Wall Street Journal Gets Ready for War, Cedes Battle Lines

After George Bush’s Oct. 7 speech in Cincinnati, where he evoked the Cuban missile crisis and laid out his case for waging war on Iraq, newspaper editors were wondering how soon they would need to tell their reporters to unpack their flak jackets and grab a satellite phone.

“It’s preparing for Wave 2,” said Paul Steiger, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal . “But it’s also Wave 11¼2, or 21¼2. It seems to me that the whole terrorism issue-another major strike by Al Qaeda or some- other group-is still a major area of coverage for us.

“There are so many unknowns about the Iraq situation,” Mr. Steiger continued. “How long will the kabuki dance go on? People talk to me-smart, informed, aware people-saying it will start in December and end in the third week of January. I mean, come on! You can’t predict what the other players are going to do. It’s not just Saddam Hussein. It’s our allies. The Russians. The Chinese. It’s the American Left. There are all sorts of players who can change this thing before you get to a Gulf War 2.”

For The Journal , any potential war coverage would mean, in some respect, returning to their rapid scramble of last fall. Following the events of Sept. 11, which made their downtown offices uninhabitable, the paper went after the terrorism story with the force of a battering ram: breaking news on hijacker Mohammed Atta’s aborted ride on a Miami runway, stumbling on information contained in a computer used by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The kidnapping and murder of Journal reporter Daniel Pearl last winter made Americans painfully aware of the risks that war-time journalists often take. With over 100 reporters working on the war and terrorism beat abroad, the paper became an important funnel for a public that was desperate for breaking news.

“We’re going to try and do the same thing,” Mr. Steiger said. “We don’t have anywhere near the number of reporters as, say , The New York Times . We targeted specific areas as to where we wanted to be players. That’s what we’re going to do with the war situation as well. You’re not going to see us ignoring the bang-bang stuff, but we’re looking for stuff that’s transcendent.”

But now The Journal, like other papers, must prepare for what’s sure to be a bumpy phase. The country’s push towards a throwdown with Iraq comes during a period when things at the paper have returned to a state of quasi-normalcy. The reporters and editors of The Journal are all back at their offices on Liberty Street. The paper’s quirky A-hed stories have focused on barbershops and Sponge Bob’s popularity with gay men.

And so on Sunday, Oct. 6, Mr. Steiger resent a memo that he originally sent, co-signed by then–foreign editor John Bussey, to the foreign staff last year. The memo was filled with guidelines: “We do not want close reporting of the bang-bang in any war zone, and we expect reporters to steer far from areas where actual fighting is occurring or is likely to. Even when a reporter goes into an area where fighting has already occurred, and is now supposedly clear of conflict, he or she must do so with caution and with the prior approval from his or her bureau chief.

“We don’t want close coverage of street demonstrations,” the memo continued, “whether that be in Jakarta, Bombay, Caracas, the West Bank-or Seattle. We don’t want you to arrange risky interviews with dangerous figures. Don’t take risks in cities where anti-American sentiment is apparent.”

Asked why he resent the memo, Mr. Steiger said, “You’ve got the possibility of the war on the horizon. You had a protest in Washington. It didn’t get terribly ugly, but you had some potential for that. We thought it would be a good idea to remind people.”

Certainly, as an article in Editor & Publisher pointed out earlier this week, a war in Iraq would offer little of the battlefield access that reporters seemed to have in the wilds of Afghanistan, with the added peril of possible exposure to biological or chemical weapons.

Mr. Steiger said The Journal would handle matters as it did with the first Gulf War and the first President Bush.

“It’s the same thing. I would see us dealing with it with the people we’ve got in and around the Middle East, and the Washington national-security people,” he said. “If it becomes a much bigger deal-meaning more American deaths-then the national reporting staff gets into it more. There are unpredictable elements here.”

That, Mr. Steiger said, means ceding some ground to other papers and media outlets.

“We’re going to give them a summary of events, but they’re going to want something different than what they get from The New York Times , CBS and CNN,” Mr. Steiger said. “What our readers want are the economic implications, some of the political implications-the kinds of things that, for the large part, are more important to our readers than others.”

On Monday, Oct. 7, Time Inc. chief executive Ann Moore announced the closure of Mutual Funds -the magazine that Time Inc. bought back in 1998, back when a person could look at something about mutual funds without having his head explode. While the immediate future of MF ‘s 33 staffers remains uncertain, at least one thing’s for sure: the trash bin where they can toss their stuff on the way out the door.

Yes, Time Inc.-where Frank Lalli’s mustache trimmer may still be lodged in a corner of the cafeteria-is cleaning up! And this time, it’s serious.

Here’s the deal: On every floor of the Time & Life Building, there are bins marked “Keep” and “Toss.” Those marked “Toss” are for the clutter you can get rid of-posters and binders. Those marked “Keep” are intended for items actually worth something-books, vases-but no longer worth something to you. The latter items will end up in an all-you-can grab-for-$5 indoor charity street fair on Oct. 18. The only catch? Everything you grab, you have to take home.

The idea, according to someone present, came to Ms. Moore in a Shazam-like bolt.

“I was there when she had the idea,” said Kerry Bessey, Time Inc.’s senior vice president of human resources. “Because she was changing offices, she started looking around and realizing how many things were there just in the offices she was looking at. She had sort of a brain flash and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a swap meet? And, at the same time, clean up a little bit!'”

Asked if she thought Time Inc. folks were a slovenly lot, Ms. Bessey joked: “It depends on what office you’re in! There’s just some stuff that people never throw out. It’s fun to do something with it that’s fun for employees.”

Back in June 2001, Daily News columnist Karen Hunter chatted with rabble-rouser Al Sharpton in a jail in Brooklyn. Mr. Sharpton was then serving a 90-day sentence for trespassing during a peaceful protest at the military base in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

What Ms. Hunter saw, she said, was a different man than the one who helped set back race relations in this country about 200 years when he participated in the Tawana Brawley hoax in the mid-1980’s. When Ms. Hunter met with him, he was on a hunger strike and had lost more weight than Renée Zellweger following the wrap of Bridget Jones ‘ s Diary . But Ms. Hunter also said she got a fuller glimpse of something else: a more thoughtful Mr. Sharpton-the inner man.

“I used to be one of his biggest critics,” Ms. Hunter said, “and seeing him there helped me come full circle. It helped me see a different view.”

It also helped Ms. Hunter land a book deal. After Mr. Sharpton’s release, Ms. Hunter spent months with him as the co-writer for his ranting opus, Al on America , released in October by Dafina Books.

Ms. Hunter said her deal didn’t represent a conflict of interest, pointing out that her News contract was done on a freelance basis and that she had agreed not to directly write about Mr. Sharpton while working on the book. She also said she’d recently been critical in print of the anti–Tommy Mottola, anti-Sony claims by Michael Jackson, as well as the attacks on the movie Barbershop . While she didn’t mention him by name, Mr. Sharpton supported both causes.

“There are publishers with personal relationships with heads of state,” Ms Hunter said. “To even say that you can’t have a financial relationship with somebody and be able to cover them is ludicrous, because it happens every day. But you don’t see too many African-Americans in my position.”

Asked about the situation, News editor in chief Edward Kosner said he was unaware of the matter and referred Off the Record to News executive editor Michael Goodwin. Mr. Goodwin said that because of her freelance status, the News gave Ms. Hunter “more leeway.” He also said that the News would provide a disclaimer where called for in future columns. “She’s a pro,” Mr. Goodwin said finally. “She has a really strong voice, and she’s a terrific Daily News columnist.”

That’s right, we left the house! On Oct. 3, Off the Record actually got off our couch, where we’ve been playing Madden 2003 on PlayStation 2 for the past three weeks, to attend what had been deemed the largest reunion of interns from The Nation … ever. The occasion? A 70th-birthday celebration of Nation publisher and editorial director Victor Navasky.

The internship program, begun when Mr. Navasky took the reins as editor of the magazine from Blair Clark in 1978, has seen 500 kids pass through its ranks, including current Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, New Yorker scribe Elizabeth Kolbert and New York Times reporter Robin Pogrebin. (Sadly, this list doesn’t include Off the Record, who applied unsuccessfully in 1995).

Following the festivities-which included an “impromptu” speech by Calvin Trillin and a top 10 list on the merits of the internship by Ms. vanden Heuvel (sample zingers: “Being taught how to win friends and influence people by Alexander Cockburn” and “There’s no better preparation for a career in journalism than fact-checking articles about Alger Hiss”)-we caught up with New York magazine political columnist Michael Tomasky at the bar. Recalling his own intern experience, Mr. Tomasky said he was all of 24 years old and a couple years removed from Morgantown, W.Va., when he got the Nation gig.

“I think,” Mr. Tomasky said, “I was something of an affirmative-action hire.”

He went on to say: “Even though I’ve become more mainstream than The Nation or whatever, I always feel very welcome in this world. It’s strange, because the outer world has this idea of the left being judgmental or unforgiving. On a personal level, it’s not really like that. It’s very forgiving. It’s very non-judgmental.”

Mr. Navasky, asked if he felt like a proud papa whose children had returned to him, said, “No, not really. You know, it’s a party. They expropriated my birthday, which is actually July 5. It has little to do with me. It has a lot to do with their experience as interns.”