When Time Warner Inc. purchased Turner Broadcasting in late 1996, executives were careful not to use the word “synergy,” a rarely seen byproduct of the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Brothers about seven years earlier. Nonetheless, much was made of the possible offspring of a Time -CNN union. Alas, all is not perfect in the land of powerhouse journalistic combinations. Members of Time ‘s Washington bureau are annoyed at their CNN counterparts for refusing to pick up one of their stories because of sourcing concerns.
On Jan. 29, in the midst of the latest Presidential scandal, Time felt it had a big scoop that would not hold until the magazine came out on Feb. 2, so it put an exclusive up on its Web site. The magazine had learned that President Bill Clinton, in his sworn deposition in the Paula Jones case, had admitted to one sexual encounter with Gennifer Flowers back in 1977. However, the definition of sex was so broad, including any touching of the groin, breasts, inner thighs or buttocks “with the purpose to arouse or gratify,” that the term was almost meaningless.
According to sources in Washington, CNN’s Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno heard that Time was working on a big story and wanted to get at it pronto. But when Michael Duffy, Time ‘s Washington bureau chief, gave Mr. Sesno a rundown of the story, the CNN honcho had a sudden change of heart. The reason? The sourcing was just too “squishy” for CNN, Mr. Sesno said, according to two sources with knowledge of the conversation.
The reaction at Time ‘s Washington bureau was incredulous. “They’re calling Time ‘s reporting ‘squishy’?” asked one Washington-based writer.
This was the same CNN, complained various Time staff members, not taking a quadruple-sourced story when it has rushed on air a number of stories that were premature or wrong? Take, for instance, Wolf Blitzer’s feverish dispatch on Jan. 24, in which he excitedly told anchor Judy Woodruff that “several of his [President Clinton’s] closest friends and advisers, both in and out of government, now tell CNN that … they’re talking among themselves about a possibility of a resignation.” According to sources at Time Inc., the magazine nearly changed its cover line on the issue going to the printer because of that newsbreak. But about two hours later, Mr. Blitzer was back on the air, adding the crucial point that several of the President’s aides “have angrily denied that there is any consideration whatsoever to the possibility of resignation.” There’s been no talk of resignation since.
On Jan. 28, Larry King delivered another humdinger when he decided to report an upcoming scoop in The New York Times . Unfortunately, the story didn’t exist. “We may have jumped the gun on the fact that The New York Times is reporting tomorrow that there is a call on Monica Lewinsky’s answering machine from the President,” said Mr. King. “We have no information on what The New York Times is publishing tomorrow. Anyway, it came to us. We reported it. But this happens in a running story like this. Now we unreport it.”
So, who’s calling whom squishy?
Apparently displeased with such unfounded outbursts, CNN executives decided to send out some memos. Mr. Sesno sent an e-mail to the Washington bureau, reminding anchors and any on-air people that when any guest “pushes speculation out front,” as one memo recipient put it, he or she should “take a breath and a moment to correct it or put it in proper perspective.” Mr. Sesno just wanted to remind people that the coverage of this crisis is “serious business,” and they should strive for “correct and cautious tone and content.”
Mr. Sesno could not be reached for comment about the Time story. But Mr. Duffy said he was unaware of any misgivings at CNN over his magazine’s reporting. “The overall headline here is we’re pretty cooperative,” he said. “I didn’t care whether they picked it up just as I didn’t care if anyone else picked it up.”
So Mr. Duffy is probably not too annoyed that Time didn’t even run the Web newsbreak in the regular magazine the following week.
As New York Times executive editor Joe Lelyveld admitted last week in Off the Record, his paper got caught “flat-footed” at the start of the Clinton-Lewinsky imbroglio. So, to make up for lost scoops, The Times did what any self-respecting, heavily armed superpower does: It called in reinforcements. Problem was, it sowed dissension among the troops already stationed in Washington.
Alessandra Stanley, a correspondent based in Moscow, received a phone call from Mr. Lelyveld during the first weekend of the crisis, asking her to fly to Washington. She arrived on Jan. 26, the night before the State of the Union Message, joining Adam Nagourney, the political reporter for the Metro section, who had gotten a reprieve from the wilds of Albany; legal reporter William Glaberson, fresh from the Unabomber trial; and Ethan Bronner, who was hauled in from the education beat.
With their help, The Times recovered from its slow start, but the Gang of Four’s arrival angered some of the regulars. “The idea that the bureau couldn’t handle it was a cause for some concern,” said one Times reporter, diplomatically.
“It was no such thing,” countered Michael Oreskes, the paper’s Washington bureau chief. “They were brought in to augment the coverage.”
In a Jan. 26 memo to the bureau, Mr. Oreskes stressed that extra people represented no slight on the “sterling” job everyone had been doing. “You have all been working flat out, and the workload is going to increase,” he wrote. “We have a lot of shoe leather work to do and, of course, we must continue to produce the smart, well-written coverage that has set us apart from the pack. This is a huge story, and it needs even more talent than the bureau can produce.”
Except for Mr. Bronner, who recently joined The Times from the Boston Globe, all of the newcomers worked under Mr. Oreskes in New York when he was Metro editor. Mr. Nagourney had covered President Clinton before, and Ms. Stanley, the daughter of a career civil servant in the Defense and State Departments, had worked in Washington for Time and had covered the 1992 Presidential campaign for The Times . Mr. Oreskes had been beseeching Ms. Stanley to move back to Washington full-time when her four-year stint in Russia comes to an end in the spring, which would give the bureau a Maureen Dowd-like reporter-a stylist with a great eye, and when appropriate, a well-honed sense of irony. But Ms. Stanley has opted to go to Italy instead, along with her husband, Times reporter Michael Specter. The current Rome-based correspondent for The Times , Celestine Bohlen, will head off to Russia.
Ms. Stanley did not provide Off the Record with any pithy comments about the media morass in Washington, but she did offer a summation of the Russian reaction to President Clinton’s predicament: “They see nothing wrong with it,” she said. “The only thing wrong they’d see was if he wasn’t hitting on someone. That’s what you have interns for.” As for any backlash about her return, she said, “If there was, no one’s said anything to me.”
Although The Times got beat by The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 21, the paper has scored its share of scoops since then. On Jan. 25 and 27, Stephen Labaton and Jeff Gerth broke stories about Monica Lewinsky’s late December visit to the White House after she was subpoenaed to provide information in Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against the President. And on Feb. 3, Don Van Natta Jr. and John Broder reported that Ms. Lewinsky has been cleared to enter the White House about three dozen times between April 1996 and December 1997. ( The Washington Post reported the same day that such records were not available.)
The paper has also shown more restraint in running questionably sourced material than most media outlets. The Times , unlike ABC, the Dallas Morning News and other mainstream media outlets, did not report that the President and Ms. Lewinsky were caught in a “compromising situation” in the White House. The paper also hasn’t touched stories that President Clinton engaged in phone sex with Ms. Lewinsky, an aural practice written about in both Time and Newsweek.
“We have to know it from our own reporting, period,” said Mr. Oreskes. “Two sources sitting next to each other in an office are not two sources. They are one.”
But The Times has not been perfect. On Jan. 24, 26 and 30, the paper wrote about the phantom dress Ms. Lewinsky supposedly has that is reportedly stained with the President’s semen-even though no one has been able to prove it exists, and CBS News reported on Jan. 29 that F.B.I. tests of clothing taken from Ms. Lewinsky’s Watergate apartment showed no such residue. The Times has yet to confirm or disprove the CBS story.
Michael Holigan, the force behind a new magazine called Michael Holigan’s Your New House , is quickly learning just how big a company Time Warner Inc. is. One subsidiary sued his fledgling magazine for ripping off the look of This Old House , even as another unit was planning to distribute the magazine. And all while Life magazine used the Dallas-based builder to raise its “Dream House” for the February issue.
Time Publishing Ventures, the Time Inc. subsidiary that publishes This Old House , and WGBH, the Boston-based public television station that owns the rights to the name, went to court on Jan. 13 to stop the first issue of Your New House from appearing. It seems the logo of the new magazine bore a striking resemblance to the Time Inc. model, down to the typeface and design of the words in the title.
On Jan. 30, the two sides settled. Mr. Holigan agreed to change the logo and will redo the 150,000 copies already printed. But he could have saved the $150,000 it will cost to go back to the printing plant, he said, if only the people at Life or the distributor, Warner Publisher Services, had noticed the similarities between the two home magazines last fall. “Hell, everybody in the building knew about it,” Mr. Holigan said.
It took Isolde Motley, Life ‘s new managing editor and a former editor of This Old House , to notice the similarities as she was thumbing through Life ‘s February issue and came across the blow-in card offering readers a free sample issue of Mr. Holigan’s magazine. “Upside down, I thought he was Norm Abrams,” the star of the This Old House TV show and magazine, said Ms. Motley. And to think Mr. Holigan originally rebuffed Life ‘s approaches to build its dream house. “It’s really an ugly home,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to sell it.”
But Life made Mr. Holigan a tempting offer. As the magazine’s ad sales staff canvassed ad agencies about interest in the February “Dream House” issue, they offered ad pages in the debut issue of Your New House and commercial time on Mr. Holigan’s syndicated TV show. Life also committed to putting 1.6 million subscription bind-in cards for the new magazine in the February issue. With that kind of boost from a magazine giant, Mr. Holigan agreed to build the house. And then he got sued.
“I’m not going to build the Life ‘Dream House’ again,” Mr. Holigan said.
The spinning ways of the fabulous Florio brothers have finally caught up to them. After months of denials that The New Yorker would become a part of Condé Nast publications, the august publication will indeed be swallowed up by its glossy brethren.
Last September, when Off the Record reported that The New Yorker would no longer operate as a separate fiefdom in S.I. Newhouse Jr.’s empire, New Yorker president Tom Florio emphatically disputed any such development. “We are not folding The New Yorker into Condé Nast,” he said. “Editorial will operate independently, and so will advertising and marketing.” Back in December, Mr. Florio reiterated to Off the Record that ad sales would always remain separate.
Then his brother, Condé Nast chief executive Steve Florio, got into the act. In December, he told Advertising Age , “[W]e are not merging ad sales or editorial or any of that. It is just in areas like account payables and payroll where we can help them out and get their costs down a bit.”
But now, just like its accounts payable and payroll departments, The New Yorker ‘s ad sales and marketing departments will be folded into Condé Nast proper. And to top it all off, Tom Florio no longer runs his own ship, reporting only to Mr. Newhouse; he remains president in name, but now has to report to his brother.
Soon, the only semblance of independence that will be left for The New Yorker will be the editorial department. Editor Tina Brown refuses to deal with Condé Nast editorial director James Truman and will continue to report to Mr. Newhouse.
Driving all these changes is the magazine’s inability to make money since Mr. Newhouse bought it in 1985. Although the losses have narrowed from the more than $30 million it lost one year when Steve Florio was president, it still lost about $7 million last year, according to Condé Nast sources. Ms. Brown has been hellbent on returning the magazine to profitability; she wants to prove she’s the turnaround queen, rejuvenating a financially stagnant magazine, just as she eventually did at Vanity Fair . Although Ms. Brown and Tom Florio profess undying admiration for the jobs each is doing, Ms. Brown (as Off the Record reported last month) has complained that Mr. Florio could be selling more ads.