In 2003, the media clubhouse doors flew open. And the kids outside-the people who don’t rate Julian Niccolini’s lunchtime seating chart at the Four Seasons, who don’t spend their evenings at the Explorers Club-didn’t like what they found.
They saw the top editors of the most important news organization in the world undone by hubris and the lame fabrications of an ambitious young reporter. They saw magazine executives under oath in a celebrity trial copping to fraudulent circulation figures. And what’s this? A onetime “It” girl turned tabloid matron says nuthin’ while one of her publications runs the name and photo of a woman alleging rape.
But it was a moment-even if it was the moment that made 2003 one of the business’ only serious occasions for introspection in years. By December, those clubhouse doors were slammed shut again. While Jayson Blair made us question our integrity as news organizations in summer, by fall we barely blinked at a lengthy editor’s note about Los Angeles reporter Charlie LeDuff’s account of his Los Angeles River adventure-and its debt to a book by Blake Gumprecht published four years before.
Perhaps it’s all best summed up thusly: A year that began for newspapers with preparation for war in Iraq ended with a war over the soul of New York magazine-waged in true Trollopean fashion largely at cocktail parties and over lunch at Michael’s, but won in whispered weekend conferences at a frequency inaudible to Manhattan’s media-obsessed masses, who dropped their Merlot en masse over a recent Tuesday lunch hour when word spread of billionaire Bruce Wasserstein’s coup.
There were losses: former Atlantic Monthly editor Michael Kelly in Iraq. Paris Review editor George Plimpton in New York. Wall Street Journal Hollywood reporter Tom King and GQ editor Art Cooper. The weight of their absence can’t be measured by any instrument we here at Off the Record, in a year-end roundup, possess. It’s perhaps embarrassing in the shadow of their departures to find ourselves on the cusp of 2004, still watching while the media-or the people at the media’s center-continue to pry and claw at each other with the ferocity of unfed dogs.
But that’s the spirit of neurotic introspection laced with attention to absurd spectacle that keeps you coming back. And it’s in that spirit that we unapologetically bring you the 2003 Year in Media Awards, otherwise known as the “Pappu-litzers” ( pace all you folks at Columbia University’s journalism school and Dean Nicholas Lemann).
A note to the winners: The $5,000 we asked from our big-cheese editor to give an awards luncheon at the Subway sandwich shop on Lexington Avenue and 57th Street got lost in the mailroom. In 2004, we’ll make up for it with some pear salad and sole and maybe a handful of those little cookies.
Best endorsement of an autobiographical hip-hop movie: Howell Raines, former executive editor, The New York Times . About Eminem’s 8 Mile , he said in an interview about The Times ‘ cultural coverage in January: “Marshall Mathers has a presence that’s quite interesting. And I liked the depiction of urban working-class life, which is something I know a great deal about, having grown up in a grim industrial city. And I liked the performance aspects. And in particular, though it was hokey, I liked the dramatic climax.”
Best use of Photoshop: The New York Post . Only those mischievous Murdochians could so-subtly, was it?-morph the heads of U.N. representatives of France and Germany into weasels.
Worst use of Photoshop: The New York Post , for its Sept. 11, 2003, wood. Only the Post could so tackily turn the Twin Towers into a pair of burning candles à la Gerhard Richter on the anniversary of this city’s greatest tragedy.
Worst trend to come out of Gulf War II: Movie critics as war correspondents. When the Post dispatched Jonathan Foreman to the front, it put too many ideas into the heads of too many idle editors. We’re readying Rex Reed’s flak jacket for North Korea as we speak.
Best military-strategic use of an embedded reporter: The Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha (M.E.T. Alpha). When the team charged with hunting down weapons of mass destruction allowed The Times ‘ Judith Miller to write on its interrogation of a supposed Iraqi scientist with knowledge of the country’s illicit weapons program, it laid down some, shall we say, unconventional conditions:
“Under the terms of her accreditation to report on the activities of M.E.T. Alpha, this reporter was not permitted to interview the scientist or visit his home,” Ms. Miller wrote on April 21. “Nor was she permitted to write about the discovery of the scientist for three days, and the copy was then submitted for a check by military officials.
“Those officials asked that details of what chemicals were uncovered be deleted,” Ms. Miller continued. “They said they feared that such information could jeopardize the scientist’s safety by identifying the part of the weapons program where he worked.”
Worst new job: Editor in chief, the Star . Hey, Joe Dolce, that albatross round your neck is Bonnie Fuller.
Worst use of an editor’s column to rail against George W.: Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair . Having vanquished the Bush administration on Iraq, in the September issue, Mr. Carter moves the fight into the fiscal field of battle-attacking the budget deficits run up by George W. and his father: “Never let it be said that the son hasn’t lived up to the accomplishments of the father.” Dude, can you just introduce the Annie Liebowitz spread and be done with it?
Best use of an editor’s column to rail against George W.: Ruth Reichl, Gourmet . Just substitute “Iraq” for “pie” and “Saddam Hussein” for “Serrano ham.” It’s fun.
Best display of genitalia, newspaper: The New York Post. On Feb. 8, the paper ran a story headlined “Nutty Nudes Protest War,” about a group of naked people who registered their displeasure with the Iraq buildup by spelling out “No Bush” while lying in the snow in front of Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain on Feb. 7. Though it was a long-distance shot, there was no missing the shrubbery.
Worst display of genitalia, newspaper: The Daily News , which chose to vague up the scenery through photo manipulation.
Biggest narc, non– New York Times scandal category: Whichever Vanity Fair employee called the nicotine police about the smoking that’s been going on there.
Best recycled trend: The New Republic getting conservative-again.
“I read the magazine because it’s full of trenchant critiques of the Bush domestic policy,” said Hendrik Hertzberg, TNR ‘s editor from 1981 to 1985 and 1988 to 1991. “When I see a piece saying ‘Nancy Pelosi is a Stalinist,’ I just skip it.
“The old ‘Even The New Republic … ‘ scam was getting a little old in the 1980’s,” Mr. Hertzberg continued. “Now it’s a quarter of a century old.”
Best fact-checking discovery: People . When the magazine published an excerpt from the memoir of its West Coast style editor (and Today regular) Steven Cojocaru, People ‘s fact-checking department busted Mr. Cojocaru for lying about his age.
When, according to sources, Mr. Cojocaru discovered that the magazine planned to run his real age, he called to beg for mercy. Alas, People managing editor Martha Nelson stood by her staff and let the magazine print Mr. Cojocaru’s real age-40, not 36.
“I’m going to do a Joan Collins on you and say, ‘No comment,'” Mr. Cojocaru told Off the Record. “It’s ludicrous-I’m 23!”
Best use of a wedding reception as a cocktail party for the city’s political elite: Howell Raines and Krystyna Anna Stachowiak, whose pre-Jaysongate “regrets only” bash at the Bryant Park hotel included Senator Charles Schumer, Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and CBS anchor Dan Rather, as well as PBS interviewer Charlie Rose.
“I’m a sucker for love,” said Mr. Rose.
Best suck-up to new employer: Allen Barra. Brought in by Howell Raines earlier this year, Mr. Barra grew up and went to college in Birmingham, Ala., where he worshipped Times executive editor Howell Raines’ early career.
“Everyone wanted to be him,” Mr. Barra said of Mr. Raines. “He was so cool.”
Quietest exit: Allen Barra, who left The Times shortly after Mr. Raines’ dismissal by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
Saddest exit: Come back to us, Mr. Big!
Best use of stealth for political commentary: The Wall Street Journal ‘s “Personal Journal” section. On March 5, the advertiser-friendly service section of the paper ran a map assessing the risk for traveling abroad. While later editions of the paper ranked France as “No more dangerous than any other Western country,” readers of the first edition were treated to a slightly more snide remark. “France,” the copy read: “Sure, as long as you don’t mind French whine.”
Best mystery: Who left the “object that might possibly be an animal part” on the 18th floor of the Condé Nast building?
Least surprising magazine closure: Penthouse spawn and Spin founder Bob Guccione Jr.’s shuttering of Gear .
Best reporting on distant locale from Brooklyn: Tad Friend, The New Yorker. Despite getting the gig to pen the magazine’s “Letter from California,” the former Mr. Latte has maintained his 718 area code. We really felt like we were there, Tad!
Worst reporting on distant locale from Brooklyn: Jayson Blair. He might have gotten away with it if he had just put a coal mine instead of a tobacco field in the front of Pvt. Jessica Lynch’s West Virginia home.
Best revenge, ex-employee: Led by former Times national editor Dean Baquet, the Los Angeles Times won three Pulitzers, the most in its history. The haul included a Pulitzer for national reporting, recognizing the work of former Times Atlanta bureau chief Kevin Sack, who left the fold when the paper refused to let him continue to report from Atlanta.
Worst use of a stuffed animal to win back the affection of your staff: Arthur Sulzberger Jr. When the Times publisher brought a stuffed moose onstage at the May 14 post-Jayson town-hall meeting, the place was up for grabs.
Worst post-disgrace gaffe: Jayson Blair. He had a point, but someone should have told him that down on 43rd Street, they were looking for a bit of contrition.
“I don’t understand why I am the bumbling affirmative-action hire when Stephen Glass is this brilliant whiz kid, when from my perspective-and I know I shouldn’t be saying this-I fooled some of the most brilliant people in journalism,” Mr. Blair said. “He [Glass] is so brilliant, and yet somehow I’m an affirmative-action hire. They’re all so smart, but I was sitting right under their nose fooling them. If they’re all so brilliant and I’m such an affirmative-action hire, how come they didn’t catch me?”
Then again, he already has a book deal and may yet have a movie deal.
Worst post-disgrace backfire: Howell Raines, who dished about the complacent culture of his former staff on Charlie Rose three days before Bill Keller’s ascension to the executive-editor post at The Times . It was like a big backhanded hug for the new boss.
Best escape: Bonnie Fuller. After never signing her seven-figure, three-year contract with Jann Wenner, the queen of photo captions and fashion tidbits took her late deadlines and cost overruns to David Pecker’s American Media.
Worst career move: Having scorched the good feelings at Condé Nast, Hearst and Wenner, and now inextricably linked with the tabloid antics of the National Enquirer and the Globe, one wonders if any glossy will ever open its doors to Ms. Fuller again.
Best use of money to exact personal vengeance: Soon after Ms. Fuller bolted, His Jann-ness canceled his company’s distribution deal with Mr. Pecker.
Best use of little people to get yourself kicked out of a job: Greg Gutfeld. When the former editor in chief of Stuff sent three little people to disrupt an ASME panel that included Maxim editor in chief Keith Blanchard, Dennis executives put him where he couldn’t do more damage, or where his antics might be more appreciated-in television.
Best sign that God doesn’t read the Times editorial page: An Oct. 8 editorial supporting a Red Sox–Cubs World Series.
“With all due respect to our New York readership-Yankee fans among them-to George Steinbrenner and to the Yankees themselves,” the editorial read, “we find it hard to resist the emotional tug and symmetrical possibilities of a series between teams that seem to have been put on earth to tantalize and then crush their zealous fans.”
Best response to a Times Sunday Styles trend story: Anna Wintour, editor in chief, Vogue . After The Times declared the end of fashion’s relevance in a Sept. 14 Sunday Styles piece, Ms. Wintour shot back to an Observer reporter during fashion week: “Rubbish. Total rubbish. The Times is always down on fashion. Always! I don’t know why. I love a lot of what I’m seeing in these shows-so much color and femininity. There are wonderful things happening in fashion. The Times should be celebrating it. Just look at the scene here tonight!”
Worst response to a Times trend story: ESPN Radio morning host Mike Greenberg. The man can’t stop yapping about his life as a metrosexual. We get it: You like manicures. And you’re not gay. Please talk about football.
Worst use of a scandal for self-promotion and profit: The New Republic . TNR not only put its former staffer on its Nov. 10 cover, but for weeks its Web site ran advertisements for Shattered Glass , the Hayden Christensen vehicle, like it was Star Wars .
Media alliance that best resembled the Legion of Doom: Mort Zuckerman’s would-have-been, should-have been coalition to buy New York that included Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, Arby’s czar Nelson Peltz, advertising wizard Donny Deutsch and media columnist Michael Wolff.
Biggest media-writer nemesis: Bruce Wasserstein. When the Lazard C.E.O. swooped in to take New York for $55 million, he robbed magazine chroniclers who planned on years and years of covering the backbiting between Mr. Zuckerman and pals.
Most missed media figure: Jazzy, the Yorkshire terrier and property of New York Post columnist Cindy Adams. It was a short ride to celebrity on Ms. Adams’ coattails (the book deal! the Barneys appearances!), but a sweet one.
Best adieu to 2003: Arthur Sulzberger Jr. In a letter sent out to people receiving the Times 2004 “diary,” a traditional year-end digestif , Mr. Sulzberger wrote: “When you consider the hundreds of stories around the globe over the past 12 months that involved war, peace, life and death, all the internal tumult that we had to grapple with at The Times now seems a bit parochial.
“As Bogie told Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca: ‘ It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world .’
“What does amount to a hill of beans,” Mr. Sulzberger continued, “is how we hold fast to our sense of humor and the respect and dignity with which we treat ourselves and each other. So we turn the final page of one diary and open the first page of a pristine volume that yearns to be filled. May it overflow with stories of joy, accomplishment and fulfillment, from January through December.”
To which Off the Record says: God bless us, every one!