On Aug. 12, Details editor in chief Daniel Peres received a letter concerning the writer Kurt Andersen, who had contributed a piece about gossip for that month’s issue of the magazine. Or so Mr. Peres thought. The letter was from an attorney representing Mr. Andersen, who wrote that his client hadn’t written the piece. The magazine had been the subject of a hoax.
Within days, the Details controversy would become the media punch line of a city that had become resigned to quietly sunning itself until Labor Day.
“I was upset about it,” Mr. Peres said. “I’ll go as far to say that I was pissed.”
Mr. Peres said that the matter remains under investigation. Neither he nor Details’ spokesperson would comment on how the investigation has progressed. Nor would they say if they considered the hoax to be the work of an individual inside or outside the 20-year-old men’s magazine.
Certainly the Kurt Andersen hoaxer-inside or outside-is not the first person to dupe a major publication, as The New Republic and The Washington Post and others can attest. But the Details caper illustrates a new kind of media vulnerability in the Internet era. The person behind the phony Kurt Andersen piece, sources at Details said, communicated exclusively through e-mail. Every publication these days uses e-mail to handle writers and stories-Mr. Peres himself said that working electronically “is great for a lot of reasons …. When I don’t feel like talking to people, I don’t have to.” And for every competitor enjoying Details ‘ misery last week, there was another admitting that they, too, could have been duped.
“This type of thing-unfortunately, given the frequency people use e-mail-is scary and can happen to everybody,” Mr. Peres said. “I hate the fact we’re the ones to suffer.”
The irony of Details ‘ plight is that in the end, his magazine could have avoided a lot of trouble by using an old, underrated device: the telephone. And here, some staffers expressed some incredulity at the breakdowns that had to occur for a monthly magazine-an operation full of deadlines, but traditionally capable of verifying all work before publication-to publish a piece by Kurt Andersen without ever talking to him. “There should have been safeguards in check,” one Details source said. “Even in an opinion piece, a fact-checker should call. It’s mind-boggling that nobody spoke to him.”
The story of Details ‘ phony Kurt Andersen piece appears to have begun with an effort to work with the actual Mr. Andersen. Sources at Details said that recently departed senior editor Bob Ickes-who worked with Mr. Andersen during his tenure at New York and, later, in the last stages of the union between Inside.com and Brill’s Content -had made contact with Mr. Andersen earlier this year about the possibility of his doing a piece for the magazine. Nothing came of the exchange, but later, according to sources, Mr. Ickes told them that he’d received an e-mail from Kurt Andersen through a different e-mail account, asking what he could write for the magazine.
From there, sources said, an assignment was given and the piece was handled via e-mail. Sources said Mr. Ickes told his co-workers that Mr. Andersen had made it clear he only wanted to work with Mr. Ickes on the piece and no one else. Fact-checking was conducted via e-mail, sources said, with the Details fact-checker sending questions to Mr. Ickes, who said he passed them on to Mr. Andersen. Mr. Ickes, sources said, obtained the photograph for the contributor’s page from WNYC, where Mr. Andersen hosts his radio show, Studio 360 . Sources said no contract for the piece was ever drawn up and no check sent out.
The piece, an essay entitled “Dudes Who Dish,” appeared on page 47 of the August Details . Citing the recent controversy over Mike Piazza’s sexuality, that Mr. Andersen told Details readers it was O.K. for straight men to gossip, that in fact they’d all been doing it for years. The magazine’s contributors’ page also included a photograph, brief bio and a comment supposedly made by Mr. Andersen. “To say that guys-especially young clowns like you with some bucks and a career-gossip more than women is so disgracefully obvious that I’m ashamed I haven’t written about it till now,” it said.
To top it off, Mr. Peres quoted the phony Kurt Andersen article in his editorial, saying, “And it is our- your -lame, screwing-the-underage-temp-in-the-holiday-party-bathroom-and-bragging-about-it antics that have fueled its hydra-headed growth …. You cloak your observations in swaggering faux-disgust. But, dude, it’s gossip.”
Mr. Peres followed that citation with the declaration “Amen.”
Details ‘ August issue hit newsstands on July 23. The big joke around town has been that it took a couple of weeks for anyone-including the
real Mr. Andersen-to notice anything amiss. In fact, the real Mr. Andersen was alerted to the piece’s existence by his wife, who noticed the story while thumbing through a copy of Details at her gym the week of Aug. 4.
Soon after, Mr. Andersen’s attorney wrote Mr. Peres informing of him of the error. (Mr. Andersen declined to comment for this story.)
By the time the letter from Mr. Andersen’s attorney arrived at Details , Mr. Ickes had already announced his intention to leave the magazine, sources said. Four days prior, on Aug. 8, Mr. Ickes had given his notice to Mr. Peres, citing dissatisfaction with his role at the magazine, sources said.
When the letter from Mr. Andersen’s lawyer came, sources said that Mr. Ickes told his bosses that he’d been the victim of an elaborate e-mail prank by someone claiming to be Mr. Andersen. Still, one source who knows Mr. Ickes said that despite the prank, the editor intended to stay on through September. But on Thursday, Aug. 15-the day the hoax broke and Details issued a statement apologizing to Mr. Andersen-Mr. Ickes was asked to leave the Details office by Mr. Peres and his computer was taken away, sources said.(A Fairchild spokes-person would only confirm that Mr. Ickes had “resigned and was no longer at the company.”)
Reached by Off the Record, Mr. Ickes flatly denied any role in writing the fake Kurt Andersen piece. He said the piece had been rigorously fact-checked with the phony Mr. Andersen. He said he had even tried to get Social Security information from the ersatz Kurt Andersen so a payment for the article could be made.
“To think or say or allege that I or anyone at that magazine would actually fabricate a fictitious article, that we would then attribute it to one of the most highly regarded journalists, one of the most highly regarded media figures in the country and hope that he wouldn’t see it-it’s like Ripley’s Believe It or Not ,” Mr. Ickes said. “It’s just crazy to think that I or anyone at the magazine would do that to him.”
As for the impact the Great Kurt Andersen Caper had upon Details itself, Fairchild chief executive Mary Berner and editorial director Patrick McCarthy were out of town and unavailable for comment. But one Details source referred to the hoax as “yet another bizarre chapter in a bizarre magazine’s history.” Since its purchase by Condé Nast in 1988, the magazine has run through a veritable smorgasbord of editors-including James Truman, Mark Golin and Michael Caruso-before it was shut down and relaunched as a Fairchild publication in 2000. To run it, Fairchild tapped Mr. Peres-then the young Paris bureau chief of W . Though Mr. Peres, by his own admission, had a wobbly start, this year the magazine received a National Magazine Award nomination for general excellence and won the N.M.A. for design.
“The magazine is doing great!” a Fairchild spokesperson said. “We had the biggest September ever. The magazine is in the midst of a very successful comeback. This is a very unfortunate and isolated situation that we hope to resolve soon.”
But Mr. Peres was more subdued about the injury the hoax has caused. “I think it’s probably the most upset I’ve been since taking the job,” he said.
Still, some at Details thought Mr. Peres should be kicking himself a little bit. They pointed out that the editor should have recognized that a piece by Kurt Andersen was a nice coup for his magazine and should have called to thank him for contributing-something many editors will do for their high-profile writers. One Details source said Mr. Peres could have stopped the problem dead in its tracks had he simply spoken to the writer prior to publication.
“If I were in his shoes and I suddenly had someone like Kurt Andersen, I’d call him just for the sake of schmoozing,” said one Details source. “Why wouldn’t you? He’s an important guy.”
Mr. Peres didn’t shirk his culpability in the hoax. “The responsibility comes to me,” he said. “I’m there to accept congratulations or honor, and I’m here to accept [responsibility] now. It’s double duty.” However, when asked if he was second-guessing any of his decisions regarding the piece, Mr. Peres said: “No. I wouldn’t second-guess my decisions or anyone else’s at the magazine.”
The long, strange journey of Jonathan Capehart from editorial writer to Bloomberg political operative to poverty reporter has brought him back to the Daily News .
Mr. Capehart confirmed the move-from “global poverty correspondent” at Bloomberg News to deputy editorial-page editor at the News -to Off the Record on Monday, Aug. 19.
“This is what I like doing,” Mr. Capehart said, “writing editorials-taking the bad guys to task and praising the good guys, highlighting things that are important to the city.”
Formerly a staff member on the paper’s editorial board, Mr. Capehart left the News in 2000 to join the well-fed, overly sugared ranks of Bloomberg News as a national-affairs columnist. Within the year, though, he took a leave of absence from his post to work on boss Michael Bloomberg’s Mayoral campaign.
“As someone who writes about politics,” Mr. Capehart said in explaining his decision, “the idea of working on a political campaign was too good to pass up …. I thought it would be interesting and fun to get him elected.”
Of course, for most of the campaign it looked like the efforts of Mr. Capehart and others would probably go for naught.
“When I told people where I worked,” Mr. Capehart said, “they looked at me like I was sailing aboard the Titanic and I didn’t know it. But I always knew, as the campaign wound down and people got to know him, the gap would close.”
Mr. Bloomberg’s ascendancy provided Mr. Capehart with options unavailable to workers on most campaigns: It isn’t often that a reporter can leave the business for the other side and then come back. But when given the opportunity to join the Bloomberg Mayoral administration, Mr. Capehart passed, choosing to return to Mr. Bloomberg’s news operation to pursue a brand-new beat covering global poverty.
For his part, Mr. Capehart said that returning to straight news, particularly on a brand-new beat with just one editor, “wasn’t the best fit.” He said he looked forward to heading back to the raucous, spirited arguments inside the editorial boardroom of the News . There he will join another man with experience handling New York Mayors: Editorial-page editor Richard Schwartz is a former senior aide to Rudolph Giuliani.
“Hopefully,” Mr. Capehart said, “it won’t take too long to get back into the swing of things. Every day you go into that [editorial] room, it’s a negotiation. It’s like a debate club: You have to be armed and ready to fight for your say.”