Ten years ago, the assertion that Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and their ilk were the well-groomed stepchildren of tabloid journalism godfather William Randolph Hearst would have been regarded as blasphemy on Network Row. But a new documentary, written and narrated by Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham, makes just that point.
The documentary, Legacy of a Kidnapping: Lindbergh and the Triumph of the Tabloids , was produced by the team of Libby Handros and Ned Schnurman, and will air on Long Island PBS station WLIW-TV on June 6. The 56-minute film argues that the sensational news orgies surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr. and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, actually have roots in the media shark-feed that occurred following the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son and the resulting 1935 trial of the man accused of the crime, Bruno Hauptmann.
“We tend to think that what happens to us today is new, but it’s not,” said Ms. Handros of the film, which is more of a video essay than a documentary.
Throughout the film, parallels are drawn between the current stars of the Fourth Estate and those, such as Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell and Adela Rogers St. John, who covered the Lindbergh kidnapping trial. In the cases of Mr. Jennings, Ms. Sawyer and Ms. Walters, the result is hardly flattering.
Speaking in a deadpan hard-ass growl, Mr. Lapham noted that the “pompous” voices of the media stars covering the Hauptmann trial were “not unlike our own squeamish columnists and sensitive anchorpersons, Peter Jennings and Barbara Walters, who periodically interrupted their sucking on the bones of wonderful, wonderful Diana to rebuke with an air of condescension and disgust those awful paparazzi: jackals, shameless vermin, vile scum, beasts who were no friends to truth and honor and the First Amendment.” This bit of narration is complemented with a clip of Ms. Walters on camera with Ms. Sawyer and Mr. Jennings, saying she considered herself a “friend” of the dead princess.
Ms. Sawyer is not spared either. Referring to the “Sob Sisters,” the three Hearst reporters who were assigned to follow Hauptmann’s wife as her husband was on trial, Mr. Lapham said that the women were “as skilled as Diane Sawyer in the application of false sentiment.”
By phone, Mr. Lapham told The Transom that he had focused on the three ABC News personalities “because they seemed to me to be more emblematic” of the film’s thesis. Mr. Lapham said that when Princess Diana died, he had happened to watch ABC’s coverage, featuring Mr. Jennings, Ms. Sawyer and Ms. Walters. “They were really unctuous to a degree that’s hard to imagine unless you’ve actually seen it,” he said.
Still, he observed, “I could have just as easily used Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw or someone from CNN. I think the networks are all the same.”
Of his essay, Mr. Lapham said, “I’m trying to show that the tabloid press in some ways is not as bad as it was and the people who complain about it are talking into a wind tunnel,” he explained, adding, “You just have to live with it.”
When The Transom recounted some of Mr. Lapham’s observations to Ms. Walters over the phone, she replied, “He certainly writes purple prose,” but she declined to comment, because, she said, “I haven’t seen the documentary.”
Ms. Sawyer did not return our call, and Mr. Jennings’ assistant transferred us to ABC News spokeswoman Sonya McNair, who also declined to comment because she hadn’t seen the film. Ms. McNair did say, “Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer are three of the most highly respected journalists in television. Their achievements speak for themselves.”
Mama! Kass in Cannes
Hooo-ah! That Victoria’s Secret show in Cannes on May 18 was something else, but word filtering out of the Croisette is that model Carmen (Estonian Fox) Kass, who participated in the show, may have provided a little after-hours entertainment that was even more revealing. The Transom hears that around 2 a.m. the next morning, Ms. Kass and her friend, model Haylynn Cohen, couldn’t sleep and decided to go skinny-dipping in the pool of the Hotel Martinez with Ms. Kass’ toy fox terrier, Spanky. The Martinez has a rule against pets in the pool, however, and a mini-incident resulted, with Ms. Kass, Spanky and Ms. Cohen being thrown out of the pool area. One version of the story has Ms. Kass and her friend fleeing hotel security by running, naked, from the hotel pool to the beach, before returning to the Martinez to face the music, but Ms. Kass’ beau, publicist Richie Akiva, denied that this was the case. Mr. Akiva said that yes, there was an issue over Spanky being in the pool, but, he stressed, Ms. Kass and her pal weren’t skinny-dipping. “Carmen won’t even pose topless,” Mr. Akiva told The Transom.
Sandrine Camia, director of sales and marketing for the Martinez, told The Transom that the hotel does not permit pets in its pool “because of inconveniences that could be caused to the clients.” She then said, however, that even if she had heard about the incident, “I wouldn’t say anything about it anyway.”
Cupid Halts Kalt
There’s one less bachelor chef in New York these days. Stephen Kalt, the owner of Tribeca neighborhood favorite Spartina, recently got engaged to Shelley Schulze, a producer at Oxygen Media. Mr. Kalt told The Transom that he met his betrothed two years ago when she came into his restaurant with her parents and a mutual friend, but that, because of their busy schedules, the two didn’t start dating until six months later. “We finally managed to get together,” he said, and now the couple plans to marry on Oct. 21 in Las Cruces, Mexico.
Big Birds Preen
About an hour before the National Audubon Society’s first annual gala, Wendy Paulson, wife of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. C.E.O. Henry Paulson, wasn’t frantically rearranging place cards as co-chairs of charity events are wont to do. Rather, she was leading a bird walk in Central Park.
“There’s still some lingering warblers,” she informed John Flicker, the aptly named president of the Audubon Society, over cocktails at Pier 60 of Chelsea Piers. She’d relinquished her binoculars for an embroidered Chinese jacket which sparkled in the sun, as she was surrounded by a flock of Rockefellers. “We also saw a Baltimore oriole and a lot of redstarts,” said Ms. Paulson.
Mrs. Paulson’s date for the evening wasn’t her husband but her extremely tall son Merritt, as in the parkway, who will shortly be graduating from Harvard Business School.
Mr. Paulson confessed he doesn’t share his mother’s passion for birding. “Unfortunately, I was overwhelmed at an early age,” he stated diplomatically. “Whenever my friends came over my mother would be hunched over in some little thicket.”
Roy Disney, nephew of Walt, was one of the evening’s honorees. The others were Marian Heiskell, who serves on a number of environmental boards, and Paul Tudor Jones, the money manager who has been active in efforts to save the Everglades. Mr. Disney, who looks a lot like his uncle, was hard pressed to name his favorite bird, though he did describe the peregrine falcon–he serves on the board of the Peregrine Fund–as an “amazing critter.” The Transom asked him whether he knew if Woody Woodpecker was a pileated woodpecker. “That’s Warner Brothers,” he corrected. (Actually, it’s Universal.) “We can claim Donald Duck. The duck is probably the most famous,” said Mr. Disney.
He replied that indeed, “the duck” is usually what Donald Duck is called at the Walt Disney Studios Company, where Mr. Disney serves as vice chairman of the board of directors and heads the animation department. “Not ‘The Donald.’ He has an ego but not like that.”
During dinner, Good Morning America co-anchor Charlie Gibson, the evening’s master of ceremonies, dutifully acknowledged Mr. Disney as his boss, since Disney owns ABC.
“Come to think of it,” Mr. Gibson said, putting himself on the endangered species list, “Roy hasn’t done a damn thing for real birds.”
Not so. The guests were treated to a short, inspirational film of birds in flight and sunsets and bald eagle chicks, as singers flown in for the occasion by the Disney Company, including the Ebony Opera Singers, belted out a medley of songs culminating with “Circle of Life” from The Lion King .
Mr. Disney’s contribution was eclipsed only by that of a singularly talented African gray parrot named Groucho who serenaded the understated corporate crowd with “Camptown Ladies.” And “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
– Ralph Gardner
The Transom Also Hears…
There was at least one cold zone in all the warm fuzzy sentiment washing over talent manager Sandy Gallin at his 60th birthday party at Barry Diller’s Malibu home. Revelers there told The Transom that, inexplicably, Whiskey Bar owner Rande Gerber, his wife, Cindy Crawford, and some friends ended up sitting at the table next to hotelier Ian Schrager and his posse, which included his wife, Rita Schrager, and restaurateurs Brian McNally and Peter Morton, during the dining portion of the party. For those who live in Ohio, Mr. Schrager is currently suing Mr. Gerber’s ass for breach of contract.
Andrew Goldman is on vacation. He will return next week.
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