The Writers of The People vs. Big Tobacco Are Just Doing Their Job

The next time you feel underappreciated at work, consider the lot of three reporters for Bloomberg Business News–Carrick Mollenkamp, Adam Levy and Joseph Menn–who together authored The People vs. Big Tobacco , a Barbarians at the Gate -like account of the events that led the nation’s tobacco companies to agree, in June 1997, to a proposed $368.5 billion settlement. After busting their tails to crank out the in-house book in record time with little financial incentive, Bloomberg sources say that the three reporters have had to sit back and watch as their bigfooting boss, Jeffrey Rothfeder, the head of Bloomberg’s national news desk, has taken the lion’s share of the credit. The ordeal has cost the business news service at least one reporter, and has damaged morale at Bloomberg’s Park Avenue headquarters, where reporters work amid huge tropical fishtanks and are given free snacks and sodas to discourage them from leaving their desks.

The saga began in early 1997, when Mr. Mollenkamp was covering the tobacco story out of Bloomberg’s Atlanta bureau, with Mr. Menn working out of Princeton, N.J., as his editor on the national desk. Both men worked with Bloomberg’s Atlanta bureau chief, Mr. Levy, who in turn reported to Mr. Rothfeder, who was also in Princeton. After months of chasing the tobacco story, Mr. Mollenkamp hit upon a huge scoop: Major tobacco companies such as RJR Nabisco Inc. and Philip Morris Companies were engaged in settlement talks with several state attorneys general. After an edit from Mr. Menn and Mr. Levy, Mr. Mollenkamp’s story hit the Bloomberg wires on Feb. 17, 1997. It was big news: National newspapers ran with it, and the next day, on word of the settlement talks, tobacco companies’ stock prices shot up.

Mr. Menn, a former reporter, was so intrigued by the unfolding tobacco story that he gave up editing to help Mr. Mollenkamp chase news. Over the next few months, the duo, with Mr. Levy as their editor, kept Bloomberg out in front on tobacco industry coverage. Then, in June, the reporters had an idea: Why not blow up their wire stories into book form? Mr. Levy got on board, and together the team pitched the book project to their boss, Mr. Rothfeder, who gave the thumbs up. Bloomberg had a newly formed publishing arm, Bloomberg Press, set up to do just this sort of thing, and editors there thought the book would make a perfect quickie paperback. According to Bloomberg sources, the reporters were told that Bloomberg couldn’t guarantee they’d be paid for The People vs. Big Tobacco but that work on the book might pay off later on, when raises were doled out. They were given four weeks to turn in a rough draft.

Working weekends and forgoing sleep, the team met its deadline. They then spent the fall revising the manuscript, with occasional input from Mr. Rothfeder, and over time, The People vs. Big Tobacco took shape as a plotted business thriller, worthy of hardcover.

It was during the late stages of the editing process, sources close to the project say, that Mr. Rothfeder broke the news that his name would also appear on the cover of the book as a “co-author.” Those same sources put his contribution at about 10 percent of the total labor on the project. But Mr. Rothfeder had written books before, notably on computerization in the office in Privacy for Sale , and the publicity-minded people at Bloomberg thought his experience might help sales. Bloomberg sources say that Mr. Rothfeder agreed to list his name last, and that the reporters were assured they’d get to do most of the publicity. When it came time to shoot the author photo, the four men posed together.

The People vs. Big Tobacco was published on Jan. 26 to positive reviews. The Orlando Sentinel called it a “gripping read,” and it was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review , The Economist and Business Week . Bloomberg even hired an outside publicity firm to promote the book. But soon, to the dismay of Messrs. Mollenkamp, Levy and Menn, colleagues say, Mr. Rothfeder assumed the position of sole spokesman. “You have four guys. They’re not going to put us all on the air at the same time, so who do you pick?” Mr. Rothfeder explained. “The decision was to pick the senior man.”

When word got back to the reporters that Mr. Rothfeder was telling his colleagues that he wrote the book from his underlings’ notes, sources in the company said the reporters felt shafted. (Mr. Rothfeder could not be reached for comment by press time.) Incensed by the rumor, Bloomberg colleagues said, Mr. Mollenkamp quit the company for a job at The Wall Street Journal just as the book was preparing to ship. (Mr. Mollenkamp declined to comment.) Mr. Menn also had himself transferred to the San Francisco bureau, sources added, a continent away from Mr. Rothfeder’s big foot.

Since the book came out, Mr. Rothfeder has kept a high profile, giving interviews to National Public Radio, Pacifica Network Radio and local television. And he was the only one of the “co-authors” to be interviewed by Bloomberg’s radio and television networks.

Mr. Menn and Mr. Mollenkamp refused to discuss the way the book has been handled. Their editor and co-author, Mr. Levy, would only say, “In any collaborative effort there are bound to be conflicting views of self-importance.”

Mr. Rothfeder, however, was more than willing to talk. He explained the unusual situation this way: “The culture at Bloomberg is, we’re all one team and whatever we do we do for the good of the company. It’s a different concept, but to me it’s a much better concept.…The company pays us handsomely to work very, very hard … When our annual raises come up–and I’m responsible for their raises–that is being taken into account, and they’re getting a little bit more of a raise because they published a book.”

Based on the calculations of one prominent Manhattan literary agent, the Bloomberg tobacco squad should get more than a “little bit more of a raise.” After doing the math on the book, which sells for $23.95, and including a conservative estimate for the paperback rights, the agent said that on the open market, The People vs. Big Tobacco “would have earned an advance of around $200,000.” Indeed, the scuttlebutt at Bloomberg is that Mr. Menn and Mr. Levy have received that little raise. Mr. Mollenkamp, staff members say, is not cooperating with the publicity for the book.

When asked why Messrs. Mollenkamp, Levy and Menn did not get paid more for writing The People vs. Big Tobacco , Michael Bloomberg, chairman and chief executive of the company, said, “They get paid every month.” Writing the book, he said, was “just part of their job.”

Amid the fish tanks and snack machines in the Bloomberg offices, the book deal has staff members “outraged,” according to one reporter. “Everyone thinks it’s a raw deal,” the reporter said. “If you want to do a book, you should probably quit your job.”

The competitive pressures brought on by the Monica Lewinsky scandal recently resulted in a breakdown of civility between The New York Times and The Washington Post .

For years, The Times and The Post have had a working agreement to inform each other about what stories they’d be running on the next day’s front pages. The papers would fax their front-page lineups to each other just after 10 P.M. every night, giving themselves plenty of time to match and, of course, give credit for any “‘Holy shit!’ stories,” as one Times veteran put it. The papers once stationed runners in each other’s lobbies to do the job and implemented the fax treaty, according to Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, because it “saves taxi fare.”

The fax arrangement most often helps the papers match each other’s obituary pages, reporters said, but occasionally it affects a big story. When The Times broke the news of Betty Currie’s testimony, for example, Post reporters, working off the tip from the nightly fax, put together their own version of the story, which painted Ms. Currie as a reluctant witness.

However, the peace didn’t hold during the short, scoop-driven news cycles of Zippergate. “The [ Post ] faxes started arriving later and later,” said one Times insider. Soon, the papers came to a fax standoff.

“By the time their fax was coming, our paper was ready,” said Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. “So someone here decided we’ll hold on to our fax until we get their fax.”

“As we got into this very competitive situation,” said Mr. Lelyveld, “the thing broke down.”

Part of the problem is that The Times , which until recently printed its Washington editions in New York and trucked them to Washington by the next morning, now prints its Washington papers in Springfield, Va. The new arrangement buys the paper a few extra hours of reporting time to compete with the locally printed Post on breaking stories.

The fax standoff lasted two days before a summit was called. Mr. Lelyveld and Post managing editor Robert Kaiser had a phone conference and “renegotiated” the agreement, according to Mr. Lelyveld. The terms? “We make the fax available, and they make the fax available,” Mr. Lelyveld said.