Florida Re-re-counters Try to Stick the Ballots Where the Sun Don’t Shine

Al Gore, the almost President of the United States, is set to thrust his unemployed self upon New York’s Columbia

Al Gore, the almost President of the United States, is set to thrust his unemployed self upon New York’s Columbia School of Journalism, where he begins teaching on Feb. 6. We’d like to tell you what Mr. Gore plans on telling his lecture hall of bushy-tailed reporters, but we have no idea.

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But hey, neither does the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, Tom Goldstein. “Regrettably, I don’t have much to report, which I had hoped for for lots of reasons-not the least of which was to talk to you, ” Mr. Goldstein told Off the Record on Monday, Jan. 29, two days before the dean was scheduled to leave the country on a previously scheduled trip.

Well, those esteemed Columbia professors must know what Mr. Gore is going to jawbone about, right? “I just don’t know anything,” said Richard Wald, one of the professors who is also lecturing in the seminar Mr. Gore is helping to teach. (It’s called, succinctly, “Covering National Affairs In the Information Age.”) Mr. Wald did say that he thought the former Vice President would be a “wonderful resource” for Columbia students.

Oh, well, we’ll just have to wait and see what Big Al has to say when he arrives up at Morningside Heights next week. Perhaps he’ll buzz onto campus riding a motorcycle and decked in leather, like he did in his wild-man days on Harvard Yard. Maybe he’ll gather the kids around and recall his late nights tackling Marx’s theory of alienation for guru-to-be Marty Peretz’s trenchant “Selected Problems of an Advanced Industrial Society” class. Maybe Mr. Gore will screen Love Story !

But even if Columbia is in the dark, it’s becoming clear that Mr. Gore, if nothing else, intends to use a higher-education strategy to keep his mug in the national political spotlight.

In recent days, in fact, Mr. Gore has essentially brokered the educational equivalent of a Van Halen tour-a traveling show that could be titled “Al’s Brain Rocks America.” Columbia is his East Coast anchor, his media-elite-sanctioned base. But he’s also going to teach at two schools in his home state of Tennessee-Fisk University and Middle Tennessee University, which are both in Nashville. He’ll also head up a “study program” about families and kids on the West Coast at sunny UCLA.

But that’s not all. The “Al’s Brain” tour will also involve guest educators from 14 other universities (including Cornell and the University of Miami) who will fly into Nashville to give lectures to his Tennessee students. There’s also talk at Fisk of producing videos and materials to teach the “Al’s Brain” syllabus at other historically black colleges and universities. And naturally, there’s jibber-jabber about a Web site.

Though Columbia’s still waiting, Mr. Gore appears to be tuning up for his educational odyssey rather quickly. He was in Nashville on Jan. 29, meeting with the presidents of both Fisk and Middle Tennessee about the courses he wanted to teach. He jetted to L.A. later that day.

Sources who attended meetings in Tennessee said that Mr. Gore-who hopes to change his name from Mud back to Al with his native-state teach-in-was not happy that news of the Columbia appointment slipped out before the Tennessee jobs were announced. (A spokeswoman for Mr. Gore countered that the news break on Jan. 24, first announced by ABC’s Peter Jennings, was “no big deal.”)

Right now, it appears that Mr. Gore has a better idea of what he’ll be doing in Tennessee and California than in New York. The Fisk and Middle Tennessee gigs will revolve around curriculum developed by his UCLA “study group”-a curriculum that sources said focuses on “community building.” Whether students will be asked to fork over $14.95 for Mr. Gore’s dense tome Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit is unclear; no syllabus has been revealed. (A source present at the Middle Tennessee meeting said that Mr. Gore is planning on plopping another book upon the planet, this one written with his wife, Tipper.)

“The intent is to focus on the family as community,” Fisk president John Smith told Off the Record. “It is a different approach to community development.”

Mr. Gore will be taking an office at Middle Tennessee and will probably be given the John Siegenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies, though Mr. Gore will not accept pay. Mr. Siegenthaler, who was also at the meeting at Middle Tennessee, was once the editor of The Tennessean , where Mr. Gore did his stint as a journalist in the 1970’s. (It’s worth noting that Mr. Gore had contacted both schools through political emissaries: U.S. Congressman Bart Gordon helped with Middle Tennessee, and Congressman John Lewis did the honors at Fisk . )

How the “Al’s Brain” tour wedged its way into Columbia’s Journalism School remains, as Dubya would say, pretty fuzzy. Mr. Gore approached Mr. Goldstein, the journalism dean, through an emissary, too, but Mr. Goldstein wasn’t saying who that was.

It’s probably safe to say that Mr. Gore won’t be treating the Columbia students to his thoughts about community, teens and parenting. The national-affairs course he will join is a standard part of the journalism curriculum that is meant to teach students how to write big-picture, Richard Berke–style news stories. In the past, students have covered the New Hampshire primaries and made field trips to Washington, D.C. Mr. Gore’s spokesman summed up the ex-Veep’s contribution like this: “In the new Information Age, what are the results and challenges when policy and media intersect?”

Got that? Grab a blue book and discuss in 350 words or less.

This week, the much-ballyhooed “news consortium” of media heavyweights, including The New York Times and The Washington Post , was scheduled to finally get down to the business of examining disputed ballots from the 2000 Presidential election. The news organizations are working together to compile and tally a database of the uncounted votes for President in Florida-an exercise intended to establish, once and for all, whether or not George W. Bush is the duly elected Commander in Chief .

Naturally, there are some reporters-especially we incestuous reporters who like to watch other reporters-who would like to get a peek at the re-re-counting in action. But unlike those accommodating county employees in Florida last November and December, the consortium of Fourth Estaters hasn’t been terribly cooperative.

The consortium’s ballot cataloger-the people recording hanging, swinging and dimpled chads et al.-is a non-profit survey firm called the National Opinion Research Center, which is affiliated with the University of Chicago. When Off the Record called Kirk Wolter, who is handling the project for the Center, to ask about the prospect of dropping by one of these ballot examinations, Mr. Wolter said no dice.

“We’re not scheduling visits for other media. It’s very quiet work that requires concentration over eight hours in a county office,” Mr. Wolter said. He added that this was the third call he’d gotten on this so far. “We’re not set up to handle extra crowds.”

That was pretty much the same answer that Russ Baker received when he asked about visiting a re-re-count session for an article on the consortium effort he’s writing for the Columbia Journalism Review . Mr. Baker said he later spoke with Dan Keating, the database editor for The Washington Post who is one of the central players in the consortium, and was told that he-or any other reporter, for that matter-was free to visit, but the consortium was not going to tell him where they planned to be on any given day.

In other words, the media consortium wasn’t going to prohibit the press outright, but they weren’t going to go out of their way to alert and accommodate them, either-the same kind of behavior routinely blasted in editorial pages and newsrooms across this country, when it’s done by elected officials.

“For advocates of the public’s right to know,” Mr. Baker harrumphed, “they sure have a strange way of showing it.”

Speaking to Off the Record later, Mr. Keating strongly disagreed with the suggestion that the media consortium was in stealth mode. “I’m glad to have them come to see our stuff,” Mr. Keating said of other reporters. “We’re not exactly going to be able to sneak in and out of a county,” he added, noting that the consortium would likely be in Miami-Dade County for a couple of weeks.

Still, Mr. Keating acknowledged that the consortium had decided not to publicize its schedule of where its counters will be on which days. Those interested in seeing what it looks like to look at ballots (our guess: boring) are going to have to take advantage of Florida’s sunshine laws, he said, which require the county election supervisors to notify the public at least three days in advance of the ballot inspections. According to Mr. Keating, Mr. Baker should have known about this. “We’re not responsible for doing other people’s jobs,” he said.

Yeah! The consortium has spoken: no free lunches! This ain’t freshman year at Medill, Mr. Baker!

Besides, the media consortium-which also includes The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek , as well as the St. Petersburg Times and The Palm Beach Post -has bigger issues on its mind. Turns out that when people get together to examine disputed ballots, there are a lot of journalists interested in covering the story-and some of those people might be interested in writing about it for their newspapers back home, or even reporting it on TV. This, apparently, can get in the way of a media consortium’s business.

“We’re not trying to attract a media circus,” Mr. Keating said.

Rudy Disses the Apple for Hollywood! Mayor Rudolph Giuliani-who knows a thing or two about establishing relationships, har, har -has finally decided who will represent him in his post–City Hall life. Beverly Hills–based super-agents Brad Grey and Jonathan Liebman of Brillstein-Grey Entertainment will handle any media deals Mr. Giuliani makes following his departure from office next year.

To hook up with Mr. Grey and Mr. Liebman, Mr. Giuliani passed on local representation, preferring to join the La-la-land likes of Brillstein-Grey clients Nicolas Cage, Jon Lovitz and Brad Pitt.

“Brad and I view it as an honor to work for the Mayor and to explore various opportunities,” said Mr. Liebman. (He was referring to Mr. Grey, not the Jennifer Aniston–smooching star of Snatch .)

Sources said that Mr. Liebman was the key to Brillstein-Grey’s seduction of Mr. Giuliani. The agent, who joined up with Brillstein-Grey in 1998, worked with Mr. Giuliani as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Mr. Liebman handled racketeering and white-collar-crime cases for Mr. Giuliani.

So what will Rudy do après Gracie Mansion? The con wiz is that he’ll write a book-Mr. Giuliani brought the possibility up at a press conference last fall-but partnering with multimedia hyper-schmoozers like Brillstein-Grey could signal he’s interested in more, more, more. Radio? TV? Song ?

It’s worth noting that one of Brillstein-Grey’s shows is Politically Incorrect , a term that the city’s feather-ruffling Mayor practically adopted as his own. Judging from the Mayor’s radio call-in shows on WABC and WCBS, he’d be a natural at browbeating ill-informed celebrities. There’s also Brillstein-Grey’s smash HBO drama, The Sopranos. Who better to pop Tony than Rudy, a former mob prosecutor himself?

Then there’s the book. You can probably scratch the possibility of something like In the Kitchen with Rudy or It Takes a Village (and a 40,000-Man NYPD) To Raise a Child . If Mr. Giuliani is after a book contract-as has been reported-the fact that his onetime nemesis Hillary Rodham Clinton got eight million smackers for her tome probably makes the Mayor want it even more.

Inside.com has seen its first major defector: Music editor Craig Marks is leaving to become editor of Blender, a new music magazine from Maxim publisher Felix Dennis.

Mr. Marks will work under Blender editor in chief Andy Pemberton. The move marks the first time he will be separated from Inside editor in chief Michael Hirschorn-other than a brief time in 1999 when they were fired together from Spin -in three and a half years of working side by side.

Mr. Marks said his decision to go to Blender had nothing to do with Inside.com and everything to do with the prospect of working at a music magazine.

“There are not too many opportunities of being on the ground floor of a new, well-financed music magazine,” he said.

Wait, wasn’t Inside supposed to be the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new, well-financed publication?

Mr. Marks said that editing Inside’s business-side-centric music coverage just wasn’t his specialty. “[ Blender ] plays more to my core competencies than being a business editor,” he said.

Florida Re-re-counters Try to Stick the Ballots Where the Sun Don’t Shine