Marching in a seemingly innocuous Columbus Day parade has landed Representative Susan Molinari, the Republican of Staten Island who gave it all up for broadcast news, in her first journalistic ethics controversy.
Ever the dutiful daughter, Ms. Molinari joined her father, Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari, for the borough’s Columbus Day parade on Oct. 5. But while pushing her own daughter’s stroller along New Dorp Lane and North Railroad Avenue, she ended up walking and talking with the Republican candidate for her vacant seat, Vito Fossella Jr. Their time together was captured for posterity by the Staten Island Advance , which ran the picture in the next day’s paper.
Since other notable Republicans, like Senator John McCain of Arizona, showed up to support Mr. Fossella, it wasn’t surprising that some borough politicos-including Mr. Fossella’s opponent-viewed the power stroll as a tacit endorsement by Ms. Molinari. “It’s one thing to say hello, it’s another to march for a while,” said Eric Vitaliano, Mr. Fossella’s Democratic opponent. “It’s totally inappropriate.”
“She may have to explain it to her higher-ups,” he added. “Those in broadcast news have to stay clear of partisan politics.”
Ms. Molinari has not gotten off to the most promising start since chucking her role as the Republican It Girl of Capitol Hill to take up residence in the warm, fuzzy journalistic world of CBS News’ Saturday Morning , the month-old competitor to NBC’s Saturday Today . Her reviews have been tepid at best. “Ms. Molinari seems like a promising, slightly stiff wannabe with a Katie Couric haircut,” wrote Caryn James in The New York Times . Joanne Ostrow, from The Denver Post , was a bit more harsh: “Sad to say, it looked like amateur hour. Dan Rather seemed embarrassed to be connected to the mess.”
Ms. Molinari did not return calls for comment. But a CBS News spokesman said that the network had no problem with Ms. Molinari’s parade appearance. “She was not marching on his [Mr. Fossella’s] behalf in any way,” said Sandy Genelius, director of news publicity for CBS News. “She was just there to enjoy the parade. She was not there in any political sense whatsoever.”
On Oct. 6, The New York Times examined the competitive fervor among publications scurrying to cover Capitol Hill, bestowing its most extensive-and complimentary-coverage on The Hill . But missing from Melinda Henneberger’s front-page story in the business section was one salient fact: Many Times men, past and present, have played an integral role in putting out The Hill .
Take, for instance, The Hill’ s publisher and editor in chief, Martin Tolchin. Mr. Tolchin spent 40 years at The Times in an assortment of reporting positions before starting the weekly in 1994 for News Communications Inc. In fact, he was recommended for the job by Times columnist William Safire, a longtime friend of News Communications’ owner, Jerry Finkelstein. Former Times executive editor-turned-columnist A.M. Rosenthal also lent a hand, throwing a bash in New York for Mr. Tolchin to introduce him to prospective advertisers, while Mr. Safire did the same in Washington. Also adding to the mix was Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor of The Times and current head of the New York Times Company Foundation, who helped Mr. Tolchin lay out page 1 for the first four months of The Hill ‘s existence and critiqued the issues as well. And as if that weren’t help enough, Mr. Tolchin was given use of offices belonging to the old man himself, Times chairman Arthur Sulzburger, to interview prospective Hill employees while he was in New York.
“I’ve had tremendous help and support and encouragement from The New York Times ,” said Mr. Tolchin unabashedly, though he added that he was surprised that The Times did not mention the ties.
Those connections have not gone over too well with The Hill ‘s competitors in Washington- Roll Call, Congressional Quarterly and National Journal -all of whom were mentioned in the Times piece but did not get such glowing treatment. Indeed, a number of Mr. Tolchin’s competitors view the article as “Marty Tolchin payback time,” as several said to Off the Record.
“I felt The Times had a significant conflict of interest in doing this story that they failed to mention,” said Susan Glasser, editor of Roll Call , the 42-year-old stalwart of Capitol Hill, which is now owned by the Economist Group. Ms. Glasser was so peeved that she dispatched a letter to Joseph Lelyveld, The Times ‘ executive editor. “The basic point is that Times people have given extensive help by Tolchin’s own account,” she said in an interview. “I see this as an extension of helping him.”
While The Times ‘ roundup did mention how hungry Congress inhabitants are for all the different sources of Capitol Hill coverage, only a story from The Hill was singled out for kudos. (Breaking the news about the unsuccessful Republican coup attempt against Speaker Newt Gingrich “did for us what Watergate did for The Washington Post ,” Mr. Tolchin told The Times .) Another complaint: The story began with “star reporter” Sandy Hume-son of Brit, managing editor of Fox News’ Washington bureau-and the inside page even had his picture.
“Where I was a little amused was at the priority The Hill was given,” said John Fox Sullivan, president and publisher of National Journal and a 20-year veteran of the Capitol Hill publishing game. “It has done a good job of breaking some stories, but there are a lot of other players in the game.”
The Times is unrepentant. “To take your most serious point first,” news editor William Borders wrote to Ms. Glasser in a letter obtained by Off the Record, “it is simply not true that ‘Marty Tolchin called in a favor and The Times chucked its standards in order to oblige him.’ For one thing, we don’t do that sort of thing. And for another, the article does not read to me like ‘an awfully prominent favor for a veteran Times man.’ … Should the piece have reported Tolchin’s association with The Times? Probably, although to me (and I deal with these issues all the time), it’s a close call. Recalling his association here would at least have deflected the kind of criticism your letter contains. But I doubt that there will be much criticism of this kind, because I don’t think the article will seem ‘flawed’ to the average reader.”
“Maybe I should have mentioned the connection,” said Ms. Henneberger. “But I had never met him [Mr. Tolchin] before and didn’t know him in that [ Times ] context.”
In The New York Times Book Review on Oct. 12, Margaret Atwood raved about John Updike’s 47th book, Toward the End of Time . “If only he would write a flagrant bomb!” she wrote. “That would be news.”
In fact, faithful readers of The Times ‘ daily book reviews had already gotten that “news.” For on Sept. 30, Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani took a bite out of Mr. Updike: ” Toward the End of Time , the latest novel by John Updike, prompts the same question raised by Joyce Carol Oates’ last novel: How can such a gifted writer produce such a lousy book?”
This is not the first time that The New York Times Book Review has ridden to the rescue of poor writers cut to the quick by one of Ms. Kakutani’s brilliantly scathing reviews. An Off the Record examination of the past two and a half years of Ms. Kakutani’s work found a bevy of negative reviews that were quickly countered by paeans in The Book Review .
Here’s Ms. Kakutani on Naomi Wolf’s Promiscuities : “Unfortunately for women who would like to ratify Ms. Wolf’s message, she proves a frustratingly inept messenger: a sloppy thinker and incompetent writer. In her latest book, Promiscuities , she tries in vain to pass off tired observations as radical aperçus, subjective musings as generational truths, sappy suggestions as useful ideas.” Courtney Weaver, in The Book Review , must have been reading a different book: “Told through a series of ‘confessions,’ her book is a searing and thoroughly fascinating exploration of the complex wildlife of female sexuality and desire.”
Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater is no Portnoy’s Complaint , Ms. Kakutani wrote, a novel that is “sour instead of manic, nasty instead of funny, lugubrious instead of liberating.” Nonetheless, in The Book Review , William Pritchard found it to be Mr. Roth’s “richest, most rewarding novel.”
Ms. Kakutani dubbed Will Self “the Dennis Rodman of contemporary fiction … Mr. Self’s latest novel, Great Apes , unfortunately embodies most of his weaknesses as a writer, and few of his strengths.” Gary Krist, though, found it to be “an utterly absorbing and affecting work of fiction.”
As for Denis Johnson’s latest, Already Dead , Ms. Kakutani unloads the word “dismal” in the first clause of the first sentence, before clubbing the novel to death a few paragraphs later. “It’s a recipe, in this case, for a virtually unreadable book that manages to be simultaneously pretentious, sentimental, bubble-headed and gratuitously violent.” David Gates, on the other hand, lauds Mr. Johnson’s “splendid ear and eye.”
Charles McGrath, editor of The Times Book Review , didn’t seem fazed by The Times ‘ critical discrepancy. “Obviously we’ve noticed,” he said. “[But] when we make assignments, we don’t know what they’re doing downstairs, and it would be pointless to guess.”
The magic of Walt Disney Company synergy has proved insufficient to lure Rick Reilly away from his senior writer post at Sports Illustrated . Mr. Reilly rebuffed the overtures of ESPN Magazine , the soon-to-launch competitor to the Time Inc. franchise, which offered him more than $500,000 a year plus a two-movie script deal with Disney. For remaining at SI, Mr. Reilly will get about $450,000 a year, a weekly back-page column and the chance to write four features a year. He’ll also do work for HBO Sports. But the key to the deal is the three-screenplay deal (over five years) he received from Warner Brothers. Each script is worth about $100,000. “I could write grocery lists and they’d have to buy them,” Mr. Reilly said, gleefully. “It’s the greatest world ever.”