Off The Record

As Tom Friedman told it in his Feb. 17 New York Times Op-Ed column, he and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, were in the middle of a long, off-the-record conversation over dinner when the de facto leader of the wealthiest Arab nation mentioned that he agreed with Mr. Friedman’s suggested solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, specifically that Israel withdraw to its pre-1967 borders in exchange for full diplomatic recognition from all 22 Arab League states.

Two weeks later, an almost 5,000-word piece on the March 3 Times was marveling at “the speed with which [the Saudi peace initiative] has swelled from a little-noted idea in a newspaper column into a serious force in the Middle East.”

In The Times ‘ coverage, the subplot to this sequence of events has been the influence of a New York Times columnist who, from the perch of the Op-Ed page, can best the abilities of a diplomat in tackling a dispute as intractable as the Middle East.

But other news organizations have been, not surprisingly, less willing to give Mr. Friedman credit as a roving peace-maker. Competing papers have consistently criticized the proposal in his column as vague and unoriginal. Critics have also suggested that Mr. Friedman was little more than a high-profile pawn for the Saudis’ latest diplomatic gambit.

On Feb. 28, the Los Angeles Times described the Saudi land-for-peace plan as a “formula, which emerged as nothing more than a trial balloon in The New York Times. ” Even The Boston Globe , which is owned by The New York Times , wrote in a Feb. 27 editorial, titled “A Scoop for Peace,” that Mr. Friedman had only “printed the Mideast peace plan divulged to him by the Saudi ruler.”

Mr. Friedman, however, was not up to discuss his involvement in the Saudi plan, or the reaction to it.

“I’m not interested in doing an investigation of what really happened,” Mr. Friedman told Off the Record on March 4. Of his column, he said, “Everyone has their own reaction. My position is, let a hundred flowers bloom.” He added: “The column speaks for itself. I’m just sitting back and watching it play out.”

But Mr. Friedman is no ordinary columnist. Even before Sept. 11, the mustachioed two-time Pulitzer winner, Middle East expert and best-selling author had evolved into a Times heavyweight, one who showed little compunction about expressing himself in forums outside the paper. Since Sept. 11, Mr. Friedman’s profile has only grown, as he has appeared on programs like Today, Good Morning America, Meet the Press, Face the Nation and even the Late Show with David Letterman.

Some of Mr. Friedman’s colleagues at The Times were eager to pat him on the back. “It looks good for the paper if he played a role in bringing peace,” one said.

Others, however, thought The Times may be overstating its case. “There’s a certain amount of hubris to these people that they think they can negotiate Mideast peace,” a Times source said. “The self-importance is hard to take.”

A reporter covering the story for another news organization said he suspects that Mr. Friedman was simply being used by the Saudis to plant a story. “Hats off to Friedman for getting the access,” the reporter said. “I suspect that Crown Prince Abdullah knew what he was doing. He knows The New York Times is the most influential paper in the U.S., and Tom Friedman is the most influential foreign-affairs columnist at The Times. “

-Gabriel Snyder

Page Six, meet The Wall Street Journal . The Wall Street Journal , meet Page Six.

While The Journal has broken a lot of important stories over the past several months-including the Red Cross giving away thousands of dollars in relief aid to undeserving Tribeca residents-none had the sexy oomph of its scoop on Monday, March 4. In a formidable yet delicately handled gossip coup, the WSJ outran the tabloids by disclosing a “romantic relationship” between Jack Welch, the married former chairman of General Electric, and Suzy Wetlaufer, editor of the Harvard Business Review .

The Journal appeared to go out of its way to downplay real dirt in the piece. Entitled “Harvard Editor Faces Revolt Over Welch Story,” the story ran in the B section of the paper. Written by reporter James Bandler, its opening paragraphs described a “staff mutiny afoot” at the Review . It talked about the Review ‘s editors seeking the resignation of Ms. Wetlaufer after she pushed to abort a profile she’d written about Mr. Welch.

It was not until deep in the fourth paragraph that Mr. Bandler delivered the payoff: “Several weeks before the story was pulled, Ms. Wetlaufer told at least three Review staffers that she and Mr. Welch were having a relationship.”

It was akin to breaking a story about Gary Condit’s relationship with Chandra Levy in the fourth paragraph of a story about agricultural reform. But by mid-afternoon on Monday, the piece had become the talk of Boston writers, who had seen a delectable local story swiped by a national outlet.

Not that the local wags were averse to challenging the way The Journal handled it. “Why wasn’t the story on page 1?” said Howie Carr, a columnist at the Boston Herald . “I’m surprised they didn’t have it above the fold. If it were my story, here’s my lead: ‘A $276,000-a-year Harvard Review editor’s under fire after telling co-workers of her relationship with Jack Welch.’ It seemed like The Wall Street Journal was embarrassed to report the story. And I don’t know why. It’s the best story in the paper.”

But Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam put it this way: “It’s one of the great advantages of the bigger papers like The Times and The Journal . They can have a story placed further back in the paper and have it become the biggest story of the day. I thought the story was a masterpiece of understatement.”

Mr. Bandler, himself a former Globe reporter, declined to comment. Likewise, Mike Miller, the paper’s page 1 editor, declined to go into the matter but said: “We always want to be sure not to overplay a story or underplay a story.”

Mr. Miller said that the decision on where to put the story rested in the hands of managing editor Paul Steiger. Mr. Steiger declined comment, and Steve Goldstein, a vice president with Dow Jones, the paper’s parent company, said: “We don’t comment on issues of placement.”

However, another executive at the paper said: “It’s a fascinating story, but it didn’t have the richness of detail that warranted placement on page 1.”

When reached by Off the Record, Ms. Wetlaufer declined to comment. A spokesperson for Mr. Welch meanwhile said: “His only comment is that it’s a personal matter.”

However, Mr. Carr offered a possible venue where Mr. Welch could address the topic.

“Maybe he could talk about it on CNBC,” Mr. Carr said, referring to Mr. Welch’s job with the financial-news network. “Welch can interview Jim Cramer about his troubles, then Cramer could interview Welch about his.”

-Sridhar Pappu

Every year, the reporters and editors at Business Week go through a laborious performance-review process, in which editors have to fill out a 20-question form on their employees on matters such as how many stories each person gets in the magazine, quality of writing and editing, etc. It all gets boiled down to a grade of 1 through 5, with 5 being the highest. For the Business Week staff, this matters because the higher your grade, the bigger your annual raise.

This year, Business Week decided to make the process a bit more laborious. In recent years, you see, there’s been some staff griping about grade inflation, in which some supervisors were giving out more 4’s and 5’s than they really should.

Editor in chief Stephen Shepard said that when he asked his staff about the process, “one of the things they said is there should be more differentiation between outstanding performers and average performers.” He added, “One senior editor or bureau chief may be more generous than others.”

To that end, in mid-February, the top editors huddled together for most of an afternoon, going over every editorial employee’s review, changing grades up and down to “even out the difference between graders, Mr. Shepard said.”

The system may have been more fair, but it won’t change the raise people will get. At the weekly front-of-the-book meeting on March 1, Mr. Shepard announced that there wouldn’t be any raises at all this year.

The McGraw-Hill Companies, Business Week ‘s corporate parent, had set approved raises of 2.5 percent this year, but the magazine turned it down in order to, as Mr. Shepard said, prevent further layoffs. “We decided this was the least disruptive way to cut costs,” the editor said.

– G.S.

Over a lifetime, the late Malcolm Forbes and his sons not only built a magazine, but a collection of antiquities that is hard to rival. The collection of Fabergé eggs on display at the Forbes headquarters off Fifth Avenue and is said to be the largest in the world.

But hey, what’s history? On March 27, Christie’s will auction over 200 items from the Forbes collection of American historical documents. The lot amounts to a history buff’s dream and includes the handwritten manuscript of Lincoln’s last public address and the August 1939 letter from Albert Einstein to Franklin Roosevelt that led to the development of the atomic bomb. A Forbes spokesperson added that further items would be auctioned in October. In addition, 61 non-egg Fabergé pieces will be auctioned off on April 19.

And, boy, will the money come in handy! Forbes ‘ January ad pages were off by 40.8 percent in January from its 2001 number, with advertising dollars off by 39.38 percent. In February, the company suspended matching contributions to its 401(k) plan and cut the pay of its senior managers.

In explaining the move, a Forbes spokesperson said the move had nothing to do with the financial state of the magazine or Forbes Inc. “They had determined to do this awhile ago. There’s an awful lot still left. This is only a small part of the collection.

“That’s what collectors do,” the spokesperson continued. “They buy and sell things.”

-S.P.

What’s the difference between the average guy and a typical man? In the eyes of Men’s Health , very little. Over the past year and a half, Men’s Health has been running a monthly one-page feature on its back page called “The Average Guy.” Each issue, the magazine compiles statistics about average guys, such as “Age at which the average married man is most likely to have an affair: 34″ and “Number of men who’ve thrown out a piece of clothing because it was missing a button: 1 in 4.”

The page has become something of a franchise for Men’s Health (which means, one supposes, that a line of “Average Guy” calendars, day planners and barbecue mitts emblazoned with nifty stats are in the works). So when the magazine’s editor, David Zincenko, opened the March issue of Esquire and saw their feature “The Typical Man,” which listed factoids about the typical man (“About 1 in 6 men admit to having paid for sex” and the like), he was pretty upset.

“I’d imagine Esquire is under a lot of pressure to match our numbers, but I don’t think that this is what [Hearst Magazines C.E.O.] Cathie Black had in mind,” Mr. Zincenko said.

Over at Esquire , editor David Granger claimed ignorance of the Men’s Health feature. “I admire the success [ Men's Health ] had in the 90’s,” he said, “but it’s not the kind of magazine that forces one to read it on a regular basis, unless one is into, you know, health.” His “Typical Man” feature started as an idea to find the typical man and profile him. He had some staffers do some statistical research. “The profile fell by the wayside, but when I wanted an amusing little two-pager to break up the feature well, we had the stats lying around,” Mr. Granger said. He said Esquire wasn’t planning to make “Typical Man” a regular feature “unless we get a lot of mail from Men’s Health readers demanding it.”

Mr. Zincenko retorted: “I admire Esquire- and their success throughout the 1960’s.”

One question we had for both editors: Don’t you owe Harper’s Magazine an apology for ripping off their “Index” franchise?

Mr. Zincenko: “No more than Harper’s owes to the Guinness Brothers.”

Mr. Granger: “Believe it or not, both statistics and lists of statistics in printed matter predate even Lewis Lapham. In fact, I believe it was Chemical Market Reporter from which Harper’s borrowed the idea.”

-G.S.