Red Tape: Tucker Carlson Gets Held Up in Ho Chi Minh City

Tucker Carlson’s problems at the Ho Chi Minh City airport on April 28 raise an interesting question for journalists in this age of multiple news organization affiliations: When detained by Communists in a foreign country, which magazine would you want pulling strings back home to win your freedom?

To briefly recount Mr. Carlson’s ordeal, the writer for The Weekly Standard and Talk magazines ran into trouble as he was heading back to Washington, D.C., after trailing John McCain’s tour of Vietnam along with Jay Carney of Time , Richard Cohen of The Washington Post , Jake Tapper of Salon.com, Howard Fineman of Newsweek and Roger Simon of U.S. News & World Report . Because Mr. Carlson did not receive an entry stamp on his passport when he arrived the previous Tuesday, Vietnamese immigration police at the airport would not allow him out of the country.

To get him out of the jam, Mr. Carlson, 30, had some pretty heavy hitters behind him. At The Weekly Standard , editor and publisher William Kristol was once former Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. And Talk has its own contingent of heavyweights, which in this case didn’t even include Tina Brown.

Though the local U.S. Consulate was already dealing with the situation, Mr. Carlson’s call to Talk started a flurry of calls among Talk editors. Because the magazine had just closed a June-July double issue on April 21, many editors were either out of town or, like Ms. Brown, editorial director Bob Wallace and Mr. Carlson’s editor Sam Sifton, were at home recovering from red-eye flights from the West Coast.

Still, Mr. Sifton’s assistant alerted Mr. Wallace, who then made calls to his editors, including editor at large Holly Peterson, who as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, had a pretty good string to pull.

About five years ago, when Ms. Peterson was a producer at ABC News, she tried to set a friend up with Jamie Rubin. “It was a disastrous date,” Ms. Peterson said. “But he was appreciative and so he always takes my calls.”

Since then, Mr. Rubin’s star rose at the State Department and he became the department’s spokesperson. He also married CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. April 28 happened to be Mr. Rubin’s last day before leaving the State Department to take care of his and Ms. Amanpour’s first child.

Mr. Rubin told Ms. Peterson he would help out Mr. Carlson. “I know exactly who to call,” Mr. Rubin said, according to Ms. Peterson, joking, “This is the last diplomatic action I will take.”

Mr. Kristol, a prominent Republican, said he did not have the same kind of connections in the Clinton administration’s State Department. “There was no great pull there,” Mr. Kristol said. Even so, several people on the Weekly Standard staff made calls on Mr. Carlson’s behalf.

Mr. Carlson said he didn’t know so many people were keeping track of his brush with the immigration police, or that Jamie Rubin had offered to pitch in.

“Wow!” Mr. Carlson said when Off the Record told him. “That’s pretty fucking nice.”

Mr. Carlson’s ordeal has the makings of clichéd cold war action movie–think maybe of a young Harrison Ford playing a courageous American journalist, detained and brutally beaten by Communists in the name of bringing the truth to light. It was played just about that hyperbolically by Matt Drudge, Jim Romenesko’s Media News and the New York Post ‘s Page Six. But Philip Reeker, a spokesman at the State Department characterized it as a “bureaucratic snafu.”

Mr. Tucker, in his fullest media account to date, also downplayed the ordeal–though, he said, it wasn’t without its creepy moments.

“The basic point they were making was: you didn’t get a stamp upon entry, therefore you’re not officially in the country, therefore we can’t let you leave,” Mr. Carlson said. “I hate the phrase ‘Kafkaesque,’ but it kind of was.”

Despite the appeals of a U.S. foreign service officer, who was at the airport to help Mr. McCain get through customs and immigration, and then of Mr. McCain himself, the police wouldn’t budge, Mr. Tucker said. After a couple hours of wrangling, the McCain entourage’s Lufthansa flight departed and Mr. Carlson stayed behind.

Mr. Carlson then spent two more hours at the Ho Chi Minh City airport arguing with the police, who wanted him to sign a ballpoint-written confession to being in the country illegally. For reasons he never understood, they also directed him to travel to Hanoi. He refused and finally left with the situation unresolved at around 11 p.m. Friday night.

Mr. Carlson went to check into the Caravelle Hotel–the most popular lodging for correspondents during the Vietnam War –and called his wife back home in Alexandria, Va., Talk , The Weekly Standard and CNN (for which he regularly does political commentary) to tell them he was still in Vietnam. Then he hit a bar where he ran into a reporter friend from a national U.S. newspaper, whom Mr. Carlson declined to identify.

“I am just standing there and I order a beer,” Mr. Carlson said. “And this guy throws his arm around me and I thought, ‘Ugh, not another drunk English businessman hitting on me.’ They always do. God they’re so fucked up–the English–but no, it’s my friend and he’s all hammered. I think he had convinced some editor that he had to write an important [Vietnam War 25th] anniversary story, but the place was just filled with hookers and he was out of control. I was so tired that I had to go to bed. I left and he was slobbering on some girl.”

In the middle of the night, Mr. Carlson was woken by a call from an American official–he couldn’t remember who because he was groggy at the time–telling him he was free to go. On Saturday, he caught a flight back to D.C., finally arriving on Sunday.

Mr. Carlson didn’t know how he missed getting his passport stamped when he arrived at the Hanoi airport on Tuesday, April 25. “I’m the first to admit that I can be a little spacey.”

When Mr. McCain and his gaggle of press arrived, they went straight to the airport tarmac to a ceremony to repatriate the remains of American soldiers missing in Vietnam. According to Time ‘s Mr. Carney, during the event, Mr. McCain’s staff collected the journalists’ passports to get entry stamps–except for Mr. Carlson’s who, somehow, wasn’t around.

“Obviously I didn’t do this intentionally,” Mr. Carlson said. “Maybe I was taking a leak.”

Mr. Carlson said that he wasn’t too concerned during his four-hour wait at the airport. The biggest problem, he said, was that he didn’t like the way the Vietnamese officials were talking to him.

“You know it’s difficult to be yelled at. I don’t like it,” Mr. Carlson said. “I don’t like to have some little fucking guy yelling at me. Plus that language is such an ugly little language: Oh! Bow bow bow!” Mr. Carlson’s demonstration of Vietnamese sounded very much like a cocker spaniel’s bark. “It can incite you.”

Mr. Carlson, who has been known for some hotheaded moments in the past (in 1997, he poured a Bloody Mary on the head of Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist at an American Spectator dinner), claims he kept his cool. “I must say I did keep myself under control which is not something I always choose to do, but this time I did.”

Powerful Media is due to flick the switch on its site Inside.com, an entertainment and media industry news Web site, in time for its launch party May 17. But founders Kurt Andersen and Michael Hirschorn still haven’t said too much of what people can expect from the fledgling online publication–unless of course, you count their critical yet appreciative comments of the media’s obsessive coverage of the media in the April 16 New York Times Magazine .

Recently, Off the Record obtained a draft for an Inside.com direct-marketing mailing to drum up subscriptions to the site. Mr. Hirschorn said that the letter had not been sent out yet.

Inside.com insiders chose not to comment.

Addressed to “select industry insiders like you,” which includes “studio execs, Internet entrepreneurs, advertising bigwigs, marketing mavens, agency hotshots, creative developers, and media dealmakers,” the letter gives the most detailed sense to date of what’s to be expected of Inside.com, or at least how the site will market itself.

What’s clear is that Inside.com is targeting first and foremost industry trade publications like Variety and Mediaweek as its competitors. Unlike Mr. Andersen’s and Mr. Hirschorn’s previous magazines– New York and Spin respectively–it doesn’t seem to be seeking general-interest readers.

In the main letter from Powerful Media, C.E.O. Deanna Brown writes, “Welcome to the new century,” she writes. “In case you haven’t noticed, the new age is a lot like the old one. Except it moves faster, and there’s more money around.”

“Let’s face it,” she writes. “Whether they’re weeklies, monthlies or even dailies, by the time most media and entertainment trades manage to get the news to you … it probably isn’t news anymore.” Ms. Brown promises that Inside.com is, “industry news at phone-call speed … not at ‘roll-the-presses next Saturday, stick-it-in-the-mail-Saturday-night, hot-off-the-press-right-there-on-your-desk-Tuesday-morning’ speed.”

Speed dominates the pitch. The letter promises that its editors, such as former Vanity Fair entertainment writer Kim Masters, former Spin editor Craig Marks and former Off the Record columnist Lorne Manly, will be working hard to publish industry news as quickly as they can.

The letter also gives several examples of the kinds of stories they’ll be covering. Media editors, start your engines:

“What Next? Spielberg’s withdrawal from ‘Minority Report’ shakes up the 2000 film-release schedule. What does FOX do now?”

“What Hath Jimbo Wrought? What are the changes Jim Wiatt has put in place at the William Morris Agency since taking over? Speaking of which, how did former William Morris head Arnold Rifkin step into the limelight as a multimedia maven after a long career as a behind-the-scenes dealmaker?”

“How has the Internet revolutionized the music business? Have younger, more net-savvy employees assumed more power? And what about corporate higher-ups and other luddites – how have they grokked the new media universe?”

Other stories include News Corp.’s Internet strategy, the adoption of digital technology at movie theater chains, Harrison Ford’s agents, digital music, how Mel Karmazin of CBS and Sumner Redstone of Viacom get along, and numbers on magazine and newspaper circulation, book sales and Internet music downloads.

In Kurt Andersen’s letter, he writes that “Inside.com is a new creature in the world of entertainment–and media-industry journalism,” and that the site is “designed to bring a level of intelligence and candor and irreverence rare in media reporting.”

Gentlemen, start your engines. Did we say that already? Subscription prices have yet to be announced.

Daily News labor columnist Tom Robbins, who in his 12 years at the newspaper has weathered bankruptcy, a strike in his newsroom, and the death of a publisher–not to mention an ever-changing masthead–is headed to the more tranquil waters of the Village Voice .

Mr. Robbins’ departure comes on the heels of the March 24 appointment of Ed Kosner as editor in chief, who plans to beef up the News’ political coverage, perhaps in a bid to appeal to more upscale readers. Mr. Robbins has long been the Daily News’ most passionate supporter of serving New York’s working class. Even as he was preparing to leave–his last day is May 5–Mr. Robbins said with pride, “The Daily News still is the paper that the working class reads and cares about.”

Mr. Robbins insisted, though, that his move had nothing to do with the ascension of Mr. Kosner. “I’m not leaving because I think these guys are bad,” Mr. Robbins said. “Kosner is a real pro and I wish him the best.”

Mr. Robbins did not have as kind words for Daily News publisher Mortimer Zuckerman. “I love the Daily News and I hope that someday it gets the publisher it deserves,” he said.

Mr. Kosner said that he would be hiring a labor writer to replace Mr. Robbins, although he said that Mr. Robbins’ weekly labor column “Working Papers” may not be continued.

Mr. Kosner denied that the paper was trying to redefine itself. “There’s no redirection of the paper away from its middle-class audience,” Mr. Kosner said. “You read the paper. Has it changed?” he asked.

At the Village Voice , Mr. Robbins will be writing about politics as well as labor. It’s a homecoming of sorts. In the late 80′s, Mr. Robbins started the Voice ‘s Towers and Tenements column, which covers apartment tenant issues. At the time, he was also The Observer ‘s first Wiseguys columnist.

Mr. Robbins joins the Voice during a significant staff reshuffling.

Editor in chief Don Forst is losing senior editor Guy Trebay, who has been at the Village Voice since 1980. Mr. Trebay is going to work for the New York Times style section as a fashion writer. He starts on May 8.

According to style editor Trip Gabriel, Mr. Trebay’s move has been in the works for about a year, hampered by both the glacial process in getting someone hired at the Times and Mr. Trebay’s own caution over leaving the paper he’s worked at for 20 years.

“I’ve had an enormous amount of freedom here,” Mr. Trebay said. “That’s hard for anybody to leave.”

Also out, as of May 1, is senior writer Bill Bastone who is, as he put it, “pursuing opportunities in the Internet space.” Translated, that means Mr. Bastone left the Voice so that he can dedicate himself full-time to the affairs of The Smoking Gun, a Web site that he started which posts documents, such as copies of court and police records, in celebrity or other high-profile cases. Mr. Bastone, a protégé of senior editor Wayne Barrett, had started as an intern at the Voice 15 years ago.

Ever since The Smoking Gun came up with the incriminating restraining orders issued against Rick Rockwell, the groom in Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? , traffic to the site has increased and Mr. Bastone’s opportunities have expanded.

In addition to possible book and television deals, Mr. Bastone is negotiating to sell The Smoking Gun to a larger Internet company and then staying on to continue to run the site. “We’ve been negotiating with two companies,” he said. One of them is the content network being hatched by Bo Peabody, the C.E.O. of Tripod, and the founders of Web magazine Feed, Steven Johnson and Stefanie Syman.

Mr. Forst also hired Chisun Lee, another Barrett protégé, as a staff writer.