Clinton Eats the Press at N.Y. Showbiz Conference

Last week, it was revealed that for $750,000 an hour, you can hire the gorgeous actress-singer Jennifer Lopez to come to your party and canoodle with you and your friends. For $650,000 less, you can have former President Clinton come to your party and lecture you about media responsibility instead.

Some deal. But that’s what Variety magazine bargained for on Tuesday, Feb. 28, when it hired the 42nd President of the United States to deliver the keynote speech at its 2001 Front Row conference for media and entertainment executives.

Mr. Clinton’s appearance, of course, was hotly anticipated by the actual working media, who packed the corridors of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in midtown, hoping to pepper the embattled ex-President with questions about Marc Rich, Hugh Rodham, Mr. Clinton’s brother Roger and other interrogatives related to the still-swirling Pardongate.

Instead, they were served a finger-wagging speech in which Mr. Clinton first praised the free press, then chastised them for neglecting grave, high-stakes issues for the sake of cheap, soulless thrills. Touching on everything from AIDS to poverty to global warming, Mr. Clinton, dressed in a dark suit and a black-and-blue patterned tie, hectored the assembled executives for ignoring world crises. “I gave speeches on some topics like climate change until I was blue in the face, and they weren’t newsworthy,” Mr. Clinton told the Front Row audience.

Of course, Mr. Clinton knows full well that he could stand in his jammies and scream about climate change from his Chappaqua bedroom window for the next six weeks, and no one in the press would care–not now, at least, when footage of Marc Rich skiing in the Alps is running on heavy rotation on every cable news network in the Western Hemisphere. Though the crowd rose to give Mr. Clinton a standing ovation when he strode (on time–what’s going on here?) into the Grand Hyatt ballroom at 4 p.m., there was an unmistakable, creepy elephant-in-the-bathtub quality to the address.

Variety editor in chief Peter Bart sounded like he understood the conflict when he introduced Mr. Clinton by saying, “No President has ever occupied a more intricate relationship with show business and the media than Bill Clinton.” It was faint praise, and drew muffled laughs and a quip from Mr. Clinton himself, who thanked Mr. Bart for his “very interesting” introduction. “Very adroitly written,” the former President added.

Variety was already feeling wounded, however, after cosponsor Credit Suisse First Boston erased itself from the First Row conference at the last minute, citing its discomfort with Mr. Clinton’s attendance. In impressive Soviet style, all physical evidence of the investment bank–its CSFB logos, brochures and name tags–was removed from the Grand Hyatt, as representatives of the company wiped their hands clean. “This is the best conference we have never thrown,” said one CSFB employee, who asked to remain nameless.

She probably felt even better after listening to Mr. Clinton’s speech, in which he declared that he may devote “much of the rest of my life” to haranguing the press to uphold its moral obligations to cover the serious and important. It was a classic Clinton spin maneuver: Though the former President had begun his speech by saying he was “going to try not to make any news today”–an announcement that probably thrilled the folks who had coughed up $1,000 for the privilege of sitting before him–he still managed to get one-up on the people whose job it was (and is) to cover him each and every day.

Because he wasn’t going to answer their questions, that’s for sure. A promised Q. and A. with Mr. Clinton at the end of his speech proved to be about as improvisational as a Christina Aguilera video. The former President answered two written, pre-selected questions from the audience, one asking him if he favored cameras in courtrooms, and the other asking him what he thought about violence on television. (His answers: 1) Yes, and 2) It’s bad.)

Following the end of that spirited Q. and A., Mr. Clinton worked the rope line at the front of the room, shaking hands, signing autographs and chatting it up with his fans in the audience. Unsatisfied with the non-newsmaking remarks of the former President, the press wormed its way into the scrum to bounce scandal-related questions off Mr. Clinton.

An accomplished master, the former President ducked and weaved, offering a flurry of “no comments.”

“I’m trying to be a private citizen,” he said.

Exasperated, the press eventually gave up and called it a day. Once again, Bill Clinton had beaten them–they had gotten their opportunity, but they did not get their man.

Welcome to The Wonderful World of Wenner ! Michael Eisner and Jann Wenner surfaced at the ABC studios on Broadway on Tuesday, Feb. 27, to announce that the Walt Disney Company is buying a 50 percent stake in US Weekly , the glossy, celeb-o-rific magazine owned by the Rolling Stone publisher.

As a part of the deal, US Weekly –which has struggled since upgrading from a monthly last year–gets to flog itself on a bunch of Disney properties, including Good Morning America , The View and ABC-owned TV and radio affiliates.

So US Weekly gets publicity. But what does Disney get? Pretty covers on US Weekly for its films and stars? The synergy police were in combat mode at Tuesday’s press conference, buffeting Mr. Eisner and Mr. Wenner with questions about potential conflicts of interest.

“I’ll continue to be independent editorially,” Mr. Wenner said. “I don’t think there’s any question here.”

Said Mr. Eisner: “Jann continues to be creatively in charge.”

Of course, Mr. Wenner has no beef with good ol’ synergy, having pioneered movie-mag cohabitation when Rolling Stone helped plug the 1985 John Travolta bomb Perfect , in which Mr. Wenner himself had a role. But the Disney and Wenner Media chieftains insisted their relationship will be pure. Noting that there are other media companies in the sea, Mr. Eisner said Disney will have to make sure rival publications don’t think they’re getting passed over in favor of US Weekly exclusives. “We have to play it very delicately,” he said.

Still, Mr. Eisner may have sounded a slight alarm after someone asked him his impression of Kelly Ripa, the new co-host of Live With Regis and Kelly , which is also owned by ABC. Mr. Eisner lavished enormous praise on the perky Ms. Ripa, saying he was involved in her selection. “She’ll be on next week’s [ US Weekly ] cover!” he said.

Mr. Eisner waited a couple of beats before cracking: “But there’s no pressure.”

Later, Mr. Wenner told Off the Record that he had approached Disney as a potential partner when he decided to take US to a weekly schedule. At that time, Mr. Wenner said, Disney demurred, but the talks rekindled about four months ago, after Mr. Eisner–whom the publisher has known since the 1970′s, when Mr. Eisner was at Paramount Pictures–read a copy of US Weekly and enjoyed it. “He said, ‘I love it,’ and I said, ‘Why don’t you become my business partner?’” Mr. Wenner recalled.

The deal with Disney should dampen speculation that Mr. Wenner was getting tired of dumping his money into US Weekly . At Tuesday’s press conference, the publisher acknowledged that he has spent $25 million on US Weekly since its weekly transformation, half of what he initially pledged to spend. “It will convince everyone we’re here to say,” Mr. Wenner said later about the deal, in which he said Disney did pay some cash.

But Mr. Wenner said the key to the Disney deal was its promotional possibilities. There were other investors out there offering cash, he said, but none with the kind of media holdings Mr. Eisner brought to the table.

As for US Weekly putting out more Disney covers in the future, Mr. Wenner said: “No, not particularly. Except for the one we promised today.” He then laughed heartily.

Lewis Lapham will have to make do at Harper’s Magazine without his deputy editor, Colin Harrison. Mr. Harrison, who has been at the esteemed monthly for 12 years, and the No. 2 at the magazine since 1994, is leaving as of March 15 to concentrate on writing his next novel.

“It’s simple, actually,” Mr. Harrison said of his resignation from the magazine. “I want to go write a novel that I’m under contract to write for [Farrar, Straus & Giroux].” He added that the full-time job of working at the magazine has slowed his pace.

Mr. Lapham said the departure was amicable. “He’s a wonderful editor. He just wants to go off and write.”

While editing literary nonfiction at Harper’s –such as the National Magazine Award-winning piece by Michael Paterniti, “Driving Mr. Albert,” which recounted a cross-country trip with Albert Einstein’s brain carried in Tupperware in the trunk–Mr. Harrison has established a lucrative moonlighting gig writing literary thrillers.

In 1996, having already published three novels, Mr. Harrison signed a two-book contract for both hardcover and paperback rights that was reportedly worth somewhere in the league of $1 million.

Of course, in 1997 Mr. Harrison’s own literary career was eclipsed by his wife, Kathryn, who published an account of her incestuous relationship with her father in The Kiss .

Mr. Harrison published the first book in his F.S.G. contract, Afterburn , early last year. He said the “best-case scenario” is that he turns in the second manuscript in another year. Mr. Harrison, therefore, will not be on the magazine-editor job market.

“I’m not going to another magazine, and I’m not looking for another magazine job,” he said.

That may disappoint New York Times Magazine editor Adam Moss, whose collection of former Harper’s editors is nearly complete. Included in Mr. Moss’ Laphamite Posse are Paul Tough, who left Saturday Night in Toronto and will begin editing at the Times Magazine this spring; Gerry Marzorati, the Times Magazine ‘s editorial director; story editor Ilena Silverman and contributing writer Michael Pollan; as well as two former Harper’s interns, Daniel Zalewski and Dean Robinson.

Mr. Moss said the high concentration of former Harper’s people at his magazine is no coincidence. “I think there are some magazines that train editors extremely well, and Harper’s is one,” Mr. Moss said. He added, “There are very few places to learn magazines in the ways we do magazines, and the Harper’s internship is the perfect place to learn.”

For his part, Mr. Lapham said, “Moss has got good taste.”

Think you’re reading a lot about New York magazine in the city’s gossip columns? Well, you are. So far this year, in just the New York Post , Daily News , and The New York Times , there have been 22 pickups of New York scoops–tasty items such as Christian Curry’s nickname for his new girlfriend, the location of New York’ s bash for its “Gay Issue,” and who took the Feb. 12 cover photo of Tommy Hilfiger.

On Feb. 16 alone, New York scored four items in the city’s dailies. By comparison, over the same eight weeks last year, New York had just nine such pickups.

That’s not accidental: New York editor Caroline Miller has been putting a premium on generating “buzz” as of late, according to magazine sources. The topic loomed large at a recent two-day retreat for New York big-wigs in Rhinebeck, N.Y., where Deborah Barrow, newly appointed president of Primedia Consumer Group, has a home. In attendance, among others, were Ms. Miller, executive editor John Homans and deputy editor Maer Roshan.

Following the retreat, a memo was issued to senior members of the New York staff plotting a buzz-generating strategy. According to a staffer who saw the memo, it “charted out the next two months’ worth of magazine covers and what they’re going to promote.” If the memo proves correct, you can expect to see plenty of juicy dish related to New York ‘s upcoming real estate guide and summer food issues in Rush & Molloy and Page Six.

New York also has a new publicist. Prior to Ms. Miller’s invigorated get-out-the-buzz campaign, Dan Klores Communications handled the leaks and tidbit placement. In November, though, New York hired publicist Jenny Parker from ABC News to be its in-house flack. Klores’ role has been reduced to handling events.

“And I call it … Mini B!” Withits Marchissue, Harper’s Bazaar introduced a pocket-sized, Vern Troyer edition: the exact same editorial pages and ads as the Big B, but printed 30 percent smaller.

“This small wonder is an exact replica of the standard size March issue of Harper’s BAZAAR–it is simply stylishly smaller!” the magazine announced. “We live in a time when everything in the modern world is shrinking. Everyone seems to be obsessed with tiny accessories such as cell phones, handbags, laptops … why not create a magazine that exemplifies this trend of portability and practicality as well?”

Seeing no reason why Off the Record should enjoy Mini B alone, we put the small issue and its regular-size cousin up for bid on eBay and started the auction for the lot at just $2–a savings of $4 off the cover price!

For nearly five days, no bids came in–but then, mere hours before the auction’s end, a 22-year-old computer-engineering student in Mexico City took the plunge. The student, who happens to be male, collects American fashion magazines. He wanted the March issue of Harper’s Bazaar because, as he wrote in an e-mail, “it’s the first ‘pocket size’ issue ever published, and here in Mexico I wasn’t able to find it.”

There’s no charge, Kate Betts, for that bit of market research.

CORRECTION

The Feb. 19 edition of this column incorrectly reported that New York Post and NBC sports commentator Peter Vescey would receive an award from the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association later this spring. We also reported that he was a “loudmouth.” In fact, it is Mr. Vescey’s brother, George Vescey, a sports columnist for The New York Times , who will receive an award from the association this year. Off the Record regrets the error and thanks NSSA program coordinator Barbara Lockert–who noted, “I don’t know that George is a loudmouth; in fact, I find him to be a very nice gentleman–it’s not Peter Vescey at all”–for bringing it to our attention.