Inside The New York Times ‘ Gossip Column

Public Lives, The New York Times ‘ “non-gossip gossip column,” as executive editor Joseph Lelyveld prefers to call it, turned 1 year old on Jan. 6. To most Times watchers, that’s hard to believe. It seems like just yesterday they were stroking their chins over such impeccably sourced items as the one that went: “Casey Exton of Outlaw Biker magazine did it his way. He had new stationery printed with this line below his address in Hoboken, N.J.: ‘The home of Frank Sinatra and Outlaw Biker .’”

Yet that certain je ne sais quoi that makes Public Lives a compelling, if avowedly quizzical, must-read Tuesday through Friday lies primarily in the window it provides into The Times ‘ on-going identity crisis. That and the strange enjoyment media mavens get out of scratching their heads and exclaiming, “Why’d they print that ?”

Mr. Lelyveld attests that he’s “extremely happy” with Public Lives, an idea he willed into existence against much institutional resistance, including a bit of reluctance on the part of his Metro editor, Joyce Purnick, who took over the section in the middle of the column’s gestation period. “I ran into Ben Bradlee and told him what we were doing,” said Mr. Lelyveld. “And I said, we’re not going to do gossip. He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s what we said, too.’ And we haven’t yet.”

To the readers of such curious little stories as the Dec. 15 tale of Miramax Films executive Tina Brown seeing one of her new boss’ films, Shakespeare in Love , for the third time, this could be the problem. As Ms. Purnick, the current overseer of Public Lives, explained rather sternly: “Whether it runs on the front page or the editorial page, it has to conform to our standards. The same level of heavy reporting, no reliance on rumor, no floating of half-baked stories.”

Which leaves some embarrassed Times editors grousing that what you’re left with is “basically a contradiction in terms”: a non-gossip gossip column that was designed to stay hip with what the readers want but which, when milled through the institutional intransigence of the paper, ends up more or less canceling itself out.

“There’s a lot of things that happen at night,” noted one Times man. “We’re a staff of middle-aged people who go home at 6:30 after putting the nice paper to bed. The idea was to send people out at night, but it’s very hard to find people here to do it.” Ultimately, the editor added, it leads to “feeding from handouts from publicists.”

The press agents don’t mind that at all. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t give to Public Lives. It’s The New York Times !” declared publicist Nadine Johnson. Of course, even if she does give it to them, they don’t always print it, which explains why the brunt of Ms. Johnson’s juicy bits end up in the New York Post ‘s Page Six–edited, as it happens, by her husband Richard.

Mr. Lelyveld decided The Times needed a new gossip column about two years ago. The idea was born out of the feeling that with a new stand-alone sports section, it would be harder to sell ads deep in Metro. “There was a feeling that Metro was too much government and crime and politics,” said Mr. Lelyveld. Plus, “there was a feeling that we had never made as much of an effort on Chronicle as we ought to.”

So, at the start of 1997, Metro writers Bruce Weber and Frank Bruni were dispatched to put together a prototype. “The marching orders were vague,” said one person familiar with that incarnation. The project attracted the attention of New York magazine’s Intelligencer gossips, who quoted a Times source saying, “A lot of writers at the paper feel it’s beneath them.” Perhaps with good reason. New York attributed Mr. Weber’s on-the-record quotes to Mr. Bruni and had to run a correction.

The whole thing was put in turnaround for a couple months after that. Then in the spring of 1997, it re-emerged, with then-Metro editor Michael Oreskes leading the charge and Times magazine editor Adam Moss advising. “It was an effort to create a really rich Metro section that made you feel like you were dining on all of New York,” said Mr. Oreskes, who admits to being a closet reader of People magazine.

To that end, Mr. Oreskes decided it was time to Meet the Gossips. “We were trying to understand what people were doing, what might be right for us to do,” he said. “I think we were also giving serious thought to who we wanted to do it.” Mr. Oreskes had breakfast or lunch with just about every one of them, including the Daily News ‘ George Rush and Joanna Molloy, MSNBC’s Jeannette Walls, New York ‘s Beth Landman Keil, The Observer ‘s Frank DiGiacomo and former Washington Post Reliable Source columnist Lois Romano.

The Times seemed “very trepidatious about the idea of doing any kind of unsubstantiated quotes or sources,” said one gossip. “They asked me what I thought of Matt Drudge. I said that The New York Times used unattributed sources all the time on the front page … They’re so used to being spoon-fed information they don’t know how to do unauthorized news there.”

“It was very interesting listening to what they think about that kind of journalism,” said Mr. Oreskes of his gossip dates. “Each of them had their own views on how they operated” in terms of “sourcing, standards, pejorative unattributed sources and pejorative tone.”

Mr. Rush had breakfast with Mr. Oreskes at the Millennium Hotel that summer. “I think that Michael was running up against some resistance wondering if it belonged in the paper,” he said. “He acknowledged that some people feel that The Times couldn’t keep up its standards on the column.”

“You can’t abandon your standards in order to do things like this or it will become an embarrassment,” Mr. Oreskes acknowledged.

Faced with these concerns, at least two of the columnists said they told Mr. Oreskes and Mr. Lelyveld that they didn’t think The Times could do it. But Mr. Lelyveld wasn’t about to be dissuaded. “He didn’t like the idea that there was something The Times couldn’t do,” said one Times editor. “So he persevered.”

The problem was, Mr. Oreskes was named Washington bureau chief, so he wouldn’t be there to help Mr. Lelyveld with the birth. “I would have liked to have seen it though,” he said. But that was left to his successor, Ms. Purnick. Shortly thereafter, according to Times sources, the project stalled. Again.

Ms. Purnick cops to being only a “casual reader of gossip.” “I don’t have a lot of patience for it,” she said. “I used to work for the New York Post –even after [Rupert] Murdoch was there. I know what goes into Page Six. Plus, a lot of the people that gossip columns write about I don’t much care for.”

The pro-gossip crew had to regroup. The column eventually debuted with a rotating staff of three profilers–Metro feature reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, Joyce Wadler and David Firestone (who is leaving this month to join the Atlanta bureau)–and James Barron, a career-long Times man who had worked for the Styles section, on item duty. “It made sense to hire someone who had worked at The Times for a while and knew our ethic,” said Ms. Purnick. (Mr. Barron did not return calls for an interview.)

However laudable that ethic, Public Lives’ launch on Jan. 6, 1998, was not necessarily auspicious. There was a kids-say-the-darndest-things item on local labor leader Victor Gotbaum’s 5-year-old granddaughter’s eventual plans for higher office; the dual defection of Mark Golin and Catherine Romano from Cosmopolitan to Maxim (complete with a meticulous, two-sentence explanation of the chess term “castling,” which Mr. Golin had used to describe their move); and a vague item about Felix Rohatyn’s wife, Elizabeth, being “back in New York for medical reasons.”

P.R. types were soon flocking to the column. On June 11, Bulldog Reporter , a newsletter for flacks, gushed: “If your client plays a role in a major news event but is too far behind the scenes to be the focus of a story, you won’t find a better placement opportunity than on The New York Times ‘ Public Lives Page.”

A year on, the city’s gossips leaven their envy of The Times with contempt for the page. “I have to force myself to read it,” said one. “I haven’t really felt scooped that many times,” said another. Neal Travis has described it as “insipid” in his Post column and Mr. Rush noted, “Even The Times is doing these flack-generated items that you’d think was beneath them.”

It’s not all bad. Mr. Barron gets some help from those reporters on staff who stumble upon stories when they do go out, and the column has been the site for several small news breaks. But in the end, it doesn’t seem that different from the old Chronicle column. (Indeed, when asked about the difference between the two, Nadine Brozan, who wrote Chronicle for six years and now is on the religion beat, told Off the Record, “If you get the answer to that, I’d love to know it.”)

However, it has its fans. “I think it’s terrific,” said publicist Bobby Zarem. “Everybody in the world mentions seeing it. It’s widely read and important.” And even inside the paper there’s a feeling that the mini-profiles are a success–so much so that the format is going to be expanded to the National section on Mondays (without the frill of small items).

Still, for all the wry placements in the column, publicists don’t seem to have much respect for it. “There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to it,” said one. “They can’t capture the hyperbole of an event,” said another. “They’re more interested in the boldfaced names.”

According to the calculations made in the Observer 500 list, an interesting selection of boldfaced names popped up in Public Lives: such non-notable celebrities as WABC anchor Bill Beutel, Steve Kroft, Dominick Dunne, Nina Griscom and Plácido Domingo made Public Lives’ Top 10 list this year. Also popular: Robert De Niro, Rosie O’Donnell, Donald Trump and Nancy Reagan.

And so it’s come to this. Publicists disrespect it by using it as a dumping ground, Times reporters and editors are hamstrung in their ability to report gossip by the paper’s own ethical standards, and readers with enquiring minds are left to cock an eyebrow and periodically snort. Still, the powers that be don’t seem to mind. As one Times source put it, “The expectations were low, so everyone thinks it’s a smashing success.”

Which isn’t such a surprise when you consider how the column is perceived by its own custodian, Ms. Purnick. “The whole celebrity culture eludes me, so why should I read about it?” she states. “There. I’ve given you the perfect New York Times response.”

When she arrives as editor of The Hollywood Reporter on Jan. 18, Anita Busch will finally be in a position to wreak revenge on her ex-employer, Variety . Ms. Busch left Variety in high dudgeon in September 1997 after a dispute with editor Peter Bart over a correction he ran regarding one of her stories. The thing is, she used to work at the Reporter , too, and loudly quit there to jump to Variety three years before in a dispute with another reporter. And in September, she loudly quit Entertainment Weekly after yet another editorial dispute.

Ms. Busch is regarded as one of the most dogged and skilled reporters on the film business beat, but by all accounts she is not an easygoing woman. “It wasn’t the right fit for either of us at Entertainment Weekly ,” she said. (James Seymore, EW ‘s managing editor, wouldn’t comment.) “The way I was trained, my experience is in breaking news … It’s great to be back in the breaking news business.”

Her dislike for Mr. Bart, her former boss at Variety , is well known in the industry, as is her feeling that he plays favorites in the business and goes soft on people. “Peter likes to break stories, but if you’re writing about Sony today, then you have to talk to them again next week,” explained Dan Cox, Variety ‘s film editor. “It’s not that we’re sucking up to them.” Mr. Cox added that newly heated competition with The Reporter would probably reduce Variety ‘s ability to hold certain items, like news of a pending deal, in exchange for an exclusive. Mr. Bart tried to remain diplomatic. “It’ll be good, hopefully, to have some competition,” he said. “I wish her the best. She’s a good reporter.” But he’s perfectly capable of casting aspersions on her departure from Variety . “Whether she quit or was asked to leave, being a gentleman I won’t comment on that,” he said.

Ms. Busch’s fiery reputation precedes her, of course. “Manage other people?” asked one Tinseltown journalist who has worked with her, “She can’t manage herself.” In anticipation of her arrival, Hollywood Reporter publisher and editor in chief Robert Dowling reorganized the staff so that there was a layer of management upon which she can stand and conceptualize. “I’ve always wanted her back here,” he said.