The Puff Daddy Media Circus

Ever since hip-hop impresario Sean (Puffy) Combs was implicated in a Manhattan nightclub shooting on Dec. 27, 1999, the New York tabloids have been giddily awaiting a possible trial. Mr. Combs’ story did have all the deliciously spicy and necessary ingredients for a tabloid classic–Mr. Combs is a dashing, if troubled, music mogul with millions in his pocket, a beautiful movie star on his arm (the actress Jennifer Lopez) and a hotshot legal team fronted by Benjamin Brafman and Johnnie Cochran. This winter, as Mr. Combs’ case approached trial, both the New York Daily News and the New York Post were banking on at least a few solid weeks of All Puffy, All the Time. Even The New York Times got a little excited.

But then Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Charles Solomon went and messed with the media’s big, juicy plan. On Jan. 5, Justice Solomon slapped down a heavy-duty gag order barring everyone–from prosecutors and cops to defense attorneys and the defense attorneys’ private investigators and publicists–from talking about the facts of the case.

Almost immediately, there was a major Puffy news deficit in Manhattan. Details about Mr. Combs’ case–which used to flow faster than a Notorious B.I.G. rhyme into the newsrooms, cell phones and voice mailboxes of the Post , the News and The Times –slowed to a trickle. As a result, the once eagerly awaited daily updates of l’affaire Puffy moved “off the wood,” as they say, and onto the backs of the city’s Metro pages.

“There have been a few little things percolating up about plea deals and what witnesses said to investigators,” said Laura Italiano, a reporter covering the trial for the Post . But a gag order, she said, “always makes your job more difficult.”

Of course, no gag order is ever airtight. In major cases especially, leaks can be commonplace, as prosecutors and defenders seek to gain an upper hand in both the courtroom and the increasingly important court of public opinion.

Sure enough, little scoops began to appear concerning Mr. Combs’ case. There was News columnist Karen Hunter’s Jan. 6 interview with Natania Reuben, a victim of the shooting, who alleged that Mr. Combs had a gun that night. Then there was Ms. Hunter’s colleague Barbara Ross’ Jan. 10 report of a second “mystery” witness who would testify to the same thing. Ms. Italiano had her own scoop on Jan. 17, writing that the prosecution had a witness saying it was Jennifer Lopez who tossed a gun out of her beau’s fleeing Navigator that night. Sure enough, Mr. Brafman and prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos traded accusations back and forth about who was to blame for the leaks.

Thus far, Mr. Combs’ defense team appears to be the tighter ship–a distinction that may win the highly paid counselors some ethics points, but one that has also become a P.R. nightmare.

Mr. Brafman and his team were furious that Ms. Hunter’s Jan. 5 News story–trumpeted with the front-page headline “PUFFY HAD A GUN”–neglected to mention the fact that the story’s quoted witness, Natania Reuben, had filed a $150 million civil suit in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn against Mr. Combs for the shooting. A few days later, Ms. Hunter also reported a list of Mr. Combs’ alleged run-ins with the law–including incidents where charges were dropped or never filed–that she wrote was supplied by the district attorney’s office. Mr. Bogdanos later denied providing the list to Ms. Hunter.

In court on Jan. 11, Mr. Brafman, clearly feeling sandbagged, begged Judge Solomon to lift the gag order. “This is a leak designed to prevent Mr. Combs from getting a fair trial,” he said in reaction to Ms. Hunter’s pieces. “I would like to be released from the gag order to respond to articles like this.” Unimpressed, Justice Solomon didn’t budge.

Ms. Hunter admitted that leaving out Ms. Reuben’s lawsuit was a mistake. “I take responsibility for that,” she told Off the Record. At the same time, the columnist said that she wanted to give Ms. Reuben a chance to speak after Mr. Combs had done a whirlwind press tour prior to the gag order. “Yeah, I have to be fair and balanced, but this story was not about anything but Natania Reuben. It was her chance to say her piece,” Ms. Hunter said. “I’m her voice. Puffy had two days on BET to say whatever he wanted to say.”

But the lawyerly hand-wringing over leaks continued on subsequent days in Room 733 of the Manhattan Supreme Court.

On the afternoon of Jan. 19, as jury screening concluded for the day and Mr. Combs and his lawyers gathered their coats and prepared to leave, Mr. Bogdanos rose to get something off his chest and into the court record–and likely, into the notebooks of the reporters still sitting inside.

Mr. Bogdanos said he had heard–though he went out of his way to say he definitely didn’t know for sure–that some of the private investigators hired by the defense were urging witnesses to go to the press. Mr. Brafman vigorously denied the charge, but then added somewhat ominously that if the defense team chose to leak, it “would be on the front page of every newspaper in the country.”

Mr. Brafman may have been overestimating the defense’s sway over the national press corps; by the time he got into his car on Lafayette Street, the two camera crews that had gathered for benign sound bites from Mr. Cochran had already split the scene.

Mr. Brafman, though, told Off the Record that while he supported a gag order in theory, he thought it was hurting his client more than it helped. A story favorable to the defense, Mr. Brafman said, would automatically raise suspicions that it came from the defense, whereas something that hurt his client, attributed to “sources familiar with the case,” could come from anywhere. Mr. Brafman was also quick to point out that while he had several colleagues on Mr. Combs’ defense team, “there are 40,000 members of law enforcement in New York.”

Now that it’s official and we have a second George Bush in the White House, political writers have been struggling to come up with a quick and easy way to distinguish George Herbert Walker Bush, our 41st President, and George Walker Bush, our 43rd President.

David Broder of The Washington Post , who one expects to have a final word on these sort of things, said, “I haven’t found a convenient way to talk about Bush the first or Bush the second, or the first President Bush and the second President Bush. So, I do realize that when you’re dealing with both of them in the same copy, it’s awkward figuring out how to say it.”

The problem has led to the arrival of a new name in the American political scene. In some publications, Dad–er, Poppy–will now go by “George H.W. Bush.”

Poppy might think it’s a bit of a slap. Former President Bush was, of course, very insistent about being plain ol’ “George Bush” his political life. Two middle initials suggested the image of a pasty, lockjawed blue-blood, so Bush père was loath to use them in public.

Well, tough luck now, Poppy. All four names are now being used in the pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Newsweek and stories carried by the Associated Press.

Not surprisingly, the famously cranky ex-President sounds cranky about the change. According to a Jan. 21 Maureen Dowd column, the ex-President was chafing at his new moniker at an inaugural bash. “I used to be George Bush,” H.W. said. “I used to be President Bush. Now I don’t know what the hell I am.”

Writer Nick Lemann, who has started using “H.W.” in The New Yorker, said: “I’m not trying to make any particular point; it’s just something that one falls into when writing pieces that copiously mention both Bush Presidents. Just try it yourself–think of some exercise where you have to write two paragraphs about the differences between them, and you’ll see how easily ‘H.W.’ springs to your fingertips.” By contrast, Mr. Lemann said, alternatives like “Poppa Bush” seem “unpalatable.”

Mr. Broder must agree. His Jan. 7 column began: “The differences between the Cabinet choices of former president George H.W. Bush and President-elect George W. Bush speak volumes ….”

“To be honest with you, there was not a hell of a lot of thought that went into it,” Mr. Broder told us. But pressed, the dean of the Washington press corps admitted: “I sort of like the rhythm of the thing.”

The Times editorial desk has shown a certain affinity for the “H.W.” tactic, using it in editorials on Jan. 18 and Jan. 21. Nonetheless, Allan Siegel, an assistant managing editor at The Times and its in-house style and usage watchdog, told Off the Record that he didn’t have a hard-and-fast preference, aside from clarity.

David Sanger, who will be covering George W. Bush’s White House, thought the “H.W.” still was unclear. “I don’t think using ‘H.W. Bush’ is a terribly useful way to identify the father from the son, because it presumes that everybody knows instantly what the middle initials of former President Bush were. So I usually try to word my way around it.”

No rule has been set at Newsweek either, though “H.W.” popped up in a Jan. 22 story by Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff. Mr. Fineman, who was the primary writer of the piece, said, “There was no big policy council about this; it was just something I decided to do.

“If you think about it, ‘H.W.’ is backwards-compatible, or whatever the correct phrase is, from when everyone started using ‘W.’,” he added. “Plus ‘H.W.’ has a nice Brown Brothers Harriman tone to it, like ‘Old H.W.,’ so it seemed like the proper style for this family.”

Society darling and scribe David Patrick Columbia has replaced Sean Murphy as editor in chief of Quest, the glossy monthly chronicle of metropolitan high society. “Sean is a highly skilled and professional editor,” said Quest’ s owner, Chris Meigher. “But David’s just a more comfortable fit. He has a better sense of Quest ‘s audience, both in New York and beyond New York.”

Mr. Columbia, the son of a chauffeur, has been writing about Manhattan social life and other subjects for decades. He began writing for Quest in 1993 and continued to do so until 1997, when he became editor in chief of Avenue magazine. Recently, Mr. Columbia launched the society Web site, an online chronicle of the city’s upper crust.

Mr. Columbia said he will continue to crank out while refocusing the magazine’s editorial agenda in “a way and style that’s just particularly mine … that will reflect my avid and enthusiastic interest in high society and social history.

“I think a strong magazine usually reflects a strong personality on the part of its editor,” Mr. Columbia added. An acronym, drawn from his own full name, makes the point succinctly: “The magazine is going to be just more D.P.C., I guess you’d say.”

Taki Theodoracopulos will also be huddling up in Quest ‘s new editorial banquette. Taki, as he mercifully prefers to be called, will begin writing a monthly column on what the magazine calls “traditions, histories and legacies” starting in March. Alas, Mr. Meigher said, Mr. Theodoracopulos will not be “spicing the magazine up with his political opinion.”

Mr. Murphy did not return calls for comment.

–Tinker Spitz

Members of the New York journalism community paid tribute to the career of Lars-Erik Nelson at a service held at Columbia University on Jan. 23. Until his death, Mr. Nelson was the national affairs columnist for the Daily News. He died suddenly at his home in Bethesda, Md., on Nov. 20. The suspected cause of death was a stroke.

The service for Mr. Nelson brought together decades’ worth of editors and publishers of the News , including current publisher Mortimer Zuckerman and editor in chief Ed Kosner, as well as former publisher Jim Hoge, former editorial director Harold Evans and former editors in chief Martin Dunn, Jim Willse, Gil Spencer, Debby Krenek, Jim Wieghart, Lou Colasuonno and Pete Hamill.

Other journalists in attendance included NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, WNBC-4 anchor Chuck Scarborough, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Gail Collins and political reporter Adam Nagourney (both of whom once worked with Mr. Nelson at the Daily News ), New York Post columnist Liz Smith and pundit Arianna Huffington.

Many others in the Roone Arledge Auditorium, however, were people whose respect for Mr. Nelson had grown from working by the reporter’s side.

Mr. Zuckerman announced the creation of an annual $5,000 prize in memory of Mr. Nelson at the Columbia School of Journalism for the student who does best in the first-year Reporting and Writing course. “My admiration for his writings and reporting was unbounded,” Mr. Zuckerman said. The publisher also candidly admitted how much he had come to rely on Mr. Nelson’s editorial judgment and his ability to “keep very difficult conversations confidential.”

“His friendship and counsel were irreplaceable,” Mr. Zuckerman said. “I will miss him, but I will still love him.”

Daily News columnist Jim Dwyer, who praised Mr. Nelson’s personal guidance, said: “Unlike most of us, Lars was not tangled in the web of circumstances. Rather than a kept man, he was a kept promise.”

Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin also spoke. “I truly hate being here,” the Pulitzer-winner said. “I think it’s the pits that a guy like this is gone, and I truly loved him.” Visibly upset, Mr. Breslin noted that Mr. Nelson wrote for readers, not other journalists, whether he was writing for the News or the New York Review of Books . “[Lars] explained politics so beautifully that people in mother-daughter houses in Middle Village learned something,” Mr. Breslin said.

Pete Hamill, a former editor of the Daily News, said Mr. Nelson “never placed his immense skills in the service of an ideology.” Mr. Nelson once told him: “The enemy is not liberalism; the enemy is not conservatism; the enemy is bullshit.”

Unspoken on the podium, but murmured in the audience, was the view that Mr. Nelson should posthumously be awarded a Pulitzer for his final year at work. (The Daily News plans to nominate Mr. Nelson for the award, a spokesperson said.) Possible entries might include Mr. Nelson’s coverage of the Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee case–though his sharp criticism of The New York Times’ role may prove to be a touchy subject for the traditionally Times- friendly Pulitzer board, some speculated.

Mr. Nelson’s surviving son Peter Nelson, an economist at a D.C.-based think tank, Resources for the Future, concluded the ceremony by speaking movingly of Mr. Nelson’s love for his family and the News . “I’m proud of my dad for a lot of things, but I’m proudest that he always wrote for his readers,” said Peter Nelson, who is reminiscent of his father–though without the columnist’s trademark salt-and-pepper beard.

Afterwards, a man whose only connection to Lars-Erik Nelson was through his writing approached Peter Nelson. “I’m a reader,” he said. “I’m one of the people you were talking about.” The Puff Daddy Media Circus