention Nixon: After all, it was Clinton who gave such a crocodile-tears-infused eulogy at that tortured president's funeral in '94.)
Coles then poked fun at yours truly: 'A man with a briefcase dotted with dinosaur and Disney stickers hustles into the empty seat next to me.
It's Russ Smith, one of the city's wealthier mavericks, and owner-editor of the New York Free Press, a weekly conservative free-sheet, and author of The Mugger, a column that constantly berates liberal journalists. He produces an old camera from his bag and darts up to the front of the stage where, crouching low, he starts taking illicit snapshots like an excited teenager at a rock concert.'
Ahem. I think Coles was trying to be complimentary-and she was charming in person-but there are those nasty facts she must get a better grip on. First, the 'old camera' was purchased at Harrod's just two weeks before the event; there are dinosaurs on my briefcase, but no Disney characters, just Furious George, Soul Coughing and Power Ranger stickers; and this was no 'rock concert' to me. Just another event on MUGGER's often mundane calendar.
The No-Tolerance Zone
Dan Kennedy, the left-wing Boston Phoenix media critic, has an odd notion of independence, and capitalism for that matter. In his May 13 column, for example, he lambasted the 'contemptible' Howard Stern for his well-publicized and admittedly tasteless comments after the Littleton shootings. He then quotes Stern about the canning of radio personality Doug 'The Greaseman' Tracht, who was fired by his Washington, DC, station (WARW) after making a racist joke about hiphopper Lauryn Hill. Stern said, 'Why should he be fired over something he feels? And he apologized, after all. They fired him because they couldn't take the heat. The station has no backbone. If he had some ratings like I do, he'd be able to get away with it.'
Kennedy then captures his game: 'Bulls-eye,' he writes. Does Kennedy advocate violating First Amendment rights or the prerogative of a media outlet to hire or fire whomever they choose? Probably not, but his hatred for Stern seems so intense that he can't do what others choose when they find material offensive: turn the dial or shut the radio off.
Yet a week earlier in his column he moaned about the sale of the Advocate alternative newspaper chain to Times Mirror Co., which owns a daily in Hartford (the Courant) where one of the Advocate papers is distributed. Andrey Slivka's front-page story this week details the transaction in depth, but I'd like to know why Kennedy is so upset that a media conglomerate has bought its competition, a paper he likes, but appears to be so adamant about Stern remaining on the air? And when in doubt, call Ben Bagdikian, author of The Media Monopoly, who told Kennedy, 'The alternative paper as a distinctive, progressive, cutting-edge medium is rapidly disappearing.' Adds 'veteran progressive journalist and media activist' Danny Schechter, 'If the Times Mirror Company, powerful as it is, starts buying up community papers, then other chains are going to think they have to do it in order to stay competitive.'
A few points. Bagdikian is living in the past, perhaps recalling his hometown weekly, The Berkeley Barb, if he doesn't already know that the alternative press, at least 90 percent of it, hasn't been 'progressive,' 'distinctive' or a 'cutting-edge medium' for at least a generation. As for Schecter, media conglomerates (say, Dean Singleton's outlet) have been buying community newspaper chains for years now. In addition, when alternative newspapers are sold-in the last several years, most prominently to the alternative New Times chain and Leonard Stern's Village Voice group of newspapers-they are invariably improved. In every market New Times has entered, buying an existing alternative, they've invested heavily in editorial staff, a strong sales force and modern business practices, exactly the kind of ammunition that's necessary to fight the daily papers.
That the Advocate owners chose to sell to Times
Mirror was their own decision; I don't know why Kennedy is so
05/19/99: Gore Pushes The Panic Button-Again