While many New York Times readers’ eyes were still bulging over Bernard Weinraub’s Jan. 30, too-much-information essay about the personal agonies of working in Hollywood, a new reporter was quietly settling into the film beat’s piranha pool.
On Feb. 22, David Halbfinger was busy writing his first story as The New York Times’ newest reporter covering Hollywood, in the position that was recently vacated by Mr. Weinraub, sharing the beat with Sharon Waxman.
“It’s a great beat. It’s hugely important in the culture. I love movies,” said Mr. Halbfinger, on the phone from Los Angeles. “As much as people warned me about this town, I think I actually like this kind of person-the movie person.”
Mr. Halbfinger has previously served as the paper’s Atlanta bureau chief, covering eight Southern states, and more recently went on the campaign trail with John Kerry, where he said he traveled exhaustively and was “away from [his] new wife for 14 months straight.”
“If you go from covering a Presidential campaign, there aren’t a lot of things that are going to seem as important,” said Mr.Halbfinger. “Given how much time on the Presidential campaign I was spending reading about Michael Moore and Mel Gibson, and Fahrenheit and Passion and everything that was coming out of Hollywood, it’s kind of ground zero in terms of writing about America.”
Mr. Halbfinger’s name might also be familiar to readers who saw a personal essay he wrote in the September/October 2004 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. In it, he described his sorrow over losing his laptop in a taxicab while covering the campaign. Besides holding contact information for all of his sources, his notes, family photos and irreplaceable interviews, the laptop had been his connection while on the road to his new bride. “When I powered up, she would stare out at me, smiling a full-screen come-hither smile as she lay in her wedding gown in our bridal suite,” Mr. Halbfinger wrote.
At least she wasn’t a studio executive!
Mr. Weinraub’s wife is just that-one of the many points of emotional and professional torment in the exiting Times writer’s own essay. The piece underscored the reputation of the Hollywood beat for chewing up reporters and spitting them out, as Mr. Weinraub bemoaned “the ferocity of a culture in which the players can be best friends one day and savage you the next”; complained that Jeffrey Katzenberg stopped calling him once he left the movie beat; and revealed that “detachment from the real, I soon learned, was closely bound up in the culture of stardom.”
Mr. Halbfinger said that he’d read Mr. Weinraub’s essay and appreciated its honesty.
“I guess I got a glimpse through his eyes of what it was like, and I thought it was human and charming, and I suppose there are aspects to it that could be somewhat cautionary,” said Mr. Halbfinger. “I was grateful that he wrote it, and I was grateful to read it, and it was perfect timing …. It was like, ‘ Hello, this is what I’m getting into!”
In a December staff e-mail announcing the new appointment, Times cultural-news editor Jonathan Landman described Mr. Halbfinger as “an ambitious thinker and a writer who likes to have fun,” and “a tough guy for a tough beat.” The advertisement for Mr. Weinraub’s spot was said to specify that candidates should have a thick skin and not mind being hated; when reached by phone, Mr. Landman said this was because “people in the movie business take their work seriously.”
“I’m not planning to be hated,” said Mr. Halbfinger. “On the other hand, do I need to be loved by everybody? No. I get plenty of love at home.”
The effects of steroid abuse vary from person to person. For baseball players, steroids generally increase muscle mass and slugging power. For sportswriters, steroids increase flexibility.
Thanks to Jose Canseco, the easy, sunny rhythms of pitchers-and-catchers-reporting coverage have been badly disrupted this month. Two weeks ago, the Daily News blew hydrogen gas onto the embers of the hot-stove league with advance revelations from Mr. Canseco’s Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big: syringes in the men’s room! Hall of Fame–class sluggers on the needle!
The reverberations-amplified by Mr. Canseco’s authorial publicity rounds-have left the sports press dazed and struggling to find an appropriate reaction to the former All-Star’s stories. Some of Mr. Canseco’s anecdotes have proven ridiculously easy to debunk: He said he talked steroids with the Mariners’ Bret Boone at second base one spring, but the box scores reportedly say that he never made it onto the base paths against Seattle.
Yet Mr. Canseco’s larger contention-that most of the offensive heroics of the past decade were built on under-the-counter medication-is harder to shrug off. Facing that claim, some professional lovers of baseball have settled on a pair of not-quite-reconcilable conclusions: It’s terrible that Mr. Canseco took steroids, and it’s terrible that he’s talking about it.
Mr. Canseco, commentators have said, is only in it for the money. He has the “credibility of head lice.” He’s a “rat.” He “shoved a shiv” in his old teammate Mark McGwire’s back.
And now he’s tearing down the game. “Canseco introduced us to this sordid story in the 1980s with his brazen bulging muscles and arrogant defiance, threatening to sue those who went public with charges of his steroid use,” wrote the dean of right-thinking hardball scribes, The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell. ” … These days, we can never put a sleazy topic to bed until we’ve utterly exhausted the subject, right down to the final excruciating details.”
That represents something like Mr. Boswell’s fourth stance on the subject of performance-enhancing drugs since Mr. Canseco swaggered onto the scene in the late 80’s as a young hero-villain. It was Mr. Boswell himself who had gone public with charges back then, telling a TV audience that Mr. Canseco clearly owed his unprecedented combination of speed and power to steroids.
A decade later, when Mr. McGwire shattered the home-run record with confessed assistance from the not-yet-banned steroid androstenedione, Mr. Boswell had turned against disclosure. “Even in an age of compulsive debunking, we can act decent for a month,” he wrote in 1998. “Let’s keep our asterisks, innuendo, and, perhaps, even a bit of our conscience, in the closet. Some things are too good to spoil. McGwire is one of them.”
But six years after that, when Barry Bonds had been named in the investigation of the BALCO steroid lab, Mr. Boswell was in favor of asterisks again. “All [Mr. Bonds'] records are now a steroid lie,” he wrote last year. ” … Throw every record that Bonds has set in the past four years into the trash can that history reserves for cheats.”
The deeper the story gets-and with apologies to Mr. Boswell’s latest opinion, the topic of steroids is far from exhausted-the harder it gets to pick out the principles. When Yankee Jason Giambi, reportedly named in the BALCO investigation and said to be suffering from ailments consistent with steroid abuse, faced the press earlier this month, the papers were savage about his refusal to say the word “steroids.” “He’s no Yankee, he’s a Dodger,” the wood in the New York Post blared the next morning.
This past weekend, Mr. Giambi’s teammate Kevin Brown wrote into The New York Times to defend his teammate from columnist Dave Anderson, who’d written about Mr. Giambi’s remarks under the title “Putting the Con Back in Confession.” “Evidently, an apology doesn’t make for a good headline, and the focus has to be on faults,” Mr. Brown wrote.
There are faults, and then there are faults. The Yankees’ Gary Sheffield was implicated in the BALCO case, too. He responded with a misdemeanor plea in the court of public opinion: He had trained with Mr. Bonds, he said, but he had no idea the substances he took were performance-enhancing drugs. Because he hit .290 with 36 home runs last year, while Mr. Giambi batted an enfeebled .208, Mr. Sheffield’s story has largely passed muster.
But performance-enhancing drugs enhance performance. In the midst of it all, Murray Chass of The Times reported that Mr. Giambi had a history of avoiding the word “steroids”: The Yankees had agreed to scrub specific language about steroid penalties from the slugger’s contract when they signed him as the then-reigning American League M.V.P. in 2001. After a round of pooh-poohing in other papers (the Post couldn’t bring itself to say in what newspaper the “published report” had been published), the Yankees eventually admitted that the steroid deletions had happened.
Except for Mr. Chass’ coup, the steroid story mostly belonged to the Daily News, which was able to amplify and focus Mr. Canseco’s allegations-including getting an F.B.I. agent to say that baseball had ignored warnings about steroids in the mid-90’s. “It’s been a good story for us,” said reporter Michael O’Keeffe.
The question is why it’s taken 17 years for the story to develop since the days when a young Mr. Canseco flexed a bicep to Boston fans chanting “STER-oids, STER-oids!” What followed has been a parallel, unprinted history of baseball, half-known by the press and the fans. A young slugger shows up with arms as big around as his legs; an 88-m.p.h. pitcher reappears as a thick-necked, flame-throwing closer. One veteran after another finds his second wind at an age where players of previous generations were fading away.
“The information may have been out [there],” Mr. O’Keeffe said, “but they’re hard stories to get.” The trouble, he said, is that steroids are illegal. It’s a lot harder to accuse a player of committing a crime in print than to say he’s lazy or overweight-or, for that matter, to praise his workout habits and savor his home-run totals. If a prosecutor hadn’t sent a grand jury after BALCO, Mr. O’Keeffe continued, “We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”
So Mr. Canseco is a jerk. He’s also the first player ever to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season. And he’s saying that the era of big numbers that he ushered in was made possible by drugs. Steroids, Mr. Canseco has said while promoting his book, turn good athletes into great ones, and they make “a super athlete incredible, just legendary.”
And sportswriters write the legends. Medically unsavory facts don’t fit into legends very well.
Steroids are only one part of the tradition. When the Yankees traded for Randy Johnson, the stories said in passing that the last remaining cartilage had been scraped out of the 41-year-old lefty’s right knee two years ago, and that he now relies on injections of “synthetic lubricant” to get him through each start.
No one mentioned the medical ethics of sending a 6-foot-10 man with maybe four decades left to live and walk out to the mound to keep grinding bone against bone. Nor did they mention the competitive ethics: Why shouldn’t Barry Bonds be the Incredible Hulk if he has to bat against the Bionic Man?
Deal the Gray Lady in! In a Feb. 15 memo to New York Times staff, national-desk editor Jim Roberts and deputy editor Alison Mitchell announced that the paper will be following the trail blazed by Mimi Rogers and Casey Affleck by creating a brand-new beat devoted to gambling issues.
Though Jodi Wilgoren muscled her way up to the felt with yesterday’s page 1 piece on the spread of recreational no-limit Texas hold ‘em in Minnesota, the gambling beat will actually belong to Times veteran Fox Butterfield, now in his 36th year with the paper.
Mr. Butterfield said he doesn’t toss the dice, play the ponies or shake hands with the one-armed bandit.
“I don’t bet,” he said.
“We’ve only begun to discuss the parameters of the beat, but there’s an enormousamountto cover,” the editors wrote. “Between casinos, slots, lotteries and racetracks, legal gambling exists in one form or another in nearly every state.”
Not to mention Hollywood. In a lengthy chronicle in the March Vanity Fair, Duff McDonald lists a spate of new gambling projects, which include Zak Penn’s forthcoming poker mockumentary starring Ben Affleck and David Schwimmer, and NBC’s recent deal with Lisa Kudrow’s production company to develop a series based on female poker champion Annie Duke.
Mr. Butterfield, a National Book Award winner who has spent more than a decade covering criminal justice on such stories as the Tawana Brawley case, the methamphetamine trade and rampage killings, likewise said he had yet to think up the specifics of the new assignment.
“I’m really just beginning-it’s totally open-ended,” he said. “Gambling is everywhere now; it permeates American society. But you’re getting way ahead of me. I have just begun.”
Hint: The morning Greyhound to Mohegan Sun leaves the Port Authority at 8:15!
For a model of the starting-from-zero spirit, Mr. Butterfield could consult Ms. Wilgoren’s dispatch, which informed readers that poker is a game “which combines the luck of the draw with strategy based on mathematical probability and more than a little bluffing.”
Deputy national editor Ms. Mitchell said the idea for a gambling beat had been tossed around for the past six months. “It’s an industry that’s all over the place; it’s an issue for states,” she said. “Forty-eight out of 50 states have gambling. It’s an influence issue, it’s a political issue, it’s a lifestyle issue-people are doing this as recreation.”
This isn’t the first time Mr. Butterfield has inaugurated a beat at The Times. In 1989, he wrote a page 1 piece about Willie Bosket, a violent inmate who had admitted to committing 2,000 crimes. Based on his reporting, he penned his award-winning book, All God’s Children: Willie Bosket and the American Tradition of Violence, in 1996. After that, The Times made him its first national-desk reporter to cover criminal-justice issues full-time.
Authorial standing is easy to measure these days: Neurotic midlist novelists, concerned about their place in the universe, can get through lonely nights by tracking their books-against those of everyone they know-in the Amazon sales rankings.
But what if you’re not a long-form writer? “I haven’t written a book yet,” said New York Times Magazine contributing writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis. “So I can’t obsess about my Amazon rating.”
Instead, Mr. Denizet-Lewis said, he turns to a different source of instant feedback: the “Most E-Mailed Articles” list on the Times Web site. The list, which tallies the articles most frequently forwarded along by readers, is updated every 15 minutes. For status-conscious Times persons, the list has become the object of keen attention, if not simmering obsession: a real-time measure of their stories’ impact and influence, judged by the readers rather than editors.
“It’s become the alternate front page,” one Times staffer said.
Unlike the regular front page, the “Most E-Mailed” list cuts across sectional fiefdoms and the news-opinion firewall. The rankings pit pundits and critics, feature writers and breaking-news reporters in one battle royal for eyeballs.
“I care what readers think, so I find it fascinating,” said Glenn Kramon, The Times’ associate managing editor for career development. ” … I think there’s no better way to encourage a reporter than to say, ‘Hey, your article is at the top of the “Most E-Mailed Articles” list. You’re ahead of Krugman! Ahead of Dowd! And congratulations!'”
Mr. Kramon cited an article by Westchester Weekly reporter Jennifer Medina about the new SAT exam that landed on the list when it ran Jan. 30. “I sent a note to the reporter saying, ‘Way to go-you’re getting that story that people care about.'”
Maureen Dowd said she checks the list once a day (“a trepidatious thing”). “If I get beaten by a reporter, I immediately go and read their story and make sure it’s worthy,” she said.
While The Times’ national daily circulation is currently about 1.12 million, the paper counts more than 13 million registered online readers. Each day, some 100,000 articles are e-mailed from the Times Web site.
The Times first added the “Most E-Mailed” chart to its Web site in 2000, shortly after the paper introduced the feature that allows the e-mailing of articles. Eliot Pierce, who oversees the e-mail function for the Times site, wrote in an e-mail of his own that Op-Ed columnists generally score the highest, but that “the feature also exposes articles that would not generally be read by a large group of readers to gain significant attention.”
Mr. Pierce cited a food-section piece by Eric Asimov, in which Smirnoff beat out fancy brands of vodka in a taste test, as an example of a story that had achieved e-mail fame.
This past October, The Times began highlighting the list by noting the top five “Most E -Mailed” pieces on both the home page and every article page. In January, the function was further refined: It now includes a cumulative tally covering the past seven days. As of lunchtime yesterday, half of the previous week’s Top 10 were Op-Ed pieces; the other five covered topics including embattled Harvard president Lawrence Summers, a Web-based parody of Christo’s Gates, and the possibility of building robot soldiers.
Writers confess that it’s easy to get into the click-and-check habit. “Especially with my first pieces, I really did obsess about it,” Mr. Denizet-Lewis said. His first list-watching experience, he said, came when his August 2003 article on “Down Low” African-American gay culture was published. “It came out on a Friday night,” Mr. Denizet-Lewis said. “I started checking then-it was my first cover. So you’re very excited. I was like, ‘Should I send out e-mails just to get it started?'”
Name-brand Times writers-ones who do have books on the Amazon charts-aren’t immune to the list’s attraction. “You can see what people really care about, because they’re sending it to someone saying, ‘You need to read this,'” said columnist Thomas Friedman.
Mr. Friedman recalled one heavily e-mailed column in particular that he wrote in the run-up to the Iraq war, which called for India to replace France on the U.N. Security Council. “The Sunday columns move online about 9 o’clock Saturday night,” he said. “I came home that Saturday night from a dinner and I looked at the ‘Most E-Mailed’ items, and the column was already No. 4 in an hour.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute-there’s no way a bunch of people are online on a Saturday night sitting around waiting for this column.’ Then I realized it was all the people in India saying, ‘Wow! Look at this-India should replace France on the Security Council!’ It was morning for them, and all these online readers in India were saying, ‘Look at this!’ It was just a very interesting insight for me into the power of this platform.”
When the numbers don’t move, that can be another problem. “On Jan. 27, I checked,” Ms. Dowd recounted. “I wasn’t in the Top Five, the Top 10 or even on the whole screen. I completely panicked. I wrote a piece about Armstrong Williams, and I didn’t see anything there. I thought, ‘Everyone hates me!’ I thought I was the most unpopular girl in the world. I said to my assistant, ‘What if there’s a glitch?’ Then I thought, ‘What if there isn’t?’ Turns out there was a glitch-they had changed over the system, and my column didn’t begin counting till 5 or 6 p.m. It made it to No. 3. All day long, I was really annoyed-I thought, ‘Why was mine left out?'”
For legal-affairs reporter Linda Greenhouse, the rankings provided a bit of vindication. Last winter, Ms. Greenhouse was granted advance access to more than a half-million documents left by the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, to write a two-part series that would commence the day that the Library of Congress released the papers to the general public. Ms. Greenhouse spent two months sifting through Blackmun’s files and writing about how the material shed new light on such pivotal rulings as Roe v. Wade.
But according to sources familiar with the proceedings, editors “significantly” trimmed the second half of the series for space, sparking a vigorous back-and-forth between the Washington bureau and West 43rd Street.
When the pieces appeared online, the Web readership visibly sided with Ms. Greenhouse and her bureau. Soon after the pieces went up, they leapt to the top of the list. “An editor called to my attention it was one of the top e-mailed pieces,” Ms. Greenhouse said. “I was very gratified … [the pieces] got a ton of response immediately …. [L]earning it was one of the top e-mailed pieces was the icing on the cake.”
Not everyone inside The Times is impressed with the collective news judgment of the e-mailing masses. Columnist Frank Rich dismissed the notion that the tally should influence the paper’s coverage of popular topics. “You can’t run a newspaper like a popularity contest,” he said. “News judgment has nothing to do with what’s popular. If you ran a news organization according to the same principles that guide prime-time network television like the Nielsen ratings, you’d end up with all the crime and sex and forensics like they do.
“The barometer of popularity means something important to the people who make commercial pop culture,” Mr. Rich continued. “This has nothing to do with the standards of journalism.”
Easy to say for a writer whose Sunday Arts and Leisure column puts up CSI: Miami –like ratings. Mr. Friedman-of the Saturday postprandial list-checking-likewise disavowed any e-mail rivalry with his biweekly colleague, Maureen Dowd.
“We have different audiences, in a way,” Mr. Friedman said. “I’m happy people are reading me, period. And Maureen has a huge following-bigger than mine, frankly.
“So I need to be really good to beat her,” Mr. Friedman continued, before adding: “I never catch Maureen-she’s way more popular than I am.”
Just over a year ago, when The New York Times was hunting for a new chief for its Sunday Book Review, Bill Keller said that the paper’s book coverage was too boring, and then-culture editor Steven Erlanger was quoted as saying, “If I could start another Mailer-Vidal fight, I’d gladly do it.”
Well, instead of Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, the Review has A.J. Jacobs and Joe Queenan, and instead of airing their rage in the letters column, as has been the tradition, the battle has migrated to the pages of the Review itself.
On Sunday, Feb. 13, readers were greeted with an amusing essay called “I Am Not a Jackass,” by A.J. Jacobs, which appeared on the Review’s back page. In 1,200-plus words, Mr. Jacobs proclaimed that he’d received “one of the most mean-spirited reviews in the 154-year history of The New York Times.” He described his pain and anguish, his revenge fantasies and satisfaction over the fact that his book ( The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World) was a better seller than that of his reviewer, Joe Queenan ( Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile’s Pilgrimage to the Mother Country).
Mr. Jacobs, who is an editor at Esquire, had indeed been on the receiving end of a New York Times review so cutting that it left an imprint on nearly everyone who read it. On Oct. 3, 2004, Mr. Queenan, a contributing writer at GQ, called Mr. Jacobs’ book “interminable,” “corny, juvenile, smug, tired,” taking issue with the book’s entire premise and making sarcastic references to Mr. Jacobs’ schooling at Dalton and Brown. It was sure to sting bad.
Normally, injured authors can seek restitution in the letters column, which has gotten rather bloody lately ( Times ombudsman Daniel Okrent even said it “can sometimes resemble the Battle of the Marne” in a recent column), so granting Mr. Jacobs an entire page of copy to respond seemed like an extra-special peace offering. Some in the book industry interpreted it as an indirect apology, a way of extending an olive branch to a bruised author whom they’d perhaps treated unfairly-Michael Cader, in his Publishers Lunch newsletter, referred to it as “a most gracious gesture.”
According to Mr. Jacobs, he originally wrote “I Am Not a Jackass” in early January, at the behest of a Web site that had come to him with the idea (and which he declined to name). Shortly thereafter, he got a call from a Times Book Review editor asking him if he’d like to a review an upcoming book (another form of make-nice which seems popular with Review editors). It was his first assignment from the Review, and he said yes-and simultaneously submitted his completed but still unpublished essay.
“I sent it to them, and they accepted it that day,” said Mr. Jacobs. “I sent it to my editor over there, and he said that he liked it and that Sam Tanenhaus liked it, too.”
Mr. Tanenhaus, the New York Times Book Review editor, was on vacation and unavailable for comment, but his deputy, Julie Just, said: “We thought that Jacobs was really, really funny, so that’s why we ran it. And when the Queenan review came in, we ran it, which is what we do with reviews.”
“I guess I had heard they wanted to liven things up,” said Mr. Jacobs. “I suppose it’s nice to be in a literary feud-I just wish it was with someone with a bit more weight. I want Mailer next.”
He’s not the only one obsessed with Norman Mailer. Mr. Queenan said, “You sort of wish it was like Norman Mailer.” Mr. Queenan claimed not to have read “I Am Not a Jackass,” although he said that someone had alerted him by phone to its impending publication.
“When you get a review as bad as the one I gave him, normally people have the presence of mind to just let it go away,” said Mr. Queenan. He added that his own book had been “slammed” in The Times by Molly Ivins, and in turn that he’d trashed books by Stephen King and Pat Robertson in The Times and The Wall Street Journal, respectively.
“Jacobs seems to have the idea that nobody’s ever written a nasty review before,” said Mr. Queenan. “He should take a look at Scott Peck’s reviews …. Have you read Scott Peck?”
Did Mr. Queenan mean Dale Peck?
“Dale Peck! His review of Rick Moody? I mean, it’s like having your book reviewed by Ghengis Khan.”