The Daily News ‘ Lars-Erik Nelson: The Real Thing

Lars-Erik Nelson spent Nov. 20 much like he spent most of the past two weeks: closely monitoring the Presidential ballot fight in Florida from the Washington, D.C., bureau of the Daily News . The Florida Supreme Court was hearing arguments, and Mr. Nelson, the national affairs columnist for the Daily News , spent the afternoon glued to the television coverage, periodically visiting Thomas DeFrank, the D.C. bureau chief, and fuming about what some justice or lawyer had just said. “Did you hear that?” Mr. DeFrank remembered Mr. Nelson coming in to say.

When it was done, Mr. Nelson filed his column on what he saw and thought. Around 5 p.m., Jim Dwyer, another Daily News columnist who was filing his own story on the ballot battle, checked in “as I do anytime I write about anything outside the five boroughs,” Mr. Dwyer said.

Mr. Nelson was on deadline, too, but he had time to suggest a metaphor-comparing the recount to cattle rustlin’-that made it into Mr. Dwyer’s column. And then Mr. Nelson went home to his wife, Mary, in Bethesda, Md.

That evening, Mr. Nelson and his wife settled into their sofa to watch a movie. She briefly left the room and, when she returned, she found Mr. Nelson slumped over on the couch. By the time paramedics arrived, he had died of a suspected stroke.

Mr. Nelson was 59 and, in addition to his wife, is survived by his two grown children.

The next morning, Mr. Nelson’s daughter called Mr. DeFrank to tell him the news, and Mr. DeFrank immediately called Daily News editor Ed Kosner. Just after 10:30 a.m., Mr. Kosner sent a computer message to his staff: “We got the heartbreaking news this morning that our beloved Lars died last night while watching television at his home in Washington. He had seemed to be in good health ….”

In the modern Washington politico-media culture, where reporters are tempted to trade in intelligence and conviction for celebrity-talking-head status, Mr. Nelson was something of a throwback. He was, by all accounts, brilliant, but unwilling to promote himself outside of his writing for the Daily News and the New York Review of Books .

“Lars Nelson was a journalist’s journalist,” said Michael Oreskes, the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times who once worked at the Daily News . “Honest, forthright, wise and clear-headed. He was cerebral without being stuffy. After all, this is a guy who could write for the front of both the Daily News and The New York Review of Books . That is intellectual reach!” he said.

Working 19 years at the Daily News , Mr. Nelson remained committed to the idea of bringing his sophisticated grasp of national politics to a mass audience outside the Beltway, especially to the outer boroughs of New York.

Helen Kennedy, a Washington bureau reporter for the News , said, “In a town full of self-indulgent reporters who write smugly for each other, he never forgot his audience.”

A friend of his noted that a rare foray into television-an appearance on Meet the Press in 1998 during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, along with Steven Brill, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard and Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post -left Mr. Nelson so infuriated by the grandstanding of Tim Russert that he took to calling the show “Me the Press.”

“He did not have any appetite for those yelling shows, or what he called the ‘theater criticism’ mode of analyzing politics,” Mr. Dwyer said. “I don’t know why people called him old-school, because the old school is the only school-everything else is fake.”

Simply put, Mr. Dwyer said, “he was a no-bullshit guy.”

Mr. Nelson, friends said, despised the tendency of reporters to think of politics as a simple game of power with no principles involved. His thinking leaned to the left , but he was loyal only to his own sense of right and wrong. “If he thought something was wrong, he would call it, no matter the party,” said Harold Evans, former editorial director of the Daily News.

Out of his respect for politics grew friendships with some of the politicians he covered, including such politically disparate figures as former Governor Mario Cuomo and former Senator Alfonse D’Amato.

“I met him early on when I became a Senator, worked with him, got knocked as much as anybody else,” Mr. D’Amato told Off the Record. “But he was always open, always ready to discuss, didn’t compromise, but was willing to listen to the facts.”

Mr. Cuomo also recalled Mr. Nelson warmly. Mr. Cuomo said, “He came to hear me speak after I lost [re-election for Governor in 1994]. He said, ‘Look, there were plenty of guys who came to hear you when you were winning; I wanted to see what you sounded like after you got knocked on your tush!’ So I gave the speech and he wrote a column about it. As a matter of fact, it was an extremely generous column in the Daily News , and I called him up and I said, ‘If you had written about me when I was running, you bum, I would still be in office!'”

Mr. Cuomo remembered Mr. Nelson replying, “You weren’t as good when you were running.”

Representative Pete King, a Republican, said, “He was a true friend; in fact, whenever my wife was in Washington, we tried to have dinner with him and his wife. In fact, I just spoke with him on Friday; we were trying to set up a dinner in a few weeks.”

Mr. Nelson joined the Daily News ‘ Washington bureau in 1979 after returning from a stint as Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief. Michael O’Neill, then the editor of the News , said, “My recollection is that he really wanted to get the job of Washington bureau chief for Newsweek . The job went to someone else, and he was ripe for being picked off.” Mr. Nelson initially stuck to covering foreign policy, but when Jim Wieghart, Mr. Nelson’s first Washington bureau chief at the News , was called back to New York (Mr. Wieghart later became editor of the News ), he was promoted to Washington bureau chief.

Mr. Wieghart said Mr. Nelson was reluctant to cover national politics. “When I insisted that he replace me as bureau chief and columnist, he said he hated it because it was all bluster and baloney.”

Mr. O’Neill, now retired, said, “I had covered foreign affairs myself, so I knew how brilliant he was in covering foreign affairs, and he proved to be just as brilliant in national affairs.”

As a bureau chief and then as a columnist, Mr. Nelson was known to be generous with his time and his expertise, especially when it came to nurturing and encouraging young reporters.

Bob Herbert, who now is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times , worked at the Daily News until 1993. He credited Mr. Nelson with introducing him to covering national politics. “My background was in local news,” Mr. Herbert said. “Lars understood national politics and he always was there.” He noted that Mr. Nelson was the first person who invited him to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

Ms. Kennedy said she, too, felt Mr. Nelson’s generosity. “For me, he was both a mentor and a father figure. He was the one who convinced me to come to Washington and try covering politics, even though I’d never done it before. He took me under his wing and he taught me so much, and he never laughed when I said something clueless.”

Even a veteran like Mr. Dwyer remembered Mr. Nelson helping him out. “I can’t remember if it was the 1992 or 1996 Democratic convention, but he grabbed me aside and said, ‘Do you want to meet me for breakfast?'” Mr. Dwyer said. “What he was doing was taking me to an off-the-record Washington-insider breakfast that I would have never known about.”

Mr. Nelson was born in New York City and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science before attending Columbia University. He started his journalism career at the Riverdale Press and later was a foreign correspondent for Reuters from 1967 to 1977, during which he covered the Prague Spring uprising of 1968 and later the Kremlin.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989 and 1990, Mr. Nelson rushed to Eastern Europe to cover the end of the Cold War for the Daily News .

Jim Willse, who edited the Daily News at the time and now edits the Newark Star-Ledger , remembered the story as one of Mr. Nelson’s finest hours.

Mr. Nelson, who spoke fluent Russian, “was very close to being a Soviet scholar,” Mr. Willse said. “Lars was built for that story.”

Mr. Nelson, whose career at the News spanned strikes, bankruptcy, the death of a publisher and a constant churning of both owners and editors, became an institution to many, with none of the stuffiness that usually comes with such a role. He was a hands-on presence but known, most of all, as a friend to reporters, even when his management title made that a difficult position to hold.

“Lars was to politics what the very best sports writer is to the press box,” Mr. Willse said. “He would write against a deadline and make it look like he had been working on the piece for weeks. You would be sitting at the conference table putting together the next day’s paper and someone would say, ‘We’re going to have a Lars.’ It became a noun,” he said.

Mr. Wieghart said that Mr. Nelson was an active member of the Gridiron Club, the Washington press club that lampoons the politicians they cover at an annual dinner. Mr. Nelson was also a gifted watercolorist.

News publisher Mortimer Zuckerman issued a statement saying “Lars was one of the finest journalists in the country.… His passing is a great loss to the Daily News, to me and to his readers who will miss his insights and his judgments.”

-with additional reporting by Petra Bartosiewicz and Ian Blecher

On Nov. 15, Jay Akasie, a writer for Grant’s Investor , the online publication of perpetually bearish financial analyst Jim Grant, wrote a story alleging that the financial insights of Forbes magazine have slipped under the watch of editor William Baldwin.

Mr. Baldwin took over from longtime Forbes editor James Michaels in early 1999. According to Mr. Akasie’s tally, of the 21 companies featured on the cover of Forbes during Mr. Baldwin’s tenure, 14 have seen their stock decline from the price at the time the Forbes story appeared. (An accompanying graphic inexplicably shows 16 stocks in decline.)

“Once upon a time, Forbes magazine was the bible of contrarian wisdom, known far and wide for its skeptical, hard-hitting cover stories that rocked the business establishment,” Mr. Akasie wrote in the piece, titled “The Forbes Curse,” which was also carried in the Nov. 15 issue of USA Today. But, he said, under its new regime the magazine has been “seduced by the bawdy charm of new-economy stocks.”

Mr. Akasie’s charges struck a nerve at Forbes, and not least of all because until June of this year, Mr. Akasie had been working at Forbes for three years, which was not noted in the ” Forbes Curse” story.

” USA Today let its readers down,” Mr. Baldwin told Off the Record. “It implied that every cover story in Forbes is tantamount to a stock recommendation-which is as preposterous as saying that every time The New York Times mentions George Bush, it is recommending you vote for him.”

Aside from disagreeing with charges that his magazine has lowered its standards, Mr. Baldwin also criticized Mr. Akasie’s reporting. “It should have called us for comment. And it should have disclosed the author’s employment history at Forbes ,” he said of the story.

Others at the magazine thought the story looked to be a case of sour grapes. According to staffers, Mr. Akasie was never promoted from an entry-level reporter position at Forbes, and left out of frustration.

“He was a nice guy,” one staffer said, “but he didn’t do that well here.”

Mr. Akasie said he had no ill will towards the magazine. “I had a fabulous experience at Forbes . I count among my best friends people who are still there or have left,” he said.

Mr. Akasie’s editor, Eric Fry, said the idea of tallying up the stock performance of companies put on Forbes ‘ cover was his idea.

“I asked Jay if he wanted to excuse himself from writing it,” Mr. Fry said. “I didn’t want to put him in an awkward position and he said, ‘No, I don’t have any problem writing it.'”

Mr. Fry admitted that a similar analysis of the cover subjects of other business magazines would probably produce numbers similar to those in “The Forbes Curse,” but he said that the change in tone under Mr. Baldwin made the story noteworthy.

“What makes them unique is how different that approach is from what they did previously,” he said, “and that’s the reason for singling them out.” Then again, he said, “They probably aren’t different, from some quantitative standpoint, from some of the other magazines that are out there, like Fortune or so on. We didn’t look at that, so I can’t answer it.”

It may just be paranoia, but some Condé Nast staffers are convinced that Big Brother is watching them in their brave new high-tech tower. Their fears were heightened on Nov. 16 when a company-wide memo went out reminding everyone that smoking is not allowed anywhere inside 4 Times Square, especially on the stairs.

“NO SMOKING IN THE STAIRWELL effective immediately. The company is on the verge of being fined and is taking this very seriously,” the memo warned, and then ominously added, “They seem to know who is smoking in the stairwell, so be forewarned.”

One of the largest groups of offenders was the nearly two dozen employees at Glamour who had taken to smoking in their 16th-floor stairwell rather than going all the way downstairs (it is getting cold) and who were later singled out for personal warnings. This led to speculation that the Condé Nast identification cards were to blame. The cards are used for everything from getting into the building, to buying lunch in the cafeteria, to opening the locked doors that lead from the 16th-floor stairwell back to the Glamour offices.

“They know when we come in the morning, they know when we use the elevator, they know what we eat,” said one distraught staffer. “It’s scary.”

A company spokeswoman played down any Orwellian undertones to the no-smoking memo.

“This is a fineable offense, and we are very respectful of the rules and codes,” the spokeswoman said. (For those of you concerned, Condé Nast has not been fined for smoking violations, but the company would not say whether there were any pending complaints.)

She suggested that lower-tech means than high-tech ID badges are available to bust the stairwell-smoking perps.

“We recognized that there were many people who were not following the no- smoking policy in the building, in particular in the stairwells,” she said. “We asked a number of security guards to monitor the stairwells, and we have asked [the smokers] to stop.”

See, doesn’t that make you feel better, Glamour girls?

With all those dot-com types crowding the sidewalks of Chelsea, where the Talk Media offices are located, and so many others out of work, it shouldn’t have been difficult for the editors of Sam Sifton’s new book to find real-life New Economy types to use as models for the book’s illustrations. But A Field Guide to the Yettie , written by Talk ‘s senior editor, employs Talk staff members instead.

The “Cyberlord” is Talk Miramax Books editor Jonathan Burnham; the “Barrister” is played by Farley Chase, editorial coordinator of Talk Miramax Books; the “Professional Beta Tester” is Talk ‘s information systems manager, Mike Wolf.

Kristin Powers, editorial manager for Talk Miramax Books, was in charge of casting. “Most of the people in the book are my friends,” she said. “I have a lot of friends who work in the industry.” It was also a way to save money. “No one got paid,” Ms. Powers said.

As for using her colleagues as models for the book, she said, “It was obviously extra-humorous for us.” She added that the three staffers all seemed to fit the type.

Hmmm. Mr. Sifton writes, “Employees fear the Cyberlord and revere him as serfs did the beneficent Lord of the Manor.”