Reporters Bicker Over McVeigh’s (Soon-to-Be-Dead) Body

Timothy McVeigh may be dead, but tensions live on among the newspaper reporters who covered the Oklahoma City bomber’s June 11 execution in Terre Haute, Ind.

The big problem was numbers. Though nearly 1,400 journalists showed up to cover Mr. McVeigh’s lethal injection, only 10 spots were allocated inside the death house for media witnesses, and they were allocated according to medium: two for national TV, one for local TV, two wire services and so on. Newspapers and magazines were given just two spots, and the federal prisons bureau left the decision of which two newspapers and magazines up to the news organizations themselves.

Bad idea. Maybe a do-it-yourself selection process made sense to prison officials, but it wasn’t the best course for newspaper reporters, who are not always known for their logistical acuity. Unlike the hyperorganized national networks–which had decided upon CBS’s Byron Pitts and Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith well before arriving in Indiana–the print reporters, true to form, put things off till the last minute, and then had a big, passive-aggressive fight over who got to go in.

“I thought there would be more than one person dead by Monday morning,” quipped New York Post reporter Jean MacIntosh.

The deliberations started off well, however. At a Sunday-morning meeting called by The Washington Post’ s Lois Romano, it was proposed that the reporters simply draw lots to determine who would attend Mr. McVeigh’s execution. After a mild discussion over methodology–would the numbers get picked from a hat or a bowl? one reporter asked–it was generally agreed that the lottery approach was fair.

But then, all heck broke loose. According to people who were in attendance, some reporters began making arguments as to why their newspapers deserved to go into the death house, arguing that other criteria should be considered and that the slots shouldn’t be granted just on pure luck. It was suggested that at least one spot should be guaranteed to a national newspaper; another suggestion was limiting the lottery to reporters who had interviewed McVeigh.

According to several people gathered in the parking lot, Rick Bragg of The New York Times rose at one point to testify on his own behalf. “I don’t want to get up on my soapbox,” several sources recalled Mr. Bragg as saying, which led to a round of heckling. Undeterred, the Pulitzer-winning feature writer went on to profess his respect for his colleagues, but cautioned them about their lil’ lottery.

“There’s some other things we’ve got to consider here,” Mr. Bragg said, according to several sources. “You’ve got to have an eye. You’ve got to be able to see things in there. You’ve got to be able to see the irony.”

Some of the reporters were put off by Mr. Bragg’s plea for irony. “I would have respected them more if they had just said, ‘Let’s make it papers of 300,000 circulation and above,'” said Nancy Nall, a columnist for The News-Sentinel of Fort Wayne, Ind. “I could have settled for that. They wanted it to look democratic, but not have it really be democratic.”

Reached by Off the Record, Mr. Bragg generally agreed with others’ recollections of his quotes, and freely admitted that he was trying his hardest to get himself and The Times inside. “We wanted to be one of the witnesses, I think that’s pretty clear,” he said. “And there’s no way, without looking in with some crystal ball, that I can say who’s going to get the best stuff from inside that chamber, and I can’t say that it would be me, but I had to try. I think my newspaper would want me to try to be one of those people.”

Fair enough, but Mr. Bragg’s pitch didn’t work. After all the back-and-forth, the print reporters stuck with the lottery option, and they gathered at 4 a.m. Monday morning to draw carnival tickets to decide who went in. USA Today ‘s Kevin Johnson and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ‘s Crocker Stephenson were the lucky winners. Mr. Bragg and his sense of irony remained outside.

One of the major questions left when Howell Raines was appointed New York Times executive editor on May 21 was answered on Tuesday, June 19, when publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. appointed Bill Keller an Op-Ed columnist.

Mr. Keller, The Times’ managing editor who had competed with Mr. Raines for the executive editor’s post, had been expected to relinquish the post so that Mr. Raines could appoint his own lieutenant when he takes over his new job in September.

Mr. Keller’s new job resembles the post Mr. Raines created for Op-Ed columnist Frank Rich in 1999. Mr. Keller’s column–which will run about 1,400 words rather than the standard 700–will run alternate weeks to Mr. Rich’s “Journal” column. Mr. Keller will also have the title of senior writer at The New York Times Magazine, where he will contribute an unspecified number of pieces.

“This is the closest thing I can imagine to a writer’s dream job,” Mr. Keller said in a statement released on June 19.

To observers of The Times, it’s an unusual move for Mr. Keller, who was current executive editor Joseph Lelyveld’s choice to be the next executive editor. Insiders had speculated that Mr. Keller could succeed Mr. Raines in seven years, and might wait in the wings as the newspaper’s editorial page editor–the job Mr. Raines is departing.

However, it was also known that Mr. Keller was not thrilled about the idea of overseeing an editorial board and pumping out editorials. “Essentially he’s saying I want to be a writer, not an editor,” said one inside source. “I would guess if he had wanted the editorial job, he could have had it.”

Mr. Keller told Off the Record his decision was not so clear-cut. “Sure, I’d consider going back to editing,” Mr. Keller said. “But, I’ve never in my life planned anything more than six months in advance. For the next few years I hope to be leading the writing life.”

Mr. Keller also shot down other speculation–that he might take a foreign correspondent’s post or, even, as some suggested, the top job at the Boston Globe. “I don’t have a lot of non-negotiable demands, but one of them was I had to stay in New York,” Mr. Keller said, citing his son. “I’m a New Yorker until my son graduates high school.”

As for his upcoming column, Mr. Keller wouldn’t say what topics he’d be tackling. “It’s an obvious question,” he said, adding: “I’d like it to be a little surprising.”

Mr. Keller’s last writing job was as Johannesburg bureau chief from 1992 to 1995 after a six-year stint as Moscow bureau chief. He’s never written opinion for The Times before.

Colleagues of Mr. Keller’s, naturally, think the column and the magazine-writing job are great ideas. “I think he loved being a writer,” said Times Magazine editor Adam Moss. “He liked being an editor, too, but once you have writing in your blood–and you’re as good a writer as Bill is–you’d want to get back to it.”

Still unanswered at The Times is who will be the paper’s next managing editor and the editorial page editor. For the former job, the most frequently mentioned candidate is Gerald Boyd, a deputy managing editor. Mr. Keller, of course, had been the front runner for the editorial page; now, the field is expected to widen to three or four contenders.

Also on June 19, The New York Times Co. announced that it would reduce its staff by about 1,200 by the end of the year. That figure includes the previously announced buy-out program to reduce staff at The Times by about 100. The deadline for employees to apply for buyouts passed on June 15, but a spokesman for The Times would not say how many employees applied nor whether the number of volunteers was enough to head off layoffs. However, in a sign he said would mean things were going smoothly, Barry Lipton, the president of the Newspaper Guild, was on vacation the week of June 18.

–G.S.

Once again, The New Yorker has stocked its “New Fiction Issue” with conspicuously large photographs of the lucky young scribes running alongside their chosen short stories. This year’s array of poses included kneeling on crushed velvet (Nell Freudenberger), pensive note-taking on a picnic table at the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park (Gabe Hudson), and that old writer’s portrait standby–staring blankly while holding a fat pug inside a Bulgarian restaurant (Jonathan Safran Foer).

“It’s the book jacket principle,” said New Yorker fiction editor Bill Buford, who, it should be noted, ran author photographs as the editor of both of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists editions. “It’s introducing a magazine reader to someone whose work you didn’t know before.”

If they seemed a bit weird at first, the idea behind this years’ crop of author photographs was to playfully relate them to the plots of the actual short stories. Mr. Buford called that decision–made by the photographer, Katherine Bosse–”brilliant.” Still, it’s hard to imagine more established writers subjected to this kind of thematic treatment: John Updike clutching a bunny; Michael Chabon donning a Batman outfit for an excerpt of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay , etc.

“If anything, [the photos] contribute to the culture of authors being good looking or young in order to receive attention,” said Don Lee, editor of the literary journal Ploughshares . “That’s the aspect I find of it that’s a little bit disturbing.”

Erika Krouse (she’s the fourth New Yorker new writer, the one seen waving her arms in a red dress at the Liberty Landing Marina) confessed she’s not as good-looking as Ms. Bosse’s photograph would suggest. In fact, the 32-year-old Colorado bed-and-breakfast night manager said she showed up to her shoot with a hangover from drinking “champagne and something green” with Ms. Bosse the night before.

“They told me what clothes to bring,” Ms. Krouse says. “I had to embody the main character, which made me uncomfortable because she’s a bitch.

“At one point I was so tired of smiling that I kept asking people if they knew any jokes. Nobody knew any jokes.”

Ms. Krouse said she liked her photograph and appreciated the attention the story has brought to the release of her book of stories, coming later this month. Still, she said such a shot “does detract from the work a bit–quite a bit. I think if you’re ugly and brilliant, you’ve still got a book. But they’re always looking for a way to market you.”

–Sridhar Pappu

June 12’s memorable Post cover grabber, “INSIDE THE FREAK BOX,” detailed a Union Square club party where couples (including a pair of porn stars) did the wild thing inside a photo booth-like contraption that, in turn, broadcast their acts on a screen to partygoers outside. What the article did not mention was the Freak Box’s father–Tim Nye.

You remember Tim Nye. At least, you were supposed to. The grandson of real-estate magnate Harold Uris, Mr. Nye has spent most of his adult life as a mogul-in-waiting. He was the man who put together Thread Waxing Space in 1991 and spent years trying (unsuccessfully) to open a nightclub on East Houston. In 1994, he created the music portal SonicNet (which he sold twice), and since October 2000 has headed the video-based Alltrue.com.

Alltrue features short video documentaries (like the 39-second epic of a guy with a T-shirt reading “I Walk Too Close To People” walking too close to people) and is home to the aforementioned and now-infamous Freak Box–a kind of portable Internet confessional box that has traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Panama City, Fla., to Chapel Hill, N.C., and to all the schools in the Ivy League. Among its other accomplishments, the Freak Box has “documented” a couple breaking up and a man admitting to a crime.

The Freak Box’s local trouble began when it showed up on June 6 to an invitation-only “amateur striptease-a-thon” party sponsored by CAKE, a group devoted to promoting “contemporary female sexual culture.” Six days later, a picture of a young man grabbing a young lady in fishnet stockings was on the cover of the Post . That night, the Freak Box was delicious fodder for the local evening news.

“We expected sultry dancing and maybe some stripping,” Mr. Nye said. “But not people having sex. Would you have sex in something called the Freak Box? Do you have any friends that would have sex in something called the Freak Box? Then why would you expect people to?”

But, hey–it was some kind of publicity for Mr. Nye and his crew, who can thank the sex-crazed new guard over at Col Allan’s Post . As for the Freak Box, its next big visit will be to our neighbors to the north for the Montreal Comedy Festival next month. But what about the footage from June 6?

“It’s in a vault,” Mr. Nye said.

–S.P.

If you get duped into spending 10 dollars on The Fast and the Furious , the latest teeny-bopper dreck to hit the cineplex, ask Kenneth Li, a staff writer who covers media and entertainment companies for The Industry Standard , for your money back. It was an article by Mr. Li, you see, which was optioned for director Rob Cohen’s follow-up to last year’s Eli cult classic, The Skulls .

Before joining the Standard , Mr. Li began his career as an editorial assistant on the business desk of the New York Daily News . That’s where his strange journey to Hollywood began. After receiving his driver’s license at the age of 22, Mr. Li had become a certifiable car nut, and was tooling the custom car shops of Flushing in 1996, when he stumbled onto the underground world of street racing.

Hungry to get copy into the paper, Mr. Li pitched a feature to Bill Boyle, then the managing editor for features, when the two of them happened to both be at the News’ urinals. Impressed, Mr. Boyle said yes, and Mr. Li wrote a feature article.

But Mr. Li thought there was even more to this story, and he pitched a feature about a crew of Dominican racers in Washington Heights around town until Vibe finally bought it. After sitting on the story for six months, the magazine ran it in its October 1997 issue as a two page feature entitled “Racer X.”

Two months later, Mr. Li got a call from Hollywood. “I got this call out of nowhere–someone at Universal looking for information about these cars,” he said. “The next call I made was to an agent.”

As with most movie options, it didn’t look like the movie would be made and the option nearly expired. “When I first spoke with the agent, he said, ‘Ken, it isn’t going to happen. Don’t hold your breath, just go about your life as you would normally.”

But just before the option ran out, Universal exercised the option, bringing Mr. Li a pretty sizeable windfall. He wouldn’t tell Off the Record just how much he got, but said “a few hundred thousand” was in the ballpark.

“I paid more in taxes on that than I made that year at my staff writing job,” Mr. Li said.

He saw the film for the first time a few weeks ago at a test screening. “It’s very loosely based on my story,” he said. “It makes you wonder why they signed with me to begin with.” For example, he noted, “I don’t remember any Chinese gangsters in my story or kids carrying submachine guns pulling off heists. Nor do I remember any hints of orgies and lesbian sex.”

And just what did Mr. Li do with all that money? He put a big chunk of it into a BMW 5 Series sedan. “An extravagant, ridiculous, irrational gift to myself,” Mr. Li said. “I should have bought an apartment, but you only live once.”

–G.S. Reporters Bicker Over McVeigh’s (Soon-to-Be-Dead) Body