It was always about us. From the beginning-which is, as with all things these days, Sept. 11-print media was in a self-reflective mood. Once the dailies sorted out the news, magazines like The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine were filled with personal narratives-frequently, it seemed, from rooftops in Brooklyn, whether it was John Updike writing about what he saw from a relative’s Brooklyn Heights apartment, or Jonathan Lethem, who wrote: “It began for me here, in the same room where I sit now, in Boerum Hill.”
It may seem like a silly thing to point out, because the attack on the World Trade Center would have been a huge story if it’d happened in lower Manhattan or downtown Cedar Rapids, but coverage of this story has always been tinted by proximity. The terrorists may have chosen to target New York because it is the American and global financial capital, but it is also the media capital. And now that capital has been struck close again, with the reports of anthrax infections at ABC News and NBC News, and scares at The New York Times, Newsweek and the New York Post.
Is there any possibility of journalistic detachment in this story? Pure detachment has always been something of an
ideal rather than an achievable goal-certainly more so in recent years, when many publications chased sensibility as much as cold data-but it seems near-impossible to get now. NBC broke the news of its anthrax-infected employee, an assistant to Tom Brokaw. The Times, too, broke its own scare, after reporter Judith Miller opened a powder-filled envelope. Though these stories were professionally executed, there can be no doubt that the organizations which ran them were, well, personally impacted by the facts.
There had been a previous anthrax wave, of course, at another media company-but the company was American Media Inc., the publishers of the National Enquirer, the Globe and the Sun, headquartered in Boca Raton, Fla. At least initially, mainstream media let it play as something that happened on a distant shore, to other people, with curious theories (remember the creek-water theory?) to explain it. It was terrible news, but it was happening someplace else.
But on Friday, there was no separation from the story-physically or psychologically. In previous years, war and disaster correspondents could come back to the city and immerse themselves in distractions like Page Six gossip and expense-account lunches and the other precious frivolities. (One of the most prominent war correspondents of his generation, Sebastian Junger, even opened a journalists’ bar in Chelsea).
But now the story was in the media’s backyard-not only that, in their cubicles. By Monday night, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was at a podium with ABC News president David Westin reporting yet another case of anthrax, this time in the 7-month-old son of an ABC News producer who had brought the baby into the ABC offices for just a few hours.
It was still not clear that the infant had contracted anthrax at ABC News’ offices on West 66th Street, but all the same, the city was treating media companies as targets. Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik announced that city bioterrorism teams were conducting sweeps through the city’s other major news-organization offices, including CNN, the Associated Press, Fox News, the New York Post and the Daily News. “We will have hit all the major media and press outlets in the city,” Mr. Kerik said.
In another, safer time, such self-inspection might provoke a round of snickering-here they go again, the famously narcissistic New York media, scratching themselves and thinking they’re the story. But here the media was, in fact, the story-and there wasn’t a punch line about self-absorption that felt the least bit funny
There were also practical concerns. At Time magazine, deputy managing editor Steve Koepp led a staff meeting to spell out the risks of anthrax. By Monday, boxes of rubber gloves started appearing in the newsrooms of The Times, the Daily News and the New York Post, and at 5 p.m., just before the ABC case was revealed, New York Post publisher Ken Chandler called a staff meeting at the city desk to tell his staff that four Post employees were being tested for anthrax. The tests were not tied to any specific incidents or suspicious packages, but at least one person was concerned about a sore on her hand, and another was showing flu-like symptoms, Mr. Chandler said at the newsroom meeting. In a statement, the Post said that of the four, one person had tested negative for anthrax, while the results of tests on the other three were still pending.
Tuesday brought further scares, as Newsweek said that an employee in the photo department was being tested for anthrax as well, while the city conducted a precautionary sweep of the offices. A spokesman for Newsweek said the employee had come down with flu-like symptoms over the weekend and was concerned after handling a suspicious package a couple of weeks before.
The anthrax fears were not only in newsrooms. Papers and newscasts were filled with stories about the sudden scarcity of Cipro, the antibiotic used to treat anthrax.
But here again, news organizations found themselves in the strange position of being more at risk than the majority of their readers. Ms. Miller gamely tackled the subject herself in a first-person piece for The Times on Sunday, Oct. 14.
In the lead piece for Time magazine, Nancy Gibbs wrote of the media anthrax scares, “You didn’t need to shoot the messengers; you just needed to scare them to death, because fear is bacterial as well.” On the cover was an image of an opened envelope with the headline, “The Fear Factor.”
Time managing editor Jim Kelly said he was attempting to avoid sensationalizing the media’s own concerns, but added: “Whoever was sending these letters was trying to hit a nerve that they wouldn’t have hit if they sent them to just Microsoft, Cisco or I.B.M.”
Mr. Kelly tried to compartmentalize his feelings as a New Yorker with a 2-year-old son and his feelings as an editor.
“Basically, Sunday is when I allow myself to sit there and see the story as a native New Yorker,” Mr. Kelly said. “That’s when I become less objective. I’m pretty disciplined during the week.”
Likewise at the Daily News, editor in chief Ed Kosner said that the feelings of dread were hardly limited to his colleagues. “People are going to be on edge. That’s the new world we’re living in. The media isn’t ginning it up,” he said.
Mr. Kosner noted that for the Saturday, Oct. 13, issue of the paper, he had discarded the front-page headline “Anthrax Spreads” because it sounded inaccurately alarmist. The paper went with “Anthrax Here” instead.
Still, reporters have been showing signs of strain from covering more than a month’s worth of terrible news. Helen Kennedy, a reporter in the Daily News’ Washington bureau, said, “I don’t want Cipro; I want antidepressants.”
David Kuhn wasn’t surprised when Steven Brill gave him the news first thing on Monday, Oct. 15. Like the rest of his staff, Mr. Kuhn, the editor in chief of both Inside.com and Brill’s Content, had been working in a kind of see-through bubble lately: assigning stories for the Web site and the quarterly media magazine while they themselves became the biggest media story in town.
And now it’s over. That Monday, Mr. Brill shuttered Brill’s Content, laid off 38 employees into one of the worst media economies in memory, and forked over Inside.com to Primedia’s Media Central, his partner over the last six months.
Mr. Kuhn was on the hit list himself.
“He [Mr. Brill] told me he’d made every attempt to work it out, but that it was over,” Mr. Kuhn said. “It’s not as if he sat me down and said something that was completely from left field. We all knew that times were difficult and there was a chance this could happen.”
Mr. Brill also addressed the Brill’s Content and Inside.com staff, which over the past weeks had grown sullen, even virulent, at the thought of writing stories for something that they didn’t think would exist. Mr. Brill praised the group’s efforts and went through issues of severance and expenses. Yes, they could sell the work they’d been doing to other places. No, he wouldn’t go into his relationship with Primedia. Please, he said, according to sources, use him for a reference.
“As badly as things were handled last week,” said one Brill/Inside source, “things couldn’t have been handled better today.”
Next up for Mr. Brill: a noon meeting with Media Central-the Primedia assemblage of trade magazines that he was put in charge of last spring when he took over Inside.com. At the time of his deal with Primedia, it had been reported that if Mr. Brill could boost their value, he would receive a payment in cash, stock or both. Now, however, he will serve out the year in that role-at a reported salary of $700,000-before leaving the company.
Mr. Brill didn’t want to talk about Primedia at the Media Central meeting, either, said a source. He praised Media Central title Folio’s redesign and, while not going into a specific game plan, said the outfit would “have a major presence on Inside.”
“Nobody was really pleased, because we’re losing friends,” said the Media Central source. “But we had our jobs.
What followed in the course of the rest of the afternoon, sources said, was a weird calm. People took calls from family members and friends, sent out e-mails to sources and prospective employers. And as the afternoon wore on, people left and the place began to grow quiet.
“It’s not that emotional,” said one Brill/Inside source. “Both cultures have been through this before. At the time of the merger, Brill’s lost half their people and Inside half theirs. The feeling is that it’s been tenuous ever since.”
Mr. Brill did not return a call for comment, but he did reply to an e-mail that Brill’s staffer Jesse Oxfeld sent to his colleagues marked: “Do not go gentle. Go Drunk,” which one Brill/Inside source sent to Off the Record.
Responding to the plans for a final group-drinking binge, Mr. Brill wrote back to all: “Kinda makes you think Jesse instigated this to have a party. Seems like he arranged the place awfully fast. Maybe I should blame the whole thing on him instead of me.”
Said a source of Mr. Brill’s quip: “I guess he means well.”
That night, the Brill’s Content crowd showed up at WXOU on Hudson Street. The party included Mr. Brill, one source said, “with his white-collar shirt, around all these Gen-X types looking really, really out of place in the West Village.”
Apparently, said sources, Mr. Brill was comfortable enough in his hip surroundings to pass on a sports fan’s dream: a chance to sit in Yankee Stadium for Monday’s dramatic Game 5. “Steve was waving his four Yankee tickets around to everyone at the bar,” said one source. “He was finally able to give them away.”
Meanwhile, a last hurrah just for long-time Inside folks was planned for Tuesday night.
As for Mr. Kuhn-formerly of Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Talk-he said he doesn’t know what his next plans will be.
“I loved what I was doing and the people I was working with,” Mr. Kuhn said. “I thought I’d stick by it until I couldn’t do it or until I didn’t enjoy it. I’m not surprised by this, but I’m sad it didn’t work out otherwise.”
Like many other news organizations, Newsday, published out of Melville, Long Island, has sent a team into Afghanistan and the surrounding region. While the New York Post and the Daily News have still not sent their own staff into the area (the News has said it plans to draw on reporters at U.S. News, which is also owned by Mortimer Zuckerman; the Post declined comment), Newsday has shifted five reporters to the region, including Matthew McAllester, Newsday’s Mideast Bureau chief, who is in Afghanistan. The paper’s Moscow bureau chief, Liam Pleven, has gone to Uzbekistan, and the Africa bureau chief, Samson Mulugeta, is on his way to Islamabad. Reporters Edward Gargan and Tina Susman were also headed to Pakistan.
How much does it cost to get someone to schlep from Manhattan to New Jersey?
The Wall Street Journal says at least $25,000. That’s the minimum bonus the newspaper is promising roughly 250 employees whose jobs are being permanently moved from the damaged World Financial Center to the Dow Jones campus in South Brunswick, N.J.
Enthusiasm for life in the Jersey suburbs does not appear to be running high.
“Obviously, a lot of people being moved out of the World Financial Center are people who live in New York and want to stay in New York. A lot of them are very upset about it,” said Virgil Hollender, a spokesman for the union at Dow Jones.
Peter Kann, chief executive of Dow Jones, which owns The Journal, announced in an Oct. 16 memo that once The Journal is able to get back into the World Financial Center offices at 200 Liberty Street-which are expected to remain closed through the end of the year-the paper will only keep three of the seven floors it currently occupies. The move is a cost-cutting measure, Mr. Kann noted.
Editors and reporters for the daily Wall Street Journal will not be affected, but departments such as copy-editing and production are slated for South Brunswick.
To convince people to cross the Hudson, Mr. Kann announced that any staffer headed for South Brunswick would get a bonus, payable in February 2003, of half their current base salary if they stayed on the payroll through Jan. 31, 2003. The minimum payout is $25,000.
Mr. Kann wrote of the moves to Jersey, “We … recognize that relocating jobs from the World Financial Center to South Brunswick will be especially difficult for the affected employees in the aftermath of the trauma that so many have suffered over the last month.”