The P.R. Lunch: A Family Recipe, Gone All Screwy

Harold Evans and Tina Brown are, famously, editors. Down low on bookshelves of their dining room rest an impressive array of leather-bound volumes of years’ worth of magazines edited. Beside these millions of yesterday’s words, some superior members of the media profit centers and others from the lower word-providing classes were served lunch last week.

A story, barely: I went out for cigarettes on First Avenue the other morning. The snow hadn’t really melted yet; it was the morning after Jodie Lane, 30, was electrocuted by a Con Ed cable cover while walking her dogs. I stopped suddenly on a corner before I arrived at the white-rose-piled sidewalk where she died. A black S.U.V. paused before making a turn. High up at the wheel was a very attractive, very Gillette-razor-commercial man. In the back seat of the window facing me hung his dry cleaning. He glanced at me confidently-he might have been on the phone-and then he was gone.

His expensive car, his lovely crisp blue-and-white-checked shirts wrapped serenely in plastic, and of course his disappearance provoked in me a bourgeois variety of wistfulness-a distasteful craving for safety in love, finance and self-regard.

It was not dissimilar to the kind of conflicted longing one may experience after leaving the home of Mr. Evans and Ms. Brown. It is a fragile, pleasing and disgusting feeling to want the things that other people have and simultaneously to not want them at all.

But lunch, and first, speeches! Without speeches, why would we intruders be present at all? Bluish TV lights were installed in the furniture-stripped parlor-they made flame-haired and pale-skinned Boldface Names legger Lily Koppel look like a divine space-age ballerina. The parlor filled up unhappily with men in suits, as if the house were a sinking ocean liner and this were the last room high and dry. In the gathering heat, Mr. Evans announced a new invention called the Opinion Awards on behalf of The Week , which answered an older gentleman’s muttered question, “Is this a Harry promotion or a Tina promotion?”

Essentially an incredibly well-organized and concise Web log on bound pages, The Week offers one crucial thing that Web logs cannot: It appears in print. By the same token, it appears too late.

“Come forward and don’t be shy,” called Mr. Evans, carny-style. I was rudely standing on Ms. Brown’s curtains in the back of the room and I couldn’t move, so I slid closer into the protective sphere of kindly mogul-sister and decidedly boldface name Wendy Wasserstein. Mr. Evans stood up front with Bill Falk, The Week ‘s editor, who has spiky real-estate agent hair.

The Week took it upon itself to give out three awards to print columnists and an award to a Web logger. The three winning columnists were Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman of The New York Times , and the nicely poetic Tommy Tomlinson of the Charlotte Observer .

Each winner was given $1,000 to donate to a library (Nissan matched that sum). Joshua Micah Marshall, who won as the blogger, gave his to a library in Southern California. This Band-Aid on the giant wound of SoCal’s booklessness is surely a fine example by Mr. Marshall of grace in confrontation with futility. (For the record, and unbeknownst to me until the speeches, I shared a nomination for this award.)

Little acceptances were made. Mr. Friedman, the New York Times columnist who brought Gulf War II to the Upper West Side, won the “Columnist of the Year” award, fortunately beating out The Times ‘ newest crackpot, David Brooks. Mr. Friedman will apparently spend the moolah to begin a new beis medrash . “Like all good Jews, I’ve started a new synagogue-with William Safire,” he said. Everyone lurched. Half a dozen journos reached reflexively for their cell phones to repeat this.

The talking ended and we turned, with a glint of Post -man Keith Kelly’s flat-faced purple and gold ring, at last to lunch. Around the dining rooms, books were maddeningly shelved: Furst near Halberstam near Stahl near Postman near the Last Editor. Somewhere, librarians wept.

A P.R. lunch is actually a simple if foul concoction (and I do not necessarily mean the food). The host must obtain yesses from the Mario Cuomos and the Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s-attendees with names to be ritually invoked, in boldface or otherwise. The gossip world must be given the baksheesh of admittance. And the working-media classes must be there to fork it up for print. (Distasteful to have in attendance, but still, someone must report the names.) To that end, WWD ‘s Greg Lindsay crawled the room in his all–Paul Smith ensemble. Young Lily Koppel stood gazelle-still, expensive silver tape recorder gently extended. She and Ms. Brown talked at length. Sadly, no account of this conversation ever appeared in The Times ‘ disgruntled and off-tone version of a gossip column. Lost forever!

But even though the P.R. lunch is by now an old and trusty family recipe, it has lately taken on a certain screwiness. It’s been a long year for print: It’s not that online folk out-reported or out-wrote the papers, but that they have accelerated story consumption to a speed that crusty newspapermen have craved and feared for centuries. Web logs have made news entertaining and crude and long-form again, and they have pounded the low culture into the high. This is the logical evolution of the work Ms. Brown herself has done as editor and show woman.

Back in June of 2000, Ms. Brown promised something to this newspaper: “In my next incarnation, whatever that may be, in my fifth act, I’m going to be a really irresponsible writing journalist. A totally iconoclastic, absolutely fuck’em-you-print-it-because-I say-so-Joe Eszterhas kind of a writer. Some editor’s burden. I won’t give a shit.”

Last October, Ms. Brown raised the curtain on her fifth act with a weekly column in The Washington Post . The very next day The Post ‘s ombudsman eviscerated her, and both print and online media joined in the mockery with glee. (It was particularly shrill online, which surely only fueled Ms. Brown’s rumored deep hatred of Web logs.) There was great cruel rejoicing for a week-and since, improbably, a deep silence has descended around Ms. Brown’s work. Contrary to what one might think, this is because the tired old forces that derided her egocentricity and irrelevancy, to use the words of WaPo ombudsman Michael Getler, are losing. Ms. Brown will have her way through failure and success, and no amount of scorn or disregard will publicly dismay her.

Why does she conduct this surely tiring campaign? (In this day and age, five acts does make for an awfully long play, as Ms. Wasserstein would surely warn.) The only explanation that makes sense is as true for her as it was for everyone in her dining rooms, high and low: Media is not a job, it is a compulsion.

Her dirty hostess duty was done and we were dismissed. Outside Tina and Harry’s, a giant black S.U.V. idled. In the window, the driver had scrawled a sign in scary black caps: KRUGMAN. We left before The Times ‘ Mr. Krugman did, even though cabs were scarce. The subway, of course, was a hike, not that anyone there would have taken it anyway.

The P.R. Lunch: A Family Recipe, Gone All Screwy