On May 15, Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker opened up the Web page of The New York Times and read the following line:
“Newsweek apologized yesterday for printing a small item on May 9 about reported desecration of the Koran by American guards at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an item linked to riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan that led to the deaths of at least 17 people. But the magazine, while acknowledging unspecified errors in the article, stopped short of retracting it.”
“I realized it was going to create a problem,” Mr. Whitaker told The Observer in a phone interview on the afternoon of May 17.
In fact, Mr. Whitaker did specify an error: The magazine could no longer stand by a report that a copy of the Koran had been desecrated at Guantanamo.
The line had appeared in Katharine Q. Seelye’s first of two pieces (both of which ran on page 1 of the print editions of The Times) about a Periscope item by Michael Isikoff and John Barry.
Since the first Web iteration of the Times piece appeared, Newsweek has battled accusations from the Bush administration, media critics and a rapid-fire blogosphere over the magazine’s initial defense of the item.
“That was taken completely out of context,” Mr. Whitaker said of the line. “All of a sudden, [it seemed] we weren’t being totally apologetic, and we thought we were.”
So Mr. Whitaker started placing frantic calls to Ms. Seelye late into the evening of May 15, trying to get the line rewritten.
“You better fix it, because you know that’s wrong,” Mr. Whitaker said he told Ms. Seelye upon seeing the posting on the Times Web site.
Ms. Seelye, contacted by The Observer, said that the word “unspecified” had been inserted into her piece in the editing process, and that she had the line amended after conversations with Mr. Whitaker to read: “But [Newsweek], while acknowledging possible errors in the article, stopped short of retracting it” [emphasis added].
The original version made some of The Times’ early editions the next morning. By the late editions, the amended version started appearing.
“After [Mr. Whitaker] called, we took it out,” Ms. Seelye said by phone on May 17. “I agreed with him; I had not seen that word. I called in and we changed it.” Ms. Seelye added she didn’t think the original line was taken out of context.
“I don’t think it was taken out of context, because he didn’t speak precisely,” she said.
Mr. Whitaker said that since his editors’ note appeared in the magazine on May 15, he had taken steps to avoid the pitfalls that befell CBS in the network’s 12-day silence following Dan Rather’s now-infamous 60 Minutes II report on President Bush’s National Guard service. But when the Times piece appeared, he realized that his damage-management efforts had hit a wall.
“To be fair, I think that fed the whole issue of ‘Was it a retraction?’” he said. “And particularly to have it be in such a prominent place, The New York Times on the front page-no question,” he said.
In the same piece, Mr. Whitaker was quoted as saying, “We’re not retracting anything. We don’t know what the ultimate facts are.” And that line was quickly seized on by critics as yet another example of mainstream media arrogance-which only had to be reversed later that afternoon on May 16, when Newsweek issued a press release retracting the original item.
But Mr. Whitaker said the retraction wasn’t inconsistent with his quote in the piece by Ms. Seelye. Rather, it came after Newsweek had made its determination about whether the magazine could stand by the Koran element of the original item.
“I was not interested in seeing three days’ worth of headlines about ‘Is Newsweek prepared to retract or not?’”
Mr. Whitaker said the reaction to the report was hot, with or without the Times piece. But, he said, “[The Times] probably played a role.
” … Even after we retracted it, there was a sense the White House’s response was ‘That’s not good enough.’ We understand they’re doing that for their own reason. Our point is, what’s the right thing to do?”
As many magazine moguls find when they sit down to write a book, there are deadlines and then there are deadlines.
American Media editorial director Bonnie Fuller got a deadline when she signed up to write a self-help book for young women with Simon and Schuster’s Touchstone/Fireside imprint in late 2001. She recently turned in a manuscript, which originally bore the title From Geek to Oh My Goddess: How to Have the Big Career, the Big Love Life and the Big Family-Even if You Have a Big Loser Complex Inside, several years late.
Now the book’s working title is Be More Than You Can Be.
In classic media-world fashion, she snagged the deal after she was fired from her position as editor in chief of Glamour magazine, in May 2001. Shortly after the book contract was signed, Ms. Fuller’s advance was reported to be around $200,000, and the projected publication date was set for spring 2003 for the hardcover and spring 2004 for the paperback edition.
Ms. Fuller began working on the book before she became editor of Us Weekly and later editorial director of American Media.
“We have it scheduled for spring ’06 right now-it’s gotten delayed because of her job changes,” said Marcia Burch, the publicity director at Touchstone/Fireside. “We would have hoped to publish it a year and a half later; that would be the norm. But she’s a whirlwind, and her career has gone in all kinds of new directions, so we’re being really patient, because we want the best book possible rather than pushing her to deliver.”
According to a source who worked at Us Weekly in 2002 at the time of her editorship, Ms. Fuller was frantically rushing to finish the book back then, and even drafted several Us staffers into the book’s service.
“Reporters in the office would spend hours transcribing interviews with prominent women,” said the source. “It became a big Us Weekly public-works project.”
According to the source, Ms. Fuller wrote about seven chapters of the book in the format of an intimate memoir about how she overcame great odds to find success, interspersed with interviews with alpha females such as Barbara Corcoran, Leslee Dart, Judith Regan and Pat Kingsley, all with the assistance of a ghost writer named Barbara Sgroi.
Then, in 2003, Ms. Fuller left Us Weekly for American Media, and the book sort of faded away.
A spokesperson for American Media confirmed that Us staffers had helped Ms. Fuller with the book, and said that Ms. Fuller turned in a manuscript to Simon and Schuster “a couple of weeks ago.” Ms. Sgroi was no longer involved in helping to write the book, according to the spokesperson.
Ms. Burch said that a manuscript had been turned in and that “it was being worked on,” but that interviews with prominent women were not a part of it. She also said that it was not “the final” manuscript.
The recently deposed television talk-show queen Tina Brown also appears positioned to miss at least one projected publication date.
The Icarus Complex, a book about “money, power and the fall from grace of major figures in American society,” according to the publisher’s announcement, was bought by Jonathan Karp at Random House in April 2004 for a reported mid-six figures and an expected publication date in 2006. In March 2005, it was announced that Ms. Brown would be writing a sweeping volume about Princess Diana for Phyllis Grann at Doubleday (also part of Random House), for a reported $2 million.
According to a Random House spokesperson, “[Ms. Brown] will do the Diana book first, and we’ll be patient, and then she’ll turn back to [The Icarus Complex] book.” The Diana book is due in the summer of 2007.
According to Dawn Davis, the editorial director of the Amistad imprint of HarperCollins, former New York Times managing editor Gerald Boyd was also given more time to finish a memoir that was originally expected to be published in 2005.
“I don’t have any specifics, but your call prompted me to put in a call to Gerald,” said Ms. Davis. “I know we’ve granted him an extension. I want a memoir, and I didn’t necessarily want to link it to the Jayson Blair scandal, because that has come and gone and none of those books have really amounted to much. This is really a book about a complicated man with a very interesting history.” She said she thought that Mr. Boyd was busy “doing some teaching” and family research.
“I can’t say that it won’t come out in 2005,” said Ms. Davis, “but I don’t have anything more specific.”
The latest New Republic staffer to ink a six-figure book deal is senior editor Noam Scheiber, who signed with Random House this week to document the implosion of insurance giant A.I.G and the rise and fall of the company’s chief executive, Maurice (Hank) Greenberg.
Mr. Scheiber, 28, said that he’ll take two four-month book leaves to finish the manuscript, and that the book will be out in the winter or spring of 2007.
This year alone, with three deals signed so far, TNR staffers have secured more than $1 million in publishing advances.
In February, TNR editor Peter Beinart signed with HarperCollins to expand his 6,000-word post-election manifesto “A Fighting Faith” into a book on New Liberalism for a reported mid-six-figure advance.
And earlier this month, TNR senior editor Jonathan Chait signed with Houghton Mifflin to document the rise of right-wing economics inside the Beltway (with the working title How Washington Lost Its Mind: The Strange Triumph of Right-Wing Economic Hucksters), for a reported $300,000.
New York Times pundit standings, May 10-16
1. Frank Rich, score 21.0 [rank last week: 4th]
2. Paul Krugman, 18.0 [1st]
3. Thomas L. Friedman, 13.5 [2nd]
4. Nicholas D. Kristof, 11.0 [6th]
5. Matt Miller, 8.5 [no rank]
6. Bob Herbert, 0.5 [5th]
7. (tie) David Brooks, 0.0 [8th]
John Tierney, 0.0 [7th]
Who says opinions are cheap? On May 16, The Times announced plans to hide the work of its columnists behind an online pay wall. In preparation for life under the $49.95 TimesSelect service, David Brooks and John Tierney returned to invisibility this week. Maureen Dowd, meanwhile, went away on book leave; in her place, temp pundit Matt Miller claimed a spot in the middle of the pack with a sassy piece about “No Money Down” warfare. Watch your back, Ms. Dowd!