Jonathan Landman, the newly appointed culture editor of The New York Times , said that he’s “rusty as hell” at playing the cello. But Mr. Landman, previously The Times ‘ assistant managing editor for enterprise, declined to discuss his taste in music or movies.
“I guess I’m slightly stupider about culture than I was about everything else I’ve started over the years,” Mr. Landman said after executive editor Bill Keller announced his hiring.
Mr. Keller, in a staff memo, conceded that Mr. Landman-best known as the Metro editor who tried to warn higher-ups about Jayson Blair-”does not bring to the job a thick portfolio of cultural expertise.”
So how’d he become the new culture boss? “Bill asked me to do it,” Mr. Landman said. “Sometimes life is simple.”
Mr. Landman loses a spot on the masthead and gains the responsibility for putting the paper’s long-planned culture-desk revival into motion. Previous culture editor Steven Erlanger, who helped draw up the plans, “agreed” to vacate his post, according to Mr. Keller’s memo, to take the job of Jerusalem bureau chief.
Getting the culture desk to the promised land falls to Mr. Landman. The culture-desk reform, which is supposed to be done by September, includes plans for dismantling old section-based lines of authority, installing new genre-specific editors and building a new copy-editing operation.
Mr. Keller judged Mr. Landman better suited than Mr. Erlanger to oversee that shakeup. The executive editor’s memo described implementing the plan as a “very different challenge” from coming up with it.
Mr. Erlanger, in farewell remarks to the culture staff, told his soon-to-be-former underlings that Mr. Keller had told him “he would feel easier with a more experienced manager to do the building.”
“I’ve really enjoyed driving the boat, and working with you to design the new boat,” Mr. Erlanger said, according to an e-mail text of his remarks that circulated among the staff. “We would have succeeded, and you will succeed with Jon’s guidance.”
“Steve did some heroic stuff as culture editor,” Mr. Keller said, citing improved coverage under Mr. Erlanger’s supervision and a series of strong hires his ex–culture editor had made.
This summer’s undertaking, however, is a bigger job. “This project is going to be really heavy lifting, and Jon Landman is one of the best heavy lifters I know,” Mr. Keller said.
Mr. Landman’s reputation-he’s the one who wrote the famous memo imploring the Times leadership to get Jayson Blair to stop writing for the paper before he was assigned to his fateful series of articles on the Maryland sniper-is already working for him in a department known for short-lived and feckless leadership. One staffer described him as a “white knight,” and The Times ‘ other culturites are variously applauding or swooning.
Another culture staffer said that the suddenness of the move had contributed to a “head-spinning” atmosphere at the department-the dazed realization that years of talk about change had given way to the real thing.
Two days after his appointment, Mr. Landman announced to the culture staff that deputy editor Bill McDonald was out and that dining-section chief Sam Sifton would be taking his place. Mr. Landman told Off the Record that he hasn’t yet figured out what Mr. Sifton’s duties will be.
According to Mr. Keller, the change was less abrupt than it looked, having been part of advance discussions before Mr. Landman took the job. “Sometimes we manage to think a few moves ahead on the chessboard,” Mr. Keller said.
And Mr. Sifton was a chess piece that the executive editor had wanted to put into motion. “Sam’s somebody that Jill Abramson and I have had an eye on for a while,” Mr. Keller said. Mr. Sifton’s dining-section job has been assigned to Weekend editor Kathleen McElroy.
Unlike Mr. Erlanger-whose exile to Jerusalem rated a good-news Times press release-Mr. McDonald was defenestrated without benefit of a waiting stack of mattresses; Mr. Landman simply wrote that his ex-deputy “is about to begin considering a variety of opportunities in other departments.”
Mr. Landman also apologized to his staff for skipping the usual formality of posting Mr. McDonald’s job vacancy. “[W]e simply do not have the luxury of time,” he wrote.
“He’s a first-class editor,” Mr. Landman said of Mr. McDonald. But not for the culture overhaul? “I’ll leave it at that,” Mr. Landman said.
Mr. McDonald, for his part, spurned a planned sendoff event that the culture desk had scheduled for this Thursday. “I said goodbye to a great many of you last Friday, so another round might be redundant,” he wrote to the staff in an e-mail. “And as my editing mentors have taught me, redundancies are to be avoided.”
Mr. Keller’s faith in Mr. Landman’s managerial skills was evidently more important than a desire for continuity. Of the three leading authors of the culture-desk plan-Mr. Erlanger, former culture specialist Adam Moss and associate editor Frank Rich-Mr. Rich alone remains to take part in its execution. Mr. Keller’s memo singled Mr. Rich out as one of “the best advisors an editor could hope for.”
That assumes that Mr. Rich will resist any future overtures from Mr. Moss, who was trying to recruit him to New York magazine earlier this year. But with Mr. Rich firmly established as The Times ‘ senior authority on culture-and his protégée, Arts & Leisure editor Jodi Kantor, now qualifying as a seasoned expert in her own right-there’s little cause for him to be restive.
“For whatever reason, I think Frank was never fully enlisted in the role that was originally intended for him,” Mr. Keller said. As part of the discussions about taking the culture editorship, Mr. Landman met with Mr. Rich, Mr. Keller said, and “they hit it off really well.”
“I’m both amazed and excited that, after all the turmoil at the paper in general and in the culture department in particular, the project that Howell first proposed to me almost two years ago seems at last to be within reach,” Mr. Rich said.
It wouldn’t be the Times culture desk, though, if there weren’t still some uncertainty. Mr. Keller’s announcement memo said that Mr. Landman would be performing culture duties for “a year or so.” Mr. Landman’s job, Mr. Keller explained, is to get the reformed desk up and running smoothly.
“My hunch is that after we get to that stage, we’ll regroup and see if we need a new culture editor,” Mr. Keller said. “I think we probably will be looking for a new culture editor along the way.”
Mr. Keller said he included the term limit in the announcement in the interest of candor-”I know that’s not necessarily an effective management tool”-and to signal that “Jon hasn’t been pushed out of the masthead for the long term.”
What matters, Mr. Keller said, is what’s happening in the present: “For the next year or so, anyway, we know who the culture editor is going to be.”
Graydon Carter loved downfall stories, he told The New York Times back in 1996.
“I find failures are more interesting than success,” the Vanity Fair editor explained to a reporter.
There were no aphorisms forthcoming from Mr. Carter for The Times last week. He was traveling and unavailable to comment on the news-breaking simultaneously in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times on May 14-that he’d received a $100,000 personal payment from Universal Pictures as a reward for suggesting that A Beautiful Mind might make a good movie.
Is Mr. Carter’s own downfall story in the works? Irreverent, celebrity-bashing editor of Spy magazine and The Observer slowly slides into Tinseltown groupiedom, ending up as Hollywood madam?
At the moment, the question is one of Zen muckracking: What is the sound of one shoe dropping? For weeks, there were rumors that the L.A. Times was preparing a takedown investigation into Mr. Carter’s movie-industry dealings. Then The New York Times -and, one report had it, The Wall Street Journal -entered the hunt.
But last Friday’s twin accounts of Mr. Carter’s $100,000 deal, which included confirmation from Condé Nast, read more like the product of a rush to get a solid fact into the paper than as finished indictments. Absent more evidence of entrenched corruption, the Los Angeles paper was reduced to complaining that Vanity Fair had run an excerpt from Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures skewering Harvey Weinstein under a “relatively gentle headline.”
Mr. Carter’s Vanity Fair has gotten into trouble before. In 1998, The Wall Street Journal flagged the magazine for letting Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold write an anonymous article praising Gulfstream jets-in an issue that also contained a Gulfstream ad with Mr. Myhrvold as pitch man.
And there may be more revelations coming-the L.A. Times is still aggressively chasing leads-but the quasi-exposés hardly gave incentive for future whistle-blowers. Why join the infantry charge if the leaders are carrying small-caliber weapons?
Particularly if Mr. Carter proves as bulletproof as he has thus far. You don’t have to be Leonard Downie to count the $100,000 payoff as a mortal journalistic sin; if Off the Record, for instance, were to take a finder’s fee from Mr. Carter for suggesting a Vanity Fair story, then Off the Record would get fired.
Yet Condé Nast was, and remains, unfazed. On the question of whether it’s standard policy for an editor to accept such consulting fees, company spokeswoman Maurie Perl offered Zen some of her own: “Our corporate policy is that we don’t discuss corporate policies regarding staff,” she said.
As much as he’s benefiting from his current employer’s tolerance, Mr. Carter may also be benefiting from his own past work. One of the legacies of Spy , ultimately, is that the successful figures whom Mr. Carter ridiculed in the early 90′s are still successes. Short fingers or not, Donald Trump continues to lord his Trumpness over the rest of the citizenry. Leon Wieseltier broods majestically over the back end of The New Republic and now dabbles in TV acting.
Celebrities, it turns out, are as adaptable as staphylococci: The more shaming they take, the more shameless they can become. The larger-than-life Mr. Carter has survived being called a hack and a buffoon. Perhaps he can survive being called a crook.