The Norman Evasion

article anson The Norman EvasionIn
the old days, the Time “Milestone”
would have read like this:

DIED: Five years, six
months and 30 days after the conclusion of “The American Century”; the credibility of a once great publishing institution founded by Henry Robinson Luce; following decades of dunderhead leadership, complicated by footsying with Hollywood and Steve Case; in Manhattan; by its own hand; Time Inc.

The
actual obituary, delivered via press release, went as follows:

“Time
Inc. shall deliver the subpoenaed records to the Special Counsel in accordance with its duties under law …. Our nation lives by the rule of law and … none of us is above it.”

Thus
did Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief of the world’s largest magazine publisher, kiss off journalism’s bedrock principle last week, announcing a hitherto unknown “but” in the commandment reporters proudly go to jail to
uphold: “Thou shalt not cough up confidential sources.”

But:
Except when the Supreme Court rules
against you.

As
Mr. Pearlstine told it in subsequent interviews, that qualifier kicked in when the court declined to hear the appeal of the contempt charges of Time White House correspondent Matt Cooper (and Time Inc. itself, which was threatened with $1,000-a-day and rapidly-up fines for refusing to turn over Mr. Cooper’s notes and e-mails) in the Alice in Wonderland saga that is Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s endless investigation of “Who Blew Valerie Plame’s Cover?”

That
another reporter, The New York Times
Judith Miller, dangled from an identical hook, and potentially faced even greater jeopardy if left to swing alone, apparently played no role in Mr.
Pearlstine’s deliberations. It was every man for himself, making what Mr.
Pearlstine
termed “the toughest call” in his career—and in getting to the lifeboats, he out-elbowed J. Bruce Ismay.

“We
are deeply disappointed,” Times
publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said of the Pearlstine decision, displaying a knack for understatement absent in other reactions. “Who Rules the Roost at Time Magazine?” headlined Forbes (a publication once edited by Mr. Pearlstine). “Chicken Little.” “A day that will live in infamy,” pronounced Editor & Publisher.
“Unconscionable
… a profound betrayal … damaging for journalism the world over,” said the general secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, which represents reporters in more than 100 countries. “A bleak precedent for all journalists in a democratic society,” editorialized the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Corporate cowardice,” chimed The Salt Lake Tribune. “Pearlstine has hung his own staff of many hundreds of reporters and many dozens of editors out to dry,” adjudged the Columbia Journalism Review. “Why should any source seeking anonymity hereafter trust a reporter from any of Time Inc.’s magazines?”

On
it went. “A dreadful mistake,” said Vanity Fair editor (and onetime Life
hand) Graydon Carter. “Time is the largest magazine publisher in the world, and if any company should be able to stand its ground, it should.”

“It’s
pretty shocking,” agreed Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam. “For 30 years, we’ve assumed that strong journalistic institutions would stick together and protect their employees. Now, a new wind is blowing. That united front is gone.”

Conspicuously
not heard from were three reporters who found outs (getting releases from pledges of confidentiality) allowing them to cooperate and duck acquaintance with cells: Walter Pincus and Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, and NBC News‘ Washington bureau chief and Meet the Press host, Tim Russert. According to Editor & Publisher, Mr. Russert (who’s refused to disclose what he told the grand jury) has been sweatily spinning ever since how he could pull that off, while serving as a member of the steering committee of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

In
the midst of the hoo-hah, Robert Novak, whose July 2003 column outing Ms.
Plame
triggered everything that’s followed, announced that as soon as the case winds up, he’ll break his attorney-advised silence and tell all—including, presumably, the identities of the two “senior administration officials” who blabbed about Ms. Plame with him. That was followed up by MSNBC senior political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell fingering White House political guru Karl Rove as Matt Cooper’s source during a taping of The McLaughlin Group—a claim Mr. Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, denied to Newsweek.

At
least sort of. Yes, attorney Luskin admitted to Mike Isikoff, his client had talked to Mr. Cooper, but no, he hadn’t “knowingly disclosed classified information.” Whether Mr. Rove did so “unknowingly”—a distinction that might spare him from the dock—remains to be seen.

None
of which has diminished the Pearlstine furor, which has intensified with Mr.
Pearlstine’s telling NPR that while he’s duty-bound to hand over the goods to the feds, he doesn’t want the feds doing likewise with the public. More combustible material will be added July 6, when D.C. Circuit Court Judge Thomas Hogan passes sentence on Ms. Miller (a close friend of this correspondent); she’s likely to get the four-month max.

What
fate befalls Matt Cooper—Time Inc. royalty once removed, through marriage to political consultant Mandy Grunwald, a daughter of the late Henry Grunwald, a Time managing editor and one of Mr.
Pearlstine’s predecessors as editor in chief—is not clear.

In
the days immediately after Mr. Pearlstine’s caving, it seemed likely he’d avoid incarceration altogether. That, clearly, was Mr. Cooper’s hope, when—shortly before his boss ran up the white flag—he told The Wall Street
Journal
: “A corporation is not the same thing as an individual. They have different responsibilities and obligations and there is no dishonor obeying a lawful order backed with the force of the Supreme Court of the United States. I prefer they not hand over documents that disclose the identity of my sources, but that’s their decision to make.”

Tuesday,
however, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald threw a spanner in the works, by announcing that documents alone weren’t sufficient: Mr. Cooper still had to testify—or else. Should he refuse (as The Observer went to press, Mr. Cooper had yet to respond to the prosecutor’
s
demand), there won’t be any cushy home detention, either, if Mr. Fitzgerald gets his way. Anything short of the slammer, he said in court filings, may “negate the coercive effect contemplated by federal law.”

It’s
a bizarre case, the United States v. Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper, made the more so by the players: Bob Novak, the most obvious target, not under legal threat, for reasons no one can figure out; Judy Miller, preparing for prison over a story she never wrote; Matt Cooper, an amateur stand-up comedian, testifying, then refusing to testify, about jottings that appeared only on the Internet; a distinguished federal prosecutor playing Inspector Javert, because of a probably unconstitutional law never before enforced; ex-Ambassador Joe Wilson, now more famous for whose husband he is than for investigating African uranium sales that didn’t occur.

And
all of them bound together by a war based on fiction.

Nothing,
though, is stranger than the behavior of the latest actor to cross the stage.
Norm Pearlstine is a journalist of legendary accomplishment and shrewdness—and ample good works besides: board memberships on Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, U.S.C.’s Annenberg School of Communications and the Committee to Protect Journalists; president of a foundation that provides scholarships for Asian journalists to study in the U.S.

Indeed,
only days before Mr. Pearlstine did the unthinkable, the Carnegie Foundation was announcing his election to its board of trustees in rapturous tones. How could such a man—member of the Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame, winner of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors—reason himself into such a mess, and at, of all places, Time Inc., once the platinum standard of magazine journalism?

To
begin to venture an answer requires going back some—to 1973, to be precise, six years after the death of Time Inc.’s first editor in chief, the sainted Luce.
It was then, entrail readers say, that the House That Hank Built started going astray. Purchasing an East Texas forest-products outfit called Temple Industries didn’t seem that big a deal—and it wasn’t, except for the number of shares swapped to complete it. For the first time, a huge hunk of the company lay in the hands of outsiders whose only knowledge of journalism was that paper was required to print it.

Fortunately
for Luce’s heirs, Temple proved content to stick to its tree-cutting, and happy a decade later to have Time Inc. buy back its interest, with another recent, non-publishing acquisition, Inland Container, thrown in for its trouble.
Nonetheless, the episode was seismic: In a stroke, it gave Time Inc. the appearance of—and succeeding generations of executives the incentive to behave like—just another conglomerate.

Another
straw in the wind—an entire bale, measured by physique—was the ascension of Henry Grunwald to editor in chief in 1979. Famed for having rendered Time a publication sensible folk could display on coffee tables without embarrassment, Mr. Grunwald also brought with him a reputation for running up monsoons of past-deadline charges. The fiscal profligacy continued as editor in chief, only in different form. Now the waste came from D.O.A. publishing notions, sprung not from the gut—as were Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and People—but from corporate demographic and consumer studies. Thus was born TV-Cable Week ($47 million down the drain), Picture Week (another $50 million), the purchase of the Washington Star
($85 million phfft, though Grunwald escaped blame for that one), the resuscitation of once-great piece of photo-artillery Life as a blurry album of cuddly animals, Princess Di and sufferers of incurable diseases. On and on ran the deficits, to paraphrase the great Wolcott Gibbs, until reeled the mind.

To
stanch the red-ink tide, Mr. Grunwald became budget-cutter nonpareil.
Bureaus
were closed, personnel whacked, perks eliminated—even as the corporate budget fattened. The predictable results were two: a hemorrhage of writing and reporting talent elsewhere, and a growing conviction on the business side that edit—stupid, spendthrift edit—could do nothing right.

The
belief deepened when Mr. Grunwald went off to become ambassador to his native Austria in 1987, leaving behind as successor dull, don’t-rock-the-boat Jason McManus, a former Time managing editor. He demonstrated his corporate savvy by ceding the editor in chief’s seat on Time’s board. The power of the M.B.A.’s, kept carefully checked by Luce and his successor, Fortune editor Hedley Donovan, was now unfettered.

Time
passed. Progressive Farmer and two other titles in the South were added to the portfolio for $480 million, a third more than Rupert Murdoch had just paid for a better-known dozen belonging to Ziff-Davis. Entertainment Weekly saw light, looking a lot like People‘s “Picks & Pans” section. Then more time. Ted Turner’s CNN was acquired for several hundred spare million. Then still more. Fleets of management consultants were engaged to determine what to do next. Their answer: sell the Time-Life building.

Then,
in 1989, things really got bad: Steve Ross bought the company.

It
was, supposedly, a merger of equals, the megabillion lashing-together of glitzy, showbizzy Warner, home of producers, limousines, amusement parks and car crashes, with staid, WASP-y Time, where bow-tied and suspendered Harvard and Yale men advised Presidents, dispensed on foreign policy, expensed their club memberships.

But
the truth lay in the sale papers, which identified Ross as “the executive,”
the
Time guys, “the employees.” But, what the hey, it only confirmed what everyone knew anyway: out-of-sight divisions HBO and cable were annual report kings, and Time’s business—the part that bought in the real loot—was increasingly entertainment. Steve Ross as C.E.O. merely removed the pretense.

The
new, even deeper rounds of cutbacks needed to whittle the $12 billion debt incurred whilst making him so were a drag, and the parade of decidedly non–Brooks Brothers customers emerging from limos at 50th and Sixth a start to old-timers who hadn’t taken the buyouts. But, after a while, life returned to normal.
Which is to say, edit continued to flounder.

Under
managing editors Henry Muller and Jim Gaines, Time—whose clout had once quaked Presidents—now soothed patients waiting for tooth extractions. Life had returned to extinction, with “Hooray for the Bra! It’s 100 Years Old This Month”
among its final gasps. Sports Illustrated was getting whacked around, part by ESPN and part by befuddlement over what to do about it; as for Fortune, except for the difference between a 500 and a 400, who could tell it from Forbes?

But
from out of the mists in 1995, a seeming savior appeared: His name was Norman Pearlstine.

The
new editor in chief hadn’t worked a day in his life for Time Inc., which at that point appeared a plus. Certainly his résumé impressed: toughening boot-camp reporting for The Wall Street Journal from domestic bureaus; a stint running the paper’s key Tokyo bureau, followed by overseeing the operations of Dow Jones’ Hong Kong–based Asian Wall Street Journal. A two-year sojourn as executive editor of Forbes came next, then a return to The Journal and a steady climb to the upper rungs, culminating in 1991 with his appointment as executive editor. He lasted only two years before being done in by Karen Elliott House, dragon-lady wife of his good friend, publisher Peter Kann, but his tenure had been exciting and innovative.

Even
the fights with Ms. House were lively: During one, she’d punctuated a point by throwing a glass of wine in his face. He went off to launch Smart Money for Dow Jones and Hearst afterward before joining his third wife, sex-book author Nancy Friday, in running Friday Holdings, a multimedia investment company. It was from there that Time Inc. recruited him.

Wisecracking,
irreverent, unafraid of breaking corporate crockery, he was a refreshing change in Time Inc.’s buttoned-down precincts. Who else, after all, padded the executive suite in slippers adorned with bright pink penises? The “penis slippers,” a gift of his wife (they have since divorced, and Mr. Pearlstine is a newlywed for the fourth time), became the stuff of Time Inc. legend.

Ditto
Mr. Pearlstine’s appointments, particularly John Huey, another Karen Elliott House casualty brought over to revitalize Fortune, which in a trice became the hot business book. He shook up Time too, with the installation of Walter Isaacson as managing editor; then People, by moving its longtime editor into a dirigible captain’s job; then Sports Illustrated, by bringing in ex-Esquire editor Terry McDonell to recast and run it.

With
Norm Pearlstine in charge, the pot was ever bubbling—a little too hotly for some, who found him, as one rival editor put it, “a man in perpetual midlife crisis.” But, like the magazines started under his watch (Time for Kids, People en Español, Teen People, the huge hit InStyle, This Old House, Real Simple, All You), the method worked, even if brutally sometimes, especially after the appointment of no-prisoners Mr.
Huey
as his deputy/hatchet man.

Except
for the disposed of, it was great fun. But then Steve Case showed up, and the merriment ended.

Mr.
Pearlstine’s boss, C.E.O. Gerry Levin, thought joining with AOL a swell idea; the confusion came over who was acquiring whom. Whose stock was worth more soon settled that, and the letterhead on the new stationery announced: AOL Time Warner. They hadn’t gone through the first ream when the stock started plummeting and teeth gnashing became the order of the day. As employee pension plans headed to the vanishing point, executives came and went in dizzying profusion, including, eventually, Mr. Levin, who, having deconstructed the institution that was his charge, departed to an island to, he said, search for his “inner self.”

Mr.
Pearlstine, who’d been a sidelines player throughout, was consigned to the margins; before long he, as well, began planning retirement. The date was set (end of 2005), as was Mr. Huey as his successor.

He
was just heading into the home stretch when the Circuit Court denied the Cooper-Miller appeal. The only hope now was the Supreme Court. Norman Pearlstine, who’d years ago collected a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania after graduating from Haverford, suddenly dug it out.

The
first move came this April, with the announcement that Matt Cooper’s defense—until then under the care of Floyd Abrams, the nation’s premier First Amendment attorney, and also counsel for Ms. Miller—would henceforth be handled by George W. Bush’s former solicitor general, Ted Olson, a hard-lining conservative more accustomed to pummeling the press than protecting it.

Eyebrows
lifted, but not high enough. For Time Inc. wasn’t merely shifting legal deck chairs; it was separating itself from Judy Miller, whose adherence to maintaining source confidentiality was set in granite.

Mr.
Pearlstine was changing, too, behaving less the editor in chief and more the chief corporate counsel, poring through volumes and badgering experts in search of case law and precedent. The items that seized his fancy, such as Harry Truman’s battles with the steel companies and Richard Nixon’s turning over the Watergate tapes, had one thing in common: All established the primacy of law over principle.

Cases
to the contrary, Mr. Pearlstine ignored. And the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. and others who changed law by defying it? They didn’t have stockholders.

The
weeks passed, the strategy formed. By the end of June, all that was left was framing the news. Norman Pearlstine was sober upon announcing it, resolute defending it, insistent denying that corporate pressure had anything to do with it. The decision was his, his alone, he said interview after interview, where he talked of the “anarchy” that would be loosed without obedience to law, and sloughed off the sacrifice of Myron B. Farber, The New York Times reporter who’d gone to jail for 40 days in 1978 rather than give up his sources—and there was no cause not to believe him.
And
for some who’d admired him, that was the pity.

“Would
John Huey have decided differently?” mused a Time Inc. editor over a recent dinner table, where the conversation was nothing but Norm and what he’d done.
“I think so. Because John, you see, is a journalist. A tough son of a bitch as an executive, but still a damn fine journalist.” He shook his head.

“Just
like Norm used to be,” he said.

Robert Sam Anson was a
correspondent for
Time from 1967 to 1972, and later wrote for Life. A contributing editor at Vanity Fair, he is presently at work on a biography of Dick Cheney to be published by Simon & Schuster.