Libel Grudge Match Begins! Blumenthal vs. Matt Drudge

Sidney Blumenthal’s libel suit against Internet gossip guru Matt Drudge is quickly devolving into a rancorous sideshow to Washington’s main event, but to the tight clique of partisan journalists entwined in the case, there is no proceeding more important. The July 28 editorial page of The Wall Street Journal illustrates the point perfectly: The paper gave a predictably venomous editorial titled “Sidney’s Subpoenas” top billing over an only modestly venomous editorial about-what else?-“The President’s Subpoena.”

Mr. Blumenthal’s attorneys, William McDaniel and Jo Bennett Marsh, provoked the wrath of the Journal editorial page by serving civil subpoenas on John Fund, a member of the paper’s editorial board, as well as on Barbara and Michael Ledeen, prominent, if rabid, conservatives who have written for the Journal Op-Ed page as well. Mr. Blumenthal’s lawyers want to depose Mr. Fund and the Ledeens in an effort to ferret out the source of Mr. Drudge’s August 1997 item in his gossip Web site The Drudge Report that Mr. Blumenthal beat his wife-a charge Mr. Drudge sourced to at least one “influential Republican” and retracted shortly after it appeared. In the subpoenas, Mr. Blumenthal’s lawyers request “any and all documents” relating to Mr. Blumenthal, Mr. Drudge, former ambassador Richard Carlson and his son, Weekly Standard writer Tucker Carlson, the Ledeens and former American Spectator writer David Brock. “If you need a road map,” the Journal editorial notes, “this is Mr. Blumenthal’s enemies list, except that onetime enemy David Brock has apparently switched camp to become an ally.”

Whether or not the list is composed of Mr. Blumenthal’s enemies, the road map it certainly provides is of Mr. Blumenthal’s legal case, which, his lawyer Mr. McDaniel indicated to lawyers for The Journal , will lead to John Fund as a source of the Blumenthal wife-beating rumor. Mr. McDaniel apparently told The Journal that he then hopes to name Mr. Fund in the libel suit as well.

The evidence suggests that Mr. Fund was at least a propagator of the rumor, if not Mr. Drudge’s source. David Brock told Vanity Fair in December 1997 that two separate sources had cited Mr. Fund as the source of the rumor. Mr. Fund, according to The Journal , has said that he discussed the rumor with Mr. Brock at a Washington dinner party four years ago. (Mr. Brock told Off the Record that he had never heard the rumor directly from Mr. Fund.)

It’s possible that the Blumenthal rumor originated at another dinner party at a conservative gathering at the Wye Plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in August 1994. According to a source who attended the party, Mr. Fund boldly proclaimed that Mr. Blumenthal was “evil,” and when challenged by his dinner companions to elaborate, offered as evidence the rumor that Mr. Blumenthal beat his wife. According to one guest at the party, Mr. Fund told all assembled that The Wall Street Journal was in possession of police records that would back up his account.

Through a spokesman at The Journal , Mr. Fund acknowledged having discussed Mr. Blumenthal that night. But the spokesman said that Mr. Fund “very specifically is certain that he never said that The Journal had police records that indicate that Sidney Blumenthal beat his wife, and he’s certain because he’s never had such records and never seen such records.”

The Blumenthal subpoenas seem at least partially directed at this 1994 dinner party; Tucker Carlson was a guest, and he is a friend of David Brock’s. (Mr. Carlson refused to comment, and has denied being Mr. Drudge’s source.)

Mr. Drudge doesn’t seemed particularly worried about the suit; his lawyers are working pro bono, and he has little to lose since he has little. “I have no problem with civil litigation. It’s a great way to get relief,” said Mr. Drudge. “But it’s all very confusing to me … This is the first time in history that the President and Vice President have approved a lawsuit against a reporter.” If these subpoenas are any clue, Mr. Drudge may not be the journalist Mr. Blumenthal is after.

Tina Brown’s new masthead is shaping up to read like a Who’s That? of the magazine world. Ms. Brown, who just left The New Yorker to head up a magazine for Miramax Films, has hired Howard Lalli, former editor and publisher of Central PA magazine, Jonathan Mahler, editorial page editor of The Forward and, as The Observer went to press, was finalizing her discussions with Sam Sifton, media columnist for the New York Press .

Of the three, Mr. Lalli, who will be the managing editor of the new venture, is the only one who has actually worked with Ms. Brown before, having logged a three-year stint as an assistant managing editor at The New Yorker . For most of his time at The New Yorker , Mr. Lalli held the position of “A-issue editor” and was known for his calm demeanor and organizational skills, according to one staff member. Mr. Lalli recently left Central PA to become executive editor of Atlanta magazine. On his way, he stopped in New York to serve as “acting managing editor” at The New Yorker during the editorial transition, and was snapped up by Ms. Brown. Mr. Mahler is slated at this point to hold the dual roles of senior editor and writer; at press time, Mr. Sifton’s title had not yet been determined. The Walt Disney Company has found Ms. Brown’s magazine a temporary home in the Carnegie Towers on West 57th Street. In about eight months, Ms. Brown anticipates that she will have a new, permanent office with room for a staff of 50.

One staff member who apparently will not join Ms. Brown in her venture is her trusty lieutenant, New Yorker publicist Maurie Perl. According to several sources at Condé Nast, Ms. Perl declined an offer to join Ms. Brown at Miramax after receiving a more attractive offer from Condé Nast president Steve Florio to become head of Condé Nast corporate public relations. From that vantage point, Condé Nast sources said, Ms. Perl will continue to oversee public relations for The New Yorker . How this move might affect current Condé Nast public relations director Andrea Kaplan was not immediately discernible. Ms. Perl and Ms. Kaplan declined to comment.

In other news from the intellectual property frontier, David Vogel, president of the Buena Vista Motion Picture Group, a Walt Disney Company subsidiary, has decided not to close the Manhattan development office put together by former Premiere editor Susan Lyne. In March, Ms. Lyne took a job as executive vice president of television movies and miniseries at ABC, another Disney fiefdom and, ever since, the fate of her New York office has been in doubt. Recent events-a steep cutback in Disney’s production schedule from 37 films a year to 15, and Disney subsidiary Miramax Films’ magazine-to-movies deal with Tina Brown-seemed certain to doom the operation. But according to Disney sources on the West Coast, Mr. Vogel has decided that, for the time being, he wants a New York presence. The four development executives in Disney’s Park Avenue office will now report to him. One Disney source said that Mr. Vogel may eventually hire someone from the Manhattan media world to take over the office. Mr. Vogel did not return calls for comment; Ms. Lyne had no comment.

Ms. Lyne’s office placed about 20 stories in the development pipeline over the last two years, and one story she optioned-a profile of tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand by Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner-is currently in production.

A recent article in the New York Post provoked an ominous letter to Post editor Ken Chandler from attorneys for Condé Nast Publications Inc. The article had nothing to do with the Post ‘s coverage of the recent woes affecting S.I. (Si) Newhouse Jr.’s magazine publishing company, but rather addressed a subject that receives no small amount of attention in his magazines: brassieres.

“It has been brought to our attention that the July 20, 1998, edition of the New York Post included a feature in the ‘Fashion & Beauty’ section entitled ‘The Bra Dilemma,'” the letter states. “The article talks about fashion trends for bras and includes pictures of women wearing various bras and shirts and either the word ‘do’ or ‘don’t’ over the pictures.” Condé Nast lawyers took particular offense at a line in the Post article which read, “Don’t get caught, like these three New York women did, with your bra straps showing-a glamour don’t.”

The problem, the letter explains, is that Condé Nast’s Glamour has run a monthly “Dos and Don’ts” fashion column since 1965, covering everything from hair to make-up. In fact, Condé Nast is so protective of its “Dos and Don’ts” franchise, its attorneys were happy to point out, that the company has even gone to the trouble of registering “Dos and Don’ts” with the Federal Trademark Commission. Condé Nast asked the Post to stop running its Dos and Don’ts feature in its “fashion and beauty” section, and demanded that the paper desist from any sneaky phrases like “a glamour don’t,” which might give the impression that Glamour has sanctioned the article.

Mr. Chandler said his paper meant no harm in its inadvertent appropriation of Glamour ‘s groundbreaking journalistic trope, and had his own “do’s and don’ts” for Condé Nast attorneys: “Tell them I said: Do try and be less thin-skinned, and don’t send me any more nitpicky letters.”

You can reach Off the Record by e-mail at wstjohn@observer.com .

Libel Grudge Match Begins! Blumenthal vs. Matt  Drudge