Brill’s Contempt and the Killing of Sister Jenny

That Big Brother wields no less power of suppression while wearing a Gucci-Hermès power tie than when clad in drab bureaucratic gray was shockingly brought home twice recently.

On Wednesday, May 12, Jennet Conant, a marquee writer for Vanity Fair known for calling ‘em as she sees ‘em (and a friend of this correspondent), went off with her husband, Steve Kroft, the 60 Minutes anchor (also a friend and golfing mate of this correspondent), to the annual gala of PEN. The latter is an organization theoretically dedicated to protecting the rights of writers everywhere–and, by extension, the freedom of expression. This seems to be the case if you are a beleaguered dissident in, say, Kuala Lumpur or Bogotá, but if you happen to be a writer in Manhattan or Kansas strung out and left to die artistically or financially by one of the big New York publishing houses, forget it! My experience of PEN is that it functions to supply the big-house, big-advance names who make up its governing boards with their minimum daily requirement of ego-building, networking and self-congratulation, and little else. That is why I resigned from the organization some time ago.

On arrival, Ms. Conant was besieged by one of the “publishing beat” reporters who haunt such affairs: Did she know, he asked, that Steve Brill, publisher of Brill’s Content , was working the room, in what amounted to a series of mini-press conferences, with the boast that he had gotten Ms. Conant’s just-closed profile of him “killed” by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter?

Wow! How about that! Such a boast being made by a self-styled crusading watchdog journalist whose own first issue, don’t I recall, got off the ground thanks to his ability to play his specious assertion of media manipulation by Ken Starr on the talk-show circuit. Such a boast being made, and listened to, by people at least notionally gathered to celebrate and salute freedom of speech. There are really only three words for this kind of performance: disgusting, disgraceful, dishonorable.

For some time, apparently, Mr. Brill had been working hard to undermine Ms. Conant’s piece, charging that it was to be “a hatchet job.” This begs the question whether any portrayal of Steve Brill that can make the slightest claim to objectivity or accuracy can be anything but. I personally think he’s a complete phony; when he started his magazine, I went to see him about the possibility of doing some work there–reduced circumstances and a natural writerly desire for a larger readership oblige me to investigate all such possibilities, including Time (see below)–but came away convinced that what he was saying he had in mind and what he would in fact turn out were so far apart that I could never fit. He hired Calvin Trillin to fill the space.

To cut to the chase: It turns out that Mr. Brill knew whereof he strutted. Ms. Conant’s piece had indeed been spiked by the man who commissioned it, Graydon Carter. Upon verifying this, Ms. Conant did what anyone with her genes and principles would do: She resigned.

The Brill piece is the second of Ms. Conant’s to have been spiked in the past six months. The first, about the egregious waste of money being committed in Hollywood by the Ivy League teleplay-writing “mafia” also touched a sore subject, especially with the studio-publicist “suits” upon whom Carter- Vanity Fair is dependent for the photo-op subjects that produce the cover-driven newsstand sales that he needs to make his numbers. I also think Ms. Conant touched a sensitive nerve with her piece last year about Brown University, the only Ivy League college where Prada is more central to the student experience than Plato, and the place where most of these ghastly, peer-pressured people send their children.

You hear all sorts of gossip about the “killing of Sister Jenny.” Of phone calls to Mr. Carter (or, presumably, to his proprietor S.I. Newhouse Jr.) by Barry Diller and George Soros, partners of Mr. Brill in a variety of ventures, including an “e-commerce” scheme so big and brilliant it is destined to be “the next Amazon.com” and of which not a word can be breathed, especially in print (Ms. Conant’s piece apparently includes a brief allusion to this) lest its fragile perfection be compromised. Being a fellow with an abiding interest in better mousetraps, I’m going to make it my personal project to find out more about this boondoggle. Watch this space.

I have to say I’m confused by Graydon Carter’s acquiescence. When he was editor of this newspaper, he was a real champion of his ink-stained wretches. Of course, the pressures on him there would be different than they were here. At The Observer , we don’t have any low-rate loans to buy town houses; our proprietor stands taller than 5 feet 5 (with all that can entail); my guess is that, last year, this entire paper spent less than $200 at the Royalton restaurant; Graydon has to make bigger numbers with less of substance; our Oscar party is one that people beg to stay away from. These sorts of things have to weigh heavily, even on a serious and committed editor, although I might add that, some years ago, when I wrote a piece here that an editor changed without telling me, it was the editor who got spiked.

Then, while I was pondering Carter-Conant-Brill, the phone rang and it was Bob Hughes, with the news that a critique he had written of the new Star Wars movie had been spiked by Brigadier Brownose, Time managing editor Walter Isaacson, who presides over a regime that has been characterized to me as “the present equilibrium of ass-licking.” In that sort of operation, when news of Mr. Hughes’ lèse -Lucas penetrated the din of story-pitching flacks who throng Mr. Isaacson’s office even from the rising of the sun, it would have been “Battle stations!” all around, because God help the memory of Henry Luce if the nation’s leading newsmagazine should publish strong criticism of anything with Star Wars B.Q.! The latter, which stands for “Buzz Quotient,” is my coinage for the standard by which the American media, shaped by the talk-show Gestalt, measure the newsworthiness or the cultural significance and utility of everything these days!

Mr. Hughes is not the kind of fellow one spikes lightly, and his national stature as art critic and cultural commentator permits him to talk the talk and walk the walk. To paraphrase an observation I made years ago to an editor apropos, modestly, of myself: “People pay to see

Hughes hit, not to watch Isaacson manage.” I should say at this point that when Walter took over at Time , I suggested myself as a voice he could use. He hired Bud Trillin. I think there must be a lesson here.

In the event, Bob mentioned the situation to Harry Evans, in whom, it is obvious, the old newspapering flame still flickers with flinty brightness, and that is why you could read Mr. Hughes’ five- (negative) star pan of the Lucas film in the Daily News of May 16. I have to congratulate Walter Isaacson; I always knew he was destined for greatness, and to drive a piece by one of his true stars into a Sunday tabloid is a spot on Time ‘s reputation as black and permanent as any I can think of, and certainly puts one in the record books.

The bottom line in all this is what’s scary. Mr. Brill’s hypocrisy, Mr. Carter’s cowardice, the utter surrender of journalistic principle at Time are all part of a process that is driving truth further and further to the margins of American media. But take comfort: because I also think the media are driving themselves further and further to the margins of American life. Still, do not dismiss this too lightly, either, as a mere tempest in a Four Seasons teacup, good for a day or two and then on to the next B.Q. sensation. There are principles at stake here, and wherever principles are at stake, as was well understood by Hamilton or Jefferson or Lincoln or Justice Holmes, there is serious business to be done–and seriously.