Office Politics Come Back to Haunt Life Editor Isolde Motley

No one would ever accuse Life managing editor Isolde Motley of coddling her staff. Ms. Motley, who was the founding editor of This Old House and Martha Stewart Living and worked as a development editor at Time Inc. before taking the reins at Life , arrived in January with a mandate to cut costs and to contemporize the magazine’s aging feel. She promptly fired more than a third of the magazine’s employees, including many Life lifers, such as design director Tom Bentkowski and the picture editor for special projects, Barbara Baker Burrows. Ms. Motley rankled some of her remaining staff members by hiring Paul Ritter, a former Virgin Records CD-cover designer, as the magazine’s creative director to give the magazine more of a rock-and-roll look. What’s more, some staff members were embarrassed by a recent special issue on monarchy that was so fawning it could make even the staunchest royalist blush.

But perhaps none of these events has upset Life staff members as much as Ms. Motley’s firing of a 25-year-old assistant art director named Samuel Serebin. Colleagues insist that Mr. Serebin, a beloved if somewhat difficult protégé of Mr. Bentkowski, was fired on trumped-up charges of “creating a threatening work environment” as payback for refusing to accept a company severance offer.

Mr. Serebin, who declined to talk to Off the Record, joined Life in 1997 after a brief stint at Money and quickly distinguished himself as a gifted if moderately cocky art director. He was given significant responsibilities at the magazine for someone his age, colleagues said, and when Ms. Motley cut back the staff, she relied on him to help keep the art department functioning smoothly. Mr. Serebin played a key role in the design of the commemorative book Life put out on the death of Frank Sinatra, and colleagues said his role was so instrumental that Ms. Motley fended off another Time Inc. publication’s attempt to hire Mr. Serebin away by disparaging him, even as she relied on the young employee to keep her magazine running.

But in late April, when Ms. Motley had successfully installed Mr. Ritter as her new creative director, colleagues said, Mr. Serebin’s fate dramatically changed. On April 23, the assistant art director was summoned to Ms. Motley’s office, according to several staff members familiar with the situation, where he was told his services were no longer needed. Ms. Motley offered him a modest severance package, but Mr. Serebin declined, saying that he did not want to leave his job. According to the same accounts, Ms. Motley suggested to Mr. Serebin that his exit would be made much easier if he quit voluntarily. Still, he refused to budge.

After that, Mr. Serebin’s final days at Life played out like a scene from Franz Kafka’s The Trial . The day after his meeting with Ms. Motley, Mr. Serebin was told he was being terminated for cause, though the cause was not specified. He was told he would be put on paid leave during a formal review of his case. Then he was escorted from the building by human resources personnel, still unaware of the reasons for his dismissal.

Two weeks later, Mr. Serebin was summoned back to Life ‘s offices for a meeting with human resources associate director Anne Rodgers, where things took an even more bizarre turn. According to colleagues, Mr. Serebin was told that he was being fired for making homophobic comments and for expressing an untoward fascination with firearms. Mr. Serebin strongly denied ever having made the comments or having any kind of fascination with guns. He was then read a list of five co-workers’ names and asked what each individual might say about the allegations. Mr. Serebin counted a few of the co-workers as close friends, and he insisted that they could not possibly corroborate the charges. At the meeting’s end, Ms. Rodgers told Mr. Serebin he was officially terminated. Ms. Rodgers did not return calls for comment.

That evening, Mr. Serebin wrote a letter to Ms. Rodgers in which he adamantly denied the charges and asked for his job back. “I absolutely deny such allegations, and assure you that such statements were never made by me,” he wrote. “It is not in my nature, it is not who I am, nor is it anything I would condone of anyone else.” Life employees sympathetic to Mr. Serebin said that the 25-year-old got along well with gay colleagues and never mentioned guns in their presence. Several employees suggested the charges were constructed carefully to demonize Mr. Serebin.

Mr. Serebin sent copies of his letter to Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner, Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin, Time Inc. editor in chief Norman Pearlstine and, among others, the five co-workers whose names were presented to him as possible witnesses. Several of the “witnesses” were dismayed to learn their names had been used by Ms. Rodgers, and demanded that they be stricken from the list. Susan Bolotin, Life ‘s deputy managing editor who left the company recently, was one of the objectors. “When I asked about it, I was told that it was just a hypothetical list,” she said. “I asked them to leave my name out of it.” More puzzlingly, all five “witnesses” have come forward to deny they saw anything like the incidents Ms. Rodgers alleged.

Mr. Serebin has since hired an attorney, Daniel Alterman, founding partner of Alterman & Boop who specializes in media employment cases and has successfully handled racial discrimination suits against the Daily News . Mr. Alterman said that although Mr. Serebin is a member of the Newspaper Guild, his relatively low-level post is not covered by the union’s collective bargaining agreement with Time Inc., so he’ll either have to sue the company or hope for a settlement. Mr. Alterman said that he is not seeking a large sum of money, but wants Mr. Serebin’s record expunged and a letter of recommendation from Life . Negotiations between the company and Mr. Serebin are currently at a standstill.

“We don’t want this young man to be scarred for life by this innuendo and unfounded allegations,” the lawyer said. He added that neither he nor his client have learned the name of the complainant, or even confirmed that the complaint is legitimate. Mr. Alterman said his client insists that he did not say anything that might have been misconstrued as homophobic, and that Mr. Serebin has no interest in guns. “If I thought my client was a homophobe, I wouldn’t represent him,” Mr. Alterman said.

Ms. Motley said she could not address the specifics of Mr. Serebin’s case, but told Off the Record, “I can perfectly well see how many people would believe that Sam had been mistreated, but this company does not have a record of mistreating people. I don’t have a record of mistreating people, and there would be no reason for us to do so.”

Editors sometimes find themselves harassed by writers who’ll do anything to get bylines in their magazines. Us editor Charles Leerhsen has the opposite problem: writers desperate to have their names taken out.

Four stories in the August issue of Us appear without bylines because of friction between Mr. Leerhsen, a former assistant managing editor at People who took over in May, and his dwindling stable of writers. Kitty Bowe Hearty, a freelancer who writes occasionally for Us , turned around a profile of actress Marisa Tomei in less than a week, and worked with a freelance editor to get the story into shape. But when she received a galley of the piece, she said, the story had been changed beyond recognition.

“It was basically not my take on Marisa,” she said. “I felt misrepresented.” Ms. Bowe Hearty said she was particularly disturbed that Mr. Leerhsen “used quotes and reporting that were not mine.” She asked that her name be taken off the piece . Mr. Leerhsen said the original piece “wasn’t up to our standards” and was “overly puffy.”

Jason Kaufman, a staff writer at Us , took a similar stand on the profile he wrote of Gary Coleman, the former child star who now works as a film lot security guard. Mr. Kaufman thought a rewrite of his piece was gratuitously cruel to its subject, so he asked to have his byline removed. Mr. Leehrsen didn’t take too kindly to Mr. Kaufman’s show of conscience; on June 24, he fired Mr. Kaufman and gave him an hour to clear out his desk.

Two other stories in the August issue-one about actors’ salaries and another on the death of comic Phil Hartman-bear reporting credits at the end but no bylines, because staff changes at Us made determining authorship impossible.

Mr. Kaufman is hardly the only casualty of the new editor’s short tenure at Us . In the last three months, roughly eight editors and writers have left or been fired, depleting the staff at a time when Wenner Media Inc. is hyping the prospect of a weekly version of the celebrity rag. Mr. Leehrsen called the possibility of going weekly “an intriguing idea we’re looking into very seriously,” and said the staff changes and editorial frictions were occurring because “we’re raising the bar.” Mr. Leehrsen didn’t seem all too concerned that he was called heavy-handed by his writers. “Sometimes it helps to rewrite, sometimes it’s a mistake,” he said. “I’ll live with the enemies I make, or else I won’t live with them.”

Lean times over at Condé Nast. A week before Fortune magazine slapped company president Steven Florio upside the head with an exhaustive report on his profligate spending habits and serial lies, the powers that be at Vogue embarked on a new belt-tightening campaign-one that seemed in keeping with Mr. Florio’s tendency to pluck “the low-hanging fruit,” as Fortune described his past efforts at cost-cutting.

On June 23, managing editor Laurie Jones let it be known that Vogue was serious about cutting the fat in its reported $30 million budget. “In an effort to reduce Vogue ‘s overall budget, we can no longer expense birthday parties,” her memo intoned ominously. “While we encourage celebrations and parties in the office, in the future, cash collections should be organized to pay for birthday cakes, refreshments, presents, etc. We will continue to pay for farewell parties for staff members, but expenses from birthdays will not be approved …”

No word yet whether staff members will be asked to pass the hat for editor in chief Anna Wintour’s wardrobe allowance or Concorde tickets.

Additional reporting by Nick Paumgarten .

Office Politics Come Back to Haunt Life Editor Isolde Motley