Times Iraq Flak: Feuer’s War Tale, Marital E-Mails

There are narrow-interest memoirs, and then there are very-narrow-interest memoirs. In June, Basic Books plans to release New York Times metro reporter Alan Feuer’s account of his brief career as a war correspondent, Over There: From the Bronx to Baghdad: Two Months in the Life of a Reluctant Reporter.

The two-month figure is misleading; Mr. Feuer spent less than three weeks in the war zone proper. But the proofs of his book have been something of a samizdat sensation on West 43rd Street-not because of what he saw in Baghdad, but because of what he claims to have missed.

Mr. Feuer-writing in the third person-recounts in one section how he filled gaps in his handwritten notes by taking liberties with the facts: “There was a name in the pad, Haidar something, A-R-something, Aruban or Arubay, it was impossible to tell. He bore down on the notebook and tried to sort it out. Aruban or Arubay-what difference did it make? All right, Mr. Arubay, speak some words to the readers of the Times.”

Later in that passage, Mr. Feuer reproduces notes describing a source’s age as “maybe 50 55,” which becomes a definitive “50″ in his news story.

A story including both bits of allegedly fudged copy-”Haidar Arubay” and “Nashet Maktouf, 50″-appeared in The Times on April 14, 2003.

In the book, Mr. Feuer makes much of his shortcomings as a reporter. Though his title is triple-stacked like a Times lede-all headline, Mr. Feuer plays the misfit Times person at every turn, dwelling on his discomfort with the hard work of gathering facts and his unhappiness with the paper’s “cold” institutional voice.

The book begins with his third-person narrator-”T.R.”, for “this reporter”-receiving his assignment in New York, and follows him through the minutiae of packing, traveling and waiting. The chapter “Welcome to Iraq” is No. 19 out of 27.

“He made his way to the elevator now with every neuron in his head on fire,” Mr. Feuer writes at one point, “feeling itchy, feeling anxious-no way for a war reporter to feel, unless-forgive him, Father-he was no thing of the sort.” That piece of head-spinning war-zone psychodrama takes place at the InterContinental Hotel in Amman, Jordan.

Mr. Feuer’s self-critical eye falls occasionally on other reporters as well. After fudging the age and name of his two sources, T.R. hangs out and observes Ian Fisher taking a stab at writing the paper’s lede-all Iraq story: Mr. Feuer “watched him scan the Internet for wire reports, listened as [Feuer] toted up his own experiences, borrowed bits from [John] Kifner, stole a pinch from Reuters, staged a raid on AFP, then cobbled everything together …. The premiere [sic] story in the next day’s Times was being fashioned out of wire reports and late-night recollections from exhausted correspondents.”

Times spokesperson Catherine Mathis, via e-mail, said that when the proofs of Mr. Feuer’s book came out, metro editor Susan Edgerley “asked him flat out whether he was saying he had faked material in The Times, and whether he ever had. He told her he had not, and we know of no plausible assertion that he has.”

In the front of the book, Mr. Feuer writes that it is “a book of recollected memory, not recorded fact.” According to Ms. Mathis, the paper concluded that “T.R.” is an unreliable narrator, but Mr. Feuer is a reliable reporter.

“In the book itself, Feuer acknowledges that he has taken liberties with his reminiscences,” Ms. Mathis wrote. “We very much believe that is the case.”

Mr. Feuer, reached by phone, said he hadn’t received much grief about his account of fudging, “because I think it’s a reality.” He then asked to continue the conversation later, as he was working on deadline, but didn’t answer follow-up calls.

In the book, Mr. Feuer recruits an unexpected figure to the cause of artistic unconcern for facts: no-nonsense editor Jonathan Landman, who hired him at The Times.

“As for honesty,” Mr. Feuer writes, “Landman seemed to grasp that moral honesty, intellectual honesty, even journalistic honesty did not, at all times and in every case, require a strict adherence to the facts. Which is not to say that Landman lied. He was rather that rare soul who seemed to comprehend that good reporting was not an end to itself but served the purpose of the story, and who understood that underneath the epistemic truth of any story lay a different truth, a difficult and human truth, that did not match, or could not always be contained, by the cold arithmetic of fact …. Landman’s honesty was an impressionistic honesty.”

Around the Times, Mr. Landman is beetter known for practicing a photorealistic honesty–as the man who first warned the brass that Jayson Blair’s work was unacceptable. In his current job as culture editor, Mr. Landman has ordered the arts staff to tighten up its sometimes loose command of the details.

Mr. Landman did not return calls seeking comment on Mr. Feuer’s memoir. But a Times veteran, voice rising, described Mr. Feuer’s portrayal as “antithetical” to Mr. Landman.

“Landman,” the source said,, “is the last person like that.”

Like the battle for Baghdad itself, the struggle for control of The New York Times Baghdad bureau began with a plain rout.

Less than five months after bureau chief Susan Sachs arrived in October of 2003, she was called back to New York, overthrown in a rebellion led by entrenched Iraq correspondents John Burns and Dexter Filkins.

But last week, The Times concluded that Ms. Sachs, like a car-bombing Sunni, had mounted an insurgent action of her own in defeat. According to multiple Times sources, the paper fired her for allegedly sending missives to the wives of Mr. Burns and Mr. Filkins, accusing the reporters of marital infidelity on the front lines.

In the middle of this whole mess, the story broke that married Times metro reporter Janny Scott was carrying on with former Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld.

Sex, betrayal, war-normally the stuff of a great story anywhere but The New York Times-quickly became “the talk of The Times,” according to one longtime staffer.

“Everyone’s obsessed with it,” said another.

“People can’t get over how someone could show such a lack of judgment,” a Times reporter stationed in Baghdad said.

One Times reporter said he wondered how the author of those letters separated fact from rumor-since in some sense the Green Zone is as much a rumor mill as any high-school cafeteria.

When the story broke in Lloyd Grove’s Lowdown column in the Daily News April 7, Ms. Sachs (through a lawyer) didn’t offer a defense for ratting out her colleagues, but a denial she’d written any such e-mails at all, even claiming to have taken a polygraph test that proved she’s in the clear.

Ms. Sachs did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment, and Barry Lipton, the head of the newspaper guild, which is representing Ms. Sachs, did not return multiple phone calls over two days.

Likewise, neither Mr. Filkins nor Mr. Burns responded to repeated requests for comment via e-mail.

A Times spokesperson declined to comment on Ms. Sachs’ case, on the grounds that it was a personnel issue.

Ms. Sachs arrived in Baghdad at the end of October 2003. She intersected with Mr. Burns, who returned to the U.S. to accept a journalism award in mid-November, for only a few weeks at the beginning and end of her term. Mr. Filkins overlapped more with Ms. Sachs, and they butted heads frequently. A correspondent who reported from Baghdad characterized her relationship with the two men as troubled from the start.

Mr. Filkins is mythologized by colleagues as an admirable swashbuckling loner, willing to take any risk for a story.

They argued about the best way to protect the Times house, with Ms. Sachs favoring a low-key, discreet approach and Mr. Filkins favoring a handgun, which he carried for a time but has since abandoned, the reporter said.

“That caused a lot of tension between the boys and Susan,” he said.

At a press conference announcing the capture of Saddam Hussein, one reporter asked Ms. Sachs how The Times would handle the story in the next day’s paper. Another reporter said he watched as Ms. Sachs shrugged her shoulders and sighed, as if to say, “John does what he wants to do.” This, according to two reporters who characterized her leadership in Baghdad, was emblematic of Ms. Sachs’ frustrations. “Here she was, the bureau chief, not really having full control over all the people in her bureau,” said one. “That moment says it all. Here was a huge story. She should have had at least a handle on what everybody was doing.”

Roger Cohen, then the paper’s foreign editor, was sent over by executive editor Bill Keller to mitigate. Ms. Sachs infamously pulled out a tape recorder at a meeting with the bureau’s staff, effectively sealing her fate. Mr. Cohen was later forced from his post, and Ms. Sachs was called back to New York. After that meeting, she filed eight bylined stories with Baghdad datelines that ran between mid-December and the end of February. During that time, she did some work on an investigative project. After that, she was sent to Istanbul, from where she filed around 70 stories, including helping out with The Times’ Olympics coverage, in the last year.

But Mr. Grove reported that a long investigation had traced the letters charging adultery to the sites of Ms. Sachs’ assignments.

Indeed, if winning the war has been hard on New York Times reporters, one could be forgiven for thinking their battle for the piece of ass has never been easier, that The Times bureau has turned into the sort of freewheeling scene depicted in the artillery-unit documentary Gunner Palace, with a more favorable male-female ratio.

Not so, at least one reporter stationed in Baghdad told Off the Record. The real chips are going to the TV reporters.

“Baghdad was no Saigon,” said a war correspondent who reported from there. “It was no Bangkok. Did journalists hook up with one another? Yes. Was it a land of free lovin’ where there was lots of hookin’ up? No. Just because of logistics and security. There was a lot of it going on within TV networks, where there are lots of expats. Did the Fox crowd sleep around? Yeah. Did the CNN crowd sleep around? Yeah. But in the print world” not much happened, partly because there were so few women around the major newspapers’ compounds.

Mr. Burns, who is now running The Times’ operation in Baghdad, managed to cultivate a reputation as a connoisseur of high living in his short time in Iraq. A Times star and winner of the 1993 and 1997 Pulitzer Prizes for international reporting, he is known by colleagues politely as the ambitious, virile type.

Given the chatter surrounding Mr. Burns, two reporters said, it was hard to imagine the claims in the e-mails allegedly sent by Ms. Sachs would have been unfamiliar to Mr. Burns’ wife of 25 years, Jane Scott-Long.

Then factor in the fact that Ms. Scott-Long is hardly pining away at home for her husband’s return: She’s in Baghdad, too, managing the compound where the staff lives and works. There she oversaw a major renovation of the compound, bringing in patio furniture from Jordan, high-thread-count bed sheets and a cappuccino maker.

In a piece in the paper’s new internal newsletter, Ahead of the Times, Mr. Burns described a festive atmosphere at the Times Baghdad compound, as witnessed by a PBS crew that was interviewing Mr. Filkins: “Just as Dex was describing the terrors of insurgent rocket fire, our cook, Alain … entered bearing cups of filter coffee on a tray. As a prop, the coffee might have passed a director’s cut, but not Alain’s breadboard-stiff, 15-inch-high French chef’s hat, the kind known as a toque.”

-Rebecca Dana

Former New York Post copy editor and right-wing blogger Dawn Eden has returned to the tabloid business, joining the New York Daily News April 11. Her new position, much like her last one, has her being a copy editor, editor-editor and headline writer.

“Dawn is a brilliant young editor and we are lucky to have her,” said Daily News editor in chief Michael Cooke. “Whatever the opposite of dull is, she’s it.”

Her tenure was certainly the opposite of dull at the Post, which earlier this year fired Ms. Eden (née Dawn Goldstein) for ruthlessly injecting her pro-life views into an article on in vitro fertilization-a charge she strongly denied at the time-and for blogging on company time in between assignments (which she said she had thought was perfectly kosher).

After her firing, she was attacked in a gossip item in Women’s Wear Daily, which was later retracted, and she was teased for having a sweet, heart-shaped “plump rump” in the Post and The Observer. Plus she had no boyfriend.

So what’s happened to her since?

Besides the Daily News job, Ms. Eden has a book deal in the works with a major Christian publisher, according to her agent at Sheree Bykofsky Associates, Janet Rosen. The working title is Been There Done That: Now What? The Newly Chaste Woman’s Guide to Restarting Your Life, but that may change (the final contract isn’t signed yet).

Soon after Ms. Eden’s dismissal from the Post, National Review Online’s editor Kathryn Jean Lopez gave her a month-long gig editing such writers as John Derbyshire and Victor Davis Hanson on the conservative magazine’s Web site. Ms. Lopez also published an op-ed Ms. Eden wrote making fun of playwright Eve Ensler’s orchestrated readings of The Vagina Monologues on college campuses around the world (“V-Day”).

Among the headlines Ms. Eden wrote for nationalreview.com were “Girls Just Want to Have Pundits” (for an article on female op-ed writers) and “One ‘Ring’ Leads to Another” (for a review of the movie The Ring 2). Another recent piece by Ms. Eden, attacking Planned Parenthood’s “Teenwire” Web site, is in the April issue of Touchstone magazine.

Ms. Eden was unavailable for comment, but Ms. Rosen-a longtime friend dating back before her client found Christ in 1997- visited with her at an April 10 party Ms. Rosen hosted with the theme “I’m Not Middle Aged, I’m Vintage.” The dress code was 70′s attire; Ms. Eden wore a brown Nehru jacket, ate vintage food and sat on the sidelines during Twister.

“Dawn has been upbeat and busy,” Ms. Rosen said. “Her hair is blond now, she looks great, she’s been energetic, she’s been seeing friends and writing.”

According to an item posted on her blog, Dawn Patrol (www.dawneden.com), on April 7, Ms. Eden has fallen in love with a blogger named Joel (www.chezjoel.com). A fan of her daily musings since last July, Joel has been writing her letters, chatting with her on the phone and being supportive. Finally they met in early April when he showed up in New York for five days. They went to Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum, saw Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, and had dinner at Japonica, where he told her he loved her.

Unfortunately, Joel lives in Cleveland, but it’s so serious they’ve been talking about bridging the gap. According to a source close to Ms. Eden, she’s very happy.

-George Gurley

New York Times pundit standings, April 4-11

Frank Rich, 21.0

Paul Krugman, 19.5

Maureen Dowd, 18.0

Nicholas D. Kristof, 5.7

David Brooks, 0.0

Bob Herbert, 0.0

Thomas L. Friedman, 0.0

Along with this week’s shuffle in the Op-Ed schedule, The New York Times Web site appears to have shuffled the schedule for posting its most e-mailed stories of the past seven days. Unlike previous Tuesdays’ top-25 lists, this week’s rankings included pieces less than 48 hours old. Hence this week’s pundit standings cover eight days. With luck, the system-and the full field of opinion-mongers-will stabilize by next week.

Redemption was on display in its more awkward forms during the National Magazine Awards at the Waldorf-Astoria April 13. Most prominent was Martha Stewart, clambering onstage, in ankle-bracelet-friendly trousers, to celebrate Martha Stewart Weddings’ victory for general excellence in the 250,000-to-500,000-circulation division. Unlike the other overbosses in the room, Ms. Stewart did not allow her editor a solo turn in the spotlight (it’s not the American Society of Magazine Founding Editorial Directors, after all). But she received a warm round of applause, with people at the back of the banquet standing for a better look. After the ceremonies, Ms. Steward even plopped down in the middle of the winners’ group photo, Calder elephant in hand. While Ms. Stewart was tasting the end of captivity, another winner was bidding farewell to freedom: The Atlantic Monthly’s fiction section. Though the magazine captured the fiction award, it still intends–as announced in the current issue–to eliminate its monthly short-story hole, confining fiction to one issue a year. “We’ve been in one way or another the fiction business for a long time, nearly 150 years,” Atlantic managing editor Cullen Murphy said in the Astor Room after the ceremony. “And it’s going to continue to be part of our repertoire, and it’s great to be honored for something that has traditionally had such a central place.” Not so great, however, that the monthly story will get a reprieve. Henceforth, that central place will be the August issue. The rest of the time, Mr. Murphy said, The Atlantic will devote its space and energy to long-form narrative journalism. The magazine was a finalist for essays and feature writing–as well as online excellence and the junior-middleweight general-excellence crown claimed by Ms. Stewart’s weddings magazine. But it was only a winner in fiction, for a trio of stories by Nathan Roberts, Aryn Kyle, and Robert Olin Butler. Mr. Murphy said that with the once-a-year arrangement, there will be “no net diminution of fiction.” If anything, he argued, Atlantic fiction is better served; August, Mr. Murphy said, is the perfect time to curl up with short stories. “It’s a great reading month,” he said. — Tom Scocca and Gabriel Sherman Correction: Last week’s rankings incorrectly described a John Tierney piece as having been written for the Automobiles section. Though the Times Web site badged it as an Automobiles piece, Escapes section editor Amy Virshup wrote in to inform Off the Record that the piece had in fact run in Escapes. Off the Record regrets the error and resolves to read Escapes more closely.