On April 22, Daily News owner Mortimer Zuckerman met secretly with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir to figure out how to derail a lawsuit in the making from a coalition consisting of his paper, Newsday , the Associated Press, the New York Press Club and The New York Times . The need for secrecy arose because the other members of the coalition weren’t in on Mr. Zuckerman’s unilateral move. In fact, they didn’t find out he’d been negotiating on their behalf until several days later when they met at the end of April to go over the lawsuit with Floyd Abrams, the well-known First Amendment lawyer whom the coalition had hired to take the city to court over systematic police interference with the press.
Mr. Abrams told representatives from the other news organizations that an agreement had been reached. The coalition was not pleased, and confusion over just what was agreed to threatens to undermine the group and its efforts. “He [Mr. Zuckerman] stunned everybody by going down there,” said one source familiar with the situation. And being members of press organizations, the coalition members naturally wondered: What is Mr. Zuckerman really up to?
Fighting the good fight for press freedom, he said. “We were almost always the sole player in this,” Mr. Zuckerman told Off the Record. ” Newsday thought we should go immediately to litigation.” But since “we accomplished what we wanted to,” he said, it made sense to end it out of court–”assuming the agreement could be memorialized properly. I don’t believe in litigation for litigation’s sake.”
The News congratulated itself in an unsigned piece on May 21. The article described the Mayor and Mr. Zuckerman as having reached an agreement “in principle.” If all went according to plan, the paper would end a two-year-old effort to get the police to abide by their own regulations, and would set up a press-police committee of eight members (one police representative for each press organization) to oversee the new détente.
Other members of the coalition doubted whether Mr. Giuliani would really abide by the agreement and said that they weren’t terribly interested in something as vague as a press-police committee. According to Newsday editor Tony Marro, the News had tried to get the other members of the press together on the suit as far back as May 1997. Several months ago, News senior managing editor Arthur Browne and Eve Burton, the paper’s head lawyer, roped the coalition together on the idea that they would sue the city as a group. Mr. Marro is annoyed with Mr. Zuckerman. “I don’t know where it stands,” he said of the suit. “My argument with him was simply that, having brought us into this and leaning on us quite hard and specifically for a lawsuit … that he went off and negotiated on his own without any of the lawyers, including Floyd … They’re talking about an agreement ‘in principle’ and I have no idea what that means.”
According to Mr. Zuckerman, the meeting with Mr. Giuliani went well. Mr. Zuckerman read to the Mayor from the list of violations the coalition had compiled. “The Mayor said that the regulations are not properly enforced,” he said. “He himself felt that the press was kept away from things that he didn’t understand.”
Mr. Abrams said he met with Michael Hess, the city’s corporation counsel, on May 21 to try to work out the deal. “We will either agree with the city on some amicable resolution or we will commence a lawsuit,” Mr. Abrams said. “I think that the Mayor and Mr. Zuckerman agreed on some serious issues and I hope that they can be embodied in something reasonably enforceable.”
Nonetheless, it was unclear just what Mr. Zuckerman had gotten Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Safir to agree to do for the press. “I don’t think anybody knows where we are here,” said Mr. Marro. “Whether we have an agreement or something that is open to endless and ongoing discussions between the police and press on a case-by-case basis.” Primarily, the coalition wants to stop the police from yanking reporters’ and photographers’ press cards without first explaining why in a hearing.
On May 17, Newsday police reporter Leonard Levitt pointed out in an article that the News let City Hall hand-pick Doug Feiden, the paper’s Giuliani-friendly ex-City Hall bureau chief, to do an exclusive ride-along with the Street Crimes Unit. Immediately, some members of the press began to whisper about what business Mr. Zuckerman had with the city that could cause him to cozy up. Mr. Feiden’s May 21 front-page feature overshadowed news that Officer Justin Volpe was probably going to plead guilty to sodomizing Abner Louima with a broomstick. On May 20, the News ran another pro-cop story–the controversial crackdown on drunken drivers was working!–displacing the news that Officer Volpe had bragged about his actions to fellow cops. Meanwhile on the same day in The Times , the accounting firm of Ernst & Young was reported to be asking the city for a $65 million tax break to help them move into a proposed 40-story building on Times Square that Mr. Zuckerman’s real estate company, Boston Properties Inc., is developing. According to The Times , there were objections that in doing so, the city would “bail out a developer who may have overpaid for the land.”
Mr. Zuckerman said that his business interests had nothing to do with his talk with Mr. Giuliani. “People keep thinking there’s a tradeoff there,” he said. “That’s completely unrealistic. My interest is in the editorial integrity of this paper.”
The New Yorker thought enough of Joan Didion’s Nov. 9, 1998, essay on the beyond-the-grave publication of a “new” Ernest Hemingway novel (or “fictionalized memoir,” as it keeps getting called) to put it up for a National Magazine Award in essays and criticism. Ms. Didion made a convincing case against cobbling together whatever stray manuscripts an author had laying about when he died and passing them off as something whole and of a piece with the author’s oeuvre . But none of that kept The New Yorker from blaring the word “Hemingway” across the newsstand flap of its May 24 issue, announcing an excerpt of the book Ms. Didion didn’t think should be published, along with a cozy Lillian Ross recitation of just what good friends she and Hemingway had become after she profiled him for the magazine.
The book, called True at First Light , is due out on July 6. In her essay, Ms. Didion noted that after Hemingway’s death, “what followed was the systematic creation of a marketable product, a discrete body of work different in kind from, and in fact tending to obscure, the body of work published by Hemingway in his lifetime.” This “branding” became so pernicious that Hemingway’s children signed off on a line of Hemingway home furnishings. Ms. Didion seemed to think the new book is more or less the same thing.
Of course, just as it sells furniture, the brand sells magazines. Now, certainly, any magazine faced with the chance to publish an excerpt from an unpublished book by one of the 20th century’s biggest literary voices is not going to hesitate for a minute. Nor is it out of the question for a magazine to put forth opposing points of view. But in this case, The New Yorker had already come out with a piece–by another, relatively major American literary voice from the last half of the century–slamming the book’s publication. Did it give editor David Remnick pause?
Mr. Remnick said that while Ms. Didion’s argument was “something I thought a lot about” before running the excerpt, the two were not mutually exclusive. “I think running Joan’s essay, which I think was one of the best pieces of writing we ran all year, doesn’t preclude” the magazine’s interest in the material, he said. “There’s a legitimate case for publishing work that is not wholly and completely blessed by the author,” he added. “You don’t just see that with Hemingway, but with Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth ,” an excerpt of which The New Yorker ran earlier this year.
Mr. Remnick was adamant that The New Yorker wasn’t just trying to profit off Hemingway hype. “We don’t buy pieces, we don’t accept pieces, so we could splash a name across the cover wrap,” he said, noting that “only 50,000 of 800,000″ copies they sell come from the newsstand. “I’m never going to sell short The New Yorker and I’m never going to sell it short for a reason like that.”
Ms. Didion did not return calls.
When The New York Times decided to detail the financial and editorial woes of the Daily News back on April 11, it led with an anecdote about how the paper’s sole correspondent in Kosovo, Helen Kennedy, had been called back home because the News couldn’t afford to foot the bill anymore. Now, it appears, the same fiscal responsibilities are causing The Times to tighten its own belt.
At a meeting on May 13, executive editor Joseph Lelyveld informed the senior staff that the paper’s war coverage in Kosovo had put the newsroom well over budget. Section editors were asked to come in 5 percent under budget for the rest of the year, which means hiring fewer freelancers and cutting travel and entertainment expenses. “Around here, it’s called the War Tax,” said one editor.
None of which sits very nicely with a well-fed staff that was rewarded with gold-foil-wrapped chocolate bars emblazoned with stickers saying “$1 Billion” this past winter to commemorate the paper selling a record amount of advertising in one year. “We sold a billion dollars in advertising and now we’ve been told we can’t afford to cover a two-bit war?” asked one editor, incredulously, echoing other reporters’ objections. “It’s sort of baffling to me. How did we cover a real war like Vietnam?”
Times spokesman Nancy Nielsen said that “there certainly has been no reduction in [the paper's] overall news budget,” but she wouldn’t go into how much the paper was spending to cover Kosovo “because we generally prefer not to tell our competitors where we’re concentrating our resources.” Ms. Nielsen added, though, that “it’s not unusual in any year for the specific breakdown [in budget allocations] to ebb and flow between departments to reflect news developments.”
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