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Mailer’s 5th Estate: Who’s Paranoid Now?

“Paranoia is the most useful or the most destructive faculty of the human spirit. One never knows when it’s devoted to you or your destruction.” — Norman Mailer

While most of us are still stumbling about in the euphoric dreck of the Senate Watergate hearings, I think it’s time we admit that Norman Mailer was right. As usual.

Some of you may remember the rather elegant bash at the Four Seasons restaurant last February 5 in celebration of Norman’s 50th birthday (which was January 31, but never mind). Many were drawn to the event by the enticement that Mailer would make “an announcement of national importance (major).” While Norman was up in Massachusetts writing his biography of Marilyn Monroe, Jean Campbell and I made the arrangements. Tickets were $50 per couple, and, outrageously, we made the press pay.

The stage set, the booze swilling, the crowd swelling, midnight approaching … Mailer blew it. In the grand and glorious manner. Or as he put it in the New York Times Book Review, the speech “was a disgrace. It had neither wit nor life — it was perhaps the worst speech on a real occasion that the orator had ever made.”

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Nevertheless, the idea had been planted, however badly. Mailer said he wanted to establish something he called “the Fifth Estate,” essentially an organization to investigate whether the United States was slipping into totalitarianism through a series of carefully manipulated conspiracies. He said it was the best political idea he ever had.

The press, many of them stunned at having paid hard cash to attend the party, went for the jugular. After all, wasn’t Mailer one of the best targets around? And hadn’t he asked for it? Hadn’t he literally set himself up for a wipe-out?

Pete Hamill reported, somewhat sadly, that “the best writer in America was reduced to the role of a nightclub comic trying to squelch drunks.” In Saturday Review, Patricia Bosworth observed: “When he tried to elaborate on the proposition that our nation is veering toward totalitarianism, nobody was listening.” Shirley MacLaine was quoted in Women’s Wear Daily: “Nobody here could make a pimple on Norman’s ass, but nobody listened to him, and the thing is, he’s right.”

John Leonard, editor of the New York Times Book Review, disagreed: “As Mailer’s ideas go, this is not a good one. It is, as proposed, just another vigilante group.”

Tim Ferris of Rolling Stone picked up a bitter remark: “The guy’s a hell of a writer, but he’s just getting so grotesque, so silly. What a clumsy, awkward, cumbersome man he has become.”

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Then, of course, there were those panic-stricken by the announcement, like Jack Lemmon, famous liberal movie star. “I didn’t know anything about it,” he stammered. “I don’t even know him!” And we heard shrill notes from a viper or two. Sally Quinn wrote her standard florid feature for the Washington Post (“The Rise and Fall of the Fifth Estate,” February 7), causing Mailer to dub her “Poison Quinn.” In his forthcoming book on Marilyn Monroe, Mailer characterizes this kind of writing as having “fewer facts than factoids (to join the hungry ranks of those who coin the word), that is, facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper …” And Daphne Davis of Women’s Wear Daily, quoted in Newsweek by Linda Francke, denounced the whole affair as “a bummer — what can you say about a man whose time has gone?” (For Ms. Davis’s edification, it might be pointed out that Mr. Mailer this year, 25 years after “The Naked and the Dead” will publish his 22nd and 23rd books, not to mention the several volumes already published evaluating his life’s work. The first printing of “Marilyn,” by the way, is 300,000 copies. Not bad for a writer whose time has gone.)

Finally, we come to The Village Voice, in the prose of Ron Rosenbaum, Andrew Sarris, and Lucian K. Truscott IV, honorable gentlemen all.

Rosenbaum covered Mailer’s press conference, held the next afternoon (February 6) at the Hotel Algonquin. He played it fair and straight, noting Mailer’s combativeness (“I have the misfortune of being a talented writer who is in the position of being written about by less talented people”), and concluded that “the skeptics among the reporters remained unconvinced.”

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Sarris, who said he wouldn’t have missed the party for the world, claimed that “Aquarius” was upstaged that evening by Bernardo Bertolucci (not true, save in the eyes of a film critic), then launched into a medium silly diversion about “Last Tango in Paris” and “Deep Throat,” in the process dropping a few asides about Mailer’s “ballsy literary swagger” and his “piddling penis joke.”

But it was Truscott who, in my view, went into a purple prose funk over the party. Mailer himself said of the article that “on balance, it was fair.” Fairness is not what threw me, the prose did. Listen to this: “At its center (a foggy low pressure area of some unknowable sort) was sure to be Norman Mailer, in the flesh, feet wide planted, drink in hand, finger jabbing chests or tits or air, sterling silver Brillo pad hair bobbing up and down tot he rhythm of the crowd he had drawn, pink face a-pulsing, vibrating jigsaw puzzle impossible to assemble without first killing him, making him quiet and still.”

Truscott later admitted this stuff was “blithering,” but excused himself thusly: “It is a measure of the man that in writing about him I find myself writing like him.” That’s damn near a perfect example of what we might call the simultaneous reversible pat-on-the-back and kick-in-the-ass. A very neat trick, indeed. But one must note, like any good checker for the New Yorker, that the soap in Brillo pads is red; S.O.S. has the blue, and would have been the more appropriate metaphor, if that’s the sort of thing you’re after.

And, sure enough, the Truscott “West Point trauma” surfaced as he wrote of the “dilemma of the essentially totalitarian psyche” and “the almost sexual excitement, about command and control.” The part I liked best, though, was how his grandmother had likened Mailer to General Patton. That was an interesting thought — a left conservative General Patton. You could go somewhere with that.

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Before I report some afterthoughts of Watergate hindsight, and tell you how Norman sees all of this, it might be well to explain what he was trying to say that night, and in fact did say the next day at his press conference, and subsequently in the New York Times.

The time has come, Mailer wrote, “for some of us to think of founding a high, serious, and privately funded Committee of Inquiry, stocked with the best efforts of literary scholars, investigators, and journalists. It would be an inquiry into a fundamental question of government: is our history developing into a string of connected conspiracies, or is there less ground finally for our national paranoia than any have supposed?” This country, he said, “may be sliding toward a kind of totalitarianism of the most advanced, subtle, and civilized sort … are we in a society which encourages us to be paranoid, or is our paranoia merely our impotent reaction to a set of 20th century processes which are entirely beyond us?”

After the February 6 press conference (the day after the Senate passed a resolution creating the Watergate Committee, and the day John Dean says a strategy meeting was held by the Watergate Cover-up Crew), several of us, forming something of an ad hoc steering committee, retired to a suite in the Algonquin and talked about the Fifth Estate — what it should and should not be, how it might be formed and funded, what project or projects it might investigate. Nothing much was accomplished, but we decided to meet again on February 21.

The next meeting was more formal and businesslike (booze at the first, coffee at the second). After about two hours, we decided that, because we lacked time, staff, and money, the one project we should undertake immediately was, you guessed it, Watergate. We all felt Watergate had the smell of a filthy scandal that well might reach the highest levels of government.

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Without going into what we ac­complished, which was little more than clearing our throats and calling friends in Washington to assist the investigation, we all know what happened next, less than a month later.

Not only was Mailer right, he was prophetic. But, he was not alone. As Jimmy Breslin said the other day, “He was right and ev­erybody laughed, and the asshole dilettantes who laughed didn’t know what they were talking about, as usual. The only two guys who should have been at the party were Woodward and Bernstein, but they couldn’t come because they were too busy.”

During John Dean Week, I called several reporters and some of the partygoers to get their feelings, in retrospect, about Mailer’s announcement. Following is a sampling:

John Leonard (New York Times Book Review Editor): “I’m still against any kind of Democratic Secret Police … but I do wish journalists had more time for extensive investigative journalism … I just wish (Mail­er) would write a novel.”

Linda Francke (Newsweek): “I quite agree, he was ahead of his time, again … even as I wrote about it, I was a little nervous to dismiss it, and as soon as it broke I thought, shit, Mailer was right after all … then I was worried that Mailer might some­how be implicated … it followed so suddenly that I thought he might have been making notes on a new book and got caught with the surgical gloves on.”

Henry Grunwald (Managing Editor, Time): “I think it’s bad to start a conspiracy on the left, just as we had on the right with Mc­Carthy and the others … but I felt we may have been remiss and wanted to go back to review the press conference and see what Mr. Mailer had to say.”

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George Plimpton: “Well, you don’t fight an espionage agency with another espionage agency … I was afraid they’d have the first meeting at my house, with drawings by Larry Rivers and Abbie Hoffman hopping around, that sort of thing … Watergates makes me think that Secretariat is the only uncorrupted thing left.”

Warren Hoge (City Editor, the New York Post): “That night, you felt, yawn, another left embar­rassment, but now I feel like Mel Laird, if there’s any more, I don’t want to know it … what can you be paranoid about anymore?”

Jack Newfield: “They’re a total bunch of paranoids, and incom­petent — they had Joe Namath with the Giants.”

Tim Ferris (Rolling Stone): “I’ve been obsessed by the hearings … Hunter Thompson called from Colorado yesterday, said he’s been watching day and night, he has no other life … the only fault I found (with Mailer’s idea) was that it didn’t have muscle or money, and an idea like that depends entirely on sub­stance … but all the oranges did come up on Mailer’s side, didn’t they?”

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Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: “The whole thing was about 10 years too late … give Norman my condolences for failing to make the ‘political enemies’ list.”

Patricia Bosworth (Saturday Review): “When Watergate broke, I thought, Jesus Christ, it’s prophetic time!”

Pete Hamill: “I still think (the Fifth Estate) would become just another bureaucracy. Re­member, it was two police report­ers, supported by a courageous publisher (Kay Graham) and edi­tor (Ben Bradlee), who broke this case. You always have to go back to the ball-busting, lonely report­er on the beat, digging and probing … I hope they take those bastards (the Watergaters) and lock every one of them up, and they can dust off Alger Hiss’s old cell for Chuck Colson, then we’ll have the Berrigan brothers say a farewell mass for the whole rotten bunch.”

Dotson Rader: “The point I knew Mailer was on to something was when he said a nation can tol­erate any crime except the theft of its history, and that’s what was going on, that was the great crime … suddenly, I felt he saw things differently … but after the party there was a general feeling around New York that Norman Mailer was nuts, and getting nut­tier, poor old Norman, he shouldn’t drink so much … the journalists I talked to put Mailer down, some of them I viciously, and most of them said Watergate was nothing, it would blow away.”

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***

For most of his professional life, Mailer has had an adversary relationship with the press, and I guess that’s as it should be. It doesn’t bother him, it more stimu­lates and amuses him. About a year and a half ago, I did an inter­view with Norman which was bought by Penthouse but, for reasons unknown, never pub­lished. One question and answer we eventually cut out, because it didn’t fit into the final theme of the interview  has always fascinated me, and I think it may apply here.

Interviewer: “Stephen Rojack (‘An American Dream’) says: ‘God’s engaged in a war with the Devil, and God may lose.’ Throughout your work is the theme of the struggle between God and the Devil, and you once said, ‘I have some obsession with how God exists. Is He an essential god or an existential god; is he all-powerful or is He, too, an embattled existential creature who may succeed or fail in His visions?’ This remains a per­vasive theme in our work.”

Mailer: “It may even go all the way back to ‘The Naked and the Dead,’ sometimes I think it does, at that point pretty much unbeknownst to the young author. Crit­ics for years felt I was a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who could eat a sandwich (rye bread) in a delicatessen with no more pain than any of them, with as much gusto, and I might even give the same look of annoyance to the waiter if he frailed to bring the second helping of pickles. I’ve sat around and had love fests with these critics over pastrami — Rahv, Podhoretz, all of them. It’s a most real part of myself. It’s not everybody that can say they come from Brooklyn. There are areas of the world that are blessed a little, and areas that are cursed a little. The Brooklyn I knew in my childhood was blessed, just a bit, it wasn’t a bad place. Most of the people I grew up with in that middle-class environment have gone on to various kinds of professional and commercial and technological jobs that allow not that much romance and certainly not that much religious feeling in their life. And they know that I’m one of them. They’re comfortable with me, and I’m comfortable with them — not altogether comfortable, because I think they’re people who insisted on being a little emptier, sillier, and smaller than they had to be. They really think it’s some kind of outrageous put-on I’m engaging in when I talk about God and the Devil. You know, ‘What’s old Normie talking about God and the Devil for? Fun’s fun, but pass the pickles!'”

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As with his friends and the cri­tics, so with the press. The adver­sary relationship he continues to nourish. As others will not forgive him his concern “with the romantic and mysterious all” (as Norman puts it), so the press at­tacks him for his conspiratorial view of American history.

But Norman maintains his perspective. I talked with him on June 30 as he was passing through New York after having spent the week in Washington at the Water­gate hearings.

“I wasn’t too upset,” he said about the press coverage last February. “Listen, I was so down on myself that night that they could have said anything. I knew the height of the hurdle, and I missed. I gave them a free ride.”

I reminded him that he had been much more coherent at the press conference, but nobody seemed to be listening.

“I was annoyed, not surprised,” he said. “Whether you’re good or bad, that’s the place to shine. But you can talk at your best for an hour, and they’ll wait for the one line that will damage you. I went on at some length, and thought I was even eloquent at one point, but look at what happened.”

What about the future of the Fifth Estate?

“From the beginning, I knew the Fifth Estate would never succeed if it was going to be a big balloon I had to inflate with a bi­cycle pump. It just wouldn’t work. But I still think there’s a function for it, when Watergate is over, when we’ve digested it. Look at what Woodward and Bernstein accomplished. A continuing inves­tigation can break a powerful gov­ernmental institution, with ex­traordinary results. There’s a function for the Fifth Estate, but we’ll have to wait, now.”

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Mailer hasn’t decided what he may or may not write about Wa­tergate. “Sitting through it was an ordeal. In person, the hearings were dull, boring. I haven’t made up my mind what I want to do about them. I’m still thinking about it. I don’t know how I feel yet.”

When I first thought about writing this piece, I kept searching through Mailer’s writing for something that would most appro­priately apply to Watergate. Then I found it, that nerve-shattering epigraph in “The Deer Park,” taken from Mouffle D’Anger­ville’s “Vie Privee de Louis XV”:

“… the Deer Park, that gorge of innocence and virtue in which were engulfed so many victims who when they returned to society brought with them depravity, de­bauchery, and all the vices they naturally acquired from the in­famous officials of such a place. Apart from the evil which this dreadful place did to the morals of the people, it is horrible to calculate the immense sums of money it cost the state… To this must be added the gratuities presented to those who were not successful in arousing the jaded passions of the sultan but had nonetheless to be paid for their submissions, for their discretion, and still more for their being eventually despised.”

Caesar may be alive and well, biding his time. We have been warned. ❖

1973 Village Voice article by Norman Mailer about the press during the Watergate era

1973 Village Voice article by Norman Mailer about the press during the Watergate era

1973 Village Voice article by Norman Mailer about the press during the Watergate era

1973 Village Voice article by Norman Mailer about the press during the Watergate era

1973 Village Voice article by Norman Mailer about the press during the Watergate era

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From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

How Rudy Giuliani Took the Media for a Ride

SUNDAY’S PRETAPED in­terview with Gabe Press­man on WNBC-TV’s Newsforum was Rudolph Giuliani’s first little-­screen appearance since the candidate placed himself under the tute­lage of Roger Ailes. You remember him: the sleaze-master who ter­rorized America into vot­ing Republican last year when his propaganda turned the presidential election into a referendum on street crime and the death penalty by playing fast and loose with the truth. Almost every Ailesian campaign has fa­vored media-bashing as a technique to distract the electorate’s attention from any weaknessess in his candidate’s record (and, in the process, intimidate the press); recall when The Des Moines Reg­ister and Dan Rather were attacked for their too-pointed Contragate questions by George Bush, who thus succeeded in burying the scandal as a campaign issue? Well, Rudy certainly proved himself an apt pupil on Sunday, snarling through his rented smile that a hostile press was making mountains out of prosecutorial molehills as he tried to pooh-pooh away the reams of reputation-puncturing copy heaped on his head by the tabloids last week over the failed Kidder, Peabody prosecution and his office’s alleged “Nazi” tactics.

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It’s a strange complaint, considering the source, for until he started shooting himself in the foot with great regularity, Giuliani benefited from an elegiac media reception of a kind not seen in this town since the salad days of an equally arro­gant prosecutor, Thomas E. Dewey (when the Republicans who owned nine of the city’s then 11 newspapers touted Dewey for president although he was not yet 40). Even before he had formally an­nounced his candidacy, Rudy’s sweet­heart relationship with the press spawned a wet-kiss orgy of free publicity the likes of which even Ron Lauder’s mother’s millions couldn’t buy.

Examples: There was City for Sale, an almost entirely uncritical celebration of Giuliani’s prosecutions of municipal cor­ruption by Daily News editor-columnist Jack Newfield and Voice political writer Wayne Barrett that owed much of its insiderish tone to the avid cooperation of Giuliani and his longtime prosecutorial sidekick and press manager, Dennison Young Jr. (who, as Jacob Javits’s former legislative counsel, could scarcely be considered a political novice). The book, published at the beginning of the year, has served as something of a campaign biography for Giuliani. Gail Sheehy weighed in with an embarrassing act of journalistic fellatio in the August 1987 issue of Vanity Fair, “Heaven’s Hit Man” (“As passionate as he is about making crooks pay, he cannot sleep for seeing the faces of their suffering families” — I won­der how they fact-checked that one). Life produced a worshipful January 1988 pro­file called “Let’s Hear It for the Good Guys.” And, in a January 1989 Newsday column, Jimmy Breslin, who has made a career out of puffing up candidates on whom he also presses his services as a closet adviser, proclaimed that “the elec­tion [is] past history … Giuliani has won the 1989 New York City mayorality race. He does not beat Koch because Koch does not run.”

Pride of place in the front ranks of those pimping for Rudy belongs to New York magazine. In May of 1987, there was a cover touting Giuliani-as-crimebuster, but its headline, “GOTCHA!”(familiar to recent New York Post readers) was inept for this oh-so-promotional transcript of a Q and A with Rudy (one of the few politi­cians in recent memory accorded such a nonthreatening platform by the mag). His self-aggrandizing White Knightery was left untouched in the spread’s 13 pages by the nerf-ball questions of a criminally unsophisticated Nancy Col­lins. But the worst was to come: in anoth­er eight-page cover story this March, Joe Klein — New York‘s condohead purveyor of middle-class race paranoia — per­formed contortions worthy of the Kama Sutra in order to let Rudy off the hook. Indeed, Klein seemed to have fantasies of himself as Rudy’s Eddie Futch: “Giuliani agreed to explore his views on urban is­sues with the understanding that this would be a spring-training sort of inter­view — he hadn’t yet announced his candidacy and was still formulating his posi­tions on a number of important issues. I agreed to keep the gloves on.”

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Can you imagine any other pol being annointed with such deferential treatment? When a journalist agrees in advance not to ask tough questions — in ef­fect, to simulate a real interview in order to help the candidate decide what he thinks (or thinks is palatable) — he be­comes half-courtier, half-catamite. How­ever, the shameless Klein is far from the only opinion-monger in town to have served as willing accessory to the careful cultivation of Rudy’s image. The Voice ran a highly flattering cover story in Jan­uary by Joe Conason in which the only major incident from Rudy’s government service recounted in detail was a lauda­tory one. The article was based not on any independent investigations, but on a long interview in which, as Conason admitted, “Giuliani declined to answer spe­cific questions about running for mayor, the deficiencies of the current mayor, or what he would do if he became mayor.” The only subjects the filibustering Giu­liani wanted to discuss were those putting him in a good light, and the Voice went along with the charade.

More parlor games: Remember last September’s articles alleging state comptroller Ned Regan traded on his position as trustee of New York’s pension fund to obtain campaign contributions from Wall Street (a story broken in the Daily News by Jack Newfield and Tom Robbins and in the Voice by Rick Hornung)? Giuliani, no doubt envisioning another easy notch on his prosecutorial gun, couldn’t wait to open an investigation. Neither could Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau. What happened next is related by Connie Bruck in her March 1989 American Law­yer profile of Giuliani (the best-reported I’ve come across): “According to a lawyer in Morgenthau’s office, ‘Rudy jumped right into it early on. They subpoenaed records. They said, ‘It’s our case.’ Then, on December 28, Newfield wrote in the News that Morgenthau had decided to impanel a grand jury to investigate Re­gan’s fundraising practices. About mid­way through the article, Newfield added that Giuliani was withdrawing from the case and turning his evidence over to Morgenthau.

“This was news to Morgenthau’s office. Giuliani’s office had given no indication that they ‘wanted out,’ says a lawyer in the D.A.’s office. Regan is, of course, a Republican, and many of the contributors who are being investigated are doubtless those Giuliani would be soliciting should he run … Having already made a mortal enemy of [Al] D’Amato, Giuliani could ill afford to alienate any more of the Repub­lican state network. Newfield, a long-time Giuliani booster, gave Giuliani a graceful exit.”

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The press’s bounty to Rudy was, of course, entirely self-serving. In his five-and-a-half-year free ride with the media as U.S. attorney, press conferences and press releases­ — the exception under Robert Fiske Jr., Giuliani’s straight-arrow predecessor — ­became mandatory rituals, while motions calling for investigations of leaks from his office have rained on the Southern Dis­trict in the cases that have collared a lot of media attention. Leaks jeopardize a defendant’s right to a fair trial, and the deontology of the federal judicial system requires a U.S. attorney to set standards for his subordinates which demonstrate that such trampling on our constitutional guarantees is intolerable.

That ain’t our Rudy: as Philip Weiss noted in a sharp-tongued November 1988 Spy profile, “Gerald Stern, the director of the State Commission on Judicial con­duct, says Giuliani has often violated eth­ical standards on pretrial publicity at his ‘circus-like’ press conferences. When ho­teliers Harry and Leona Helmsley were indicted for tax evasion last spring, the news of the grand jury’s decision was leaked to the New York Post a day early. The Helmsleys complained, and at his press conference announcing the charges, Giuliani vowed to investigate the ‘alleged grand jury leaks.’ (Minutes earlier, though, he had lavished praise on the Post reporter covering the Helmsleys for scoops that had expedited the case). Nothing came of the promised investigation.”

A report on the rise in leaks by the city bar association’s committee on criminal law last year whitewashed Giuliani, say­ing there were too many investigative agencies involved to finger any one. Dennison Young, Rudy’s longtime press handler in the U.S. attorney’s office, was a member of the committee that wrote the report (although he says he fastidi­ously abstained from voting on the final version).

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Collusion between prosecutors and the press can not only pollute a jury trial but lead to the maligning of the innocent, as was demonstrated by last week’s drop­ping of the insider-trading charges filed two and a half years ago against those three executives in the Kidder, Peabody case whom Rudy had dragged out of their offices in handcuffs. It was one of his most notorious cases, and, at the time of the arrest, the paparazzi had been tipped off, with the result that photos of the unlucky arbitrageurs in their mana­cles were Page One stuff across the coun­try. (One of the three, Robert Freeman, has now pled guilty to a charge wholly unrelated to the original.) As Robert Reno, one of Giuliani’s few acerbic critics in the city dailies, noted in his Friday Newsday column, this feverishly pre­pared case was part of Giuliani’s “suc­cessful race with Pope Gregory IX for the title of most effective inquisitor in histo­ry, a contest that turned out to be the preliminary round of his mayoral cam­paign … [But] lightning arrests and handcuffing of nonviolent citizens is as repulsive a way to run for mayor as using the actions of a homicidal rapist is a shameful way to get to be president.” (No wonder Ailes and Rudy get along).

There’s a line much used by Giuliani in his campaign stump speech: “Don’t let them tell you what they’re going to do, ask them to tell you what they’ve already done.” But what the dropping of the Kid­der, Peabody case demonstrates is that the press went AWOL when it came to looking at Rudy’s record. Connie Bruck is one of the few reporters who did: she interviewed 55 lawyers and federal judges. What did she find? A consensus that Rudy has “an ambition so raw and consuming that that which sustains it is embraced willy-nilly, that which does not directly feed it is neglected, and that which runs counter to it is earmarked for destruction.” (That could also serve as a fairly accurate description of Ed Koch.)

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Rudy’s lust for power explains the inor­dinate amount of time he devoted to stroking journalists. Bruck harvested in­numerable complaints from former Giu­liani staffers: “‘There was an untoward concern for how our prosecutorial judg­ments would play in the press … the more newsworthy our cases were, the more attention they got from Rudy.’ … ‘[Under Rudy’s predecessors, press releases were] no big deal. When Rudy came, he brought in Young, and Denny would review press releases as though they were indictments. He’d cross out as­sistants’ names and put Rudy’s in. Denny had a phenomenal devotion to press re­leases.’ … ‘[Rudy] spent more time with reporters than with [his] assistants.’ ”

By running his office as if it were a subsidiary of Hill and Knowlton, Giuliani was able to reward the flatterers while slighting the too-critical, thus maintain­ing the reporters who covered him in a carefully controlled client relationship. Steve Brill, the editor of The American Lawyer, says: “At each one of his press conferences there was just one script­ — Rudy’s —with one good guy — Rudy — and a bad guy, the one whose name was on the indictment. It was a setup, especially for TV. I’ve made my living off the reality that general, typical reporting about the criminal justice system is nonsense, ridic­ulous, too accepting of these very easy definitions of who the good and bad guys are. Take the guy who covered Rudy for years for the Times, Arnold Lubasch: what a slug. The Voice, the Times, every­body rolled over for Giuliani at every press conference. This can give you a swelled head: at least six friends of mine who are actively working in the campaign say Rudy has told them he expects to be president one day.”

The average reporter is a cop-junkie at heart anyway, but Rudy’s PR style (orchestrated by Young, Giuliani’s Michael Deaver) meant that the prosecutor had a lot of chits to call in when he declared for mayor. There isn’t a paper in town that isn’t in some way indebted to Giuliani for filling its columns with sexy stories. As for Rudy’s bleatings about how Ron Lau­der bought himself $6 million worth of airtime, there squeaks a man who’s used to as many soundbites on the nightly news as he wants, all for free, and all on his own terms.

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It’s because he’s so unused to media criticism that Rudy has turned angry at the scribes who used to collect his toenail clippings. No paper in town has given Giuliani more ink than the New York Post. But editor Jerry Nachman has transformed himself from just a little-friend-to-all-the-world columnist of piffle into a circulation-building Wyatt Earp who sees his city room as the OK Corral (and who knows how to curtsey to his publisher’s Board of Estimate moral­ity that dotes on Koch, the landlord’s pathic).

The result could only be last Friday’s screaming headlines: “Auschwitz survivor charges: RUDY’S MEN ACTED LIKE NA­ZIS.” The story — written by Nachman with recently rehired Post investigations editor Fred Dicker — involved the com­plaint of one Simon Berger, a sexagenar­ian purveyor of locks. He’d been indicted by Giuliani for having allegedly forked over backsheesh to win a lock contract with the city’s Housing Authority — if true, a peccadillo for a small merchant made cynical by too much familiarity with the world’s cruelty, but hardly one to excite the masses. Berger, in Nach­man’s tear-drenched account, was seated by Giuliani’s minions in front of a scribble-covered blackboard on which one could read the words, Arbeit macht frei. In the end, the lock-vendor happily found himself on the outside looking in: Berger was acquitted.

In terms of the future governance of this city, Newsday put the more mean­ingful story on its front page that day: the dismissal of the Kidder, Peabody in­dictments. (Despite the Post‘s touting of its blackboard story as an “exclusive,” Newsday had court papers that provided all the relevant facts; what the Post had — live and weeping on South Street­ — was Berger. Newsday ran its story at the bottom of page three with the sedate head, “Holocaust ‘Reminder’ Claimed”). Even Post columnist Pete Hamill admits to being disturbed by his paper’s Fleet Street-style flagellation of Giuliani: “When you’re going to use that word Nazi, you’d better be very careful. At least it should have been in quotes — that would have taken a little of the sting out of it. After all, to be arrested at 7:00 in the morning is not exactly to get a whiff of Zyklon-B.”

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Rudy, who has already dropped at least 17 points with Jewish voters, according to one poll, hardly needed a week like this. But is he being “set up,” as he claimed to Gabe Pressman on Sunday’s Newsforum? Jimmy Breslin, who with­drew from Giuliani’s advisory circle when Rudy expressed his desire to import Ailes and extradite Joe Doherty, doesn’t think so. “If he’s afraid of the Post, how’s he going to be mayor?” barks Breslin. “Who did this? Some federal agent? Is the guy still on the job scaring Jews? Who the fuck would know German like that? I’ll betcha some kid prosecutor. I don’t even know the goddamn German. If they didn’t make a real investigation, then they’re part of it. Rudy’s getting his comeuppance.”

The print players are lining up: every sentient reader knows that the Times and the Post are for the mayor; that Newsday is trying to figure out if it has the guts to endorse a black candidate; that the Voice —  too late to do any real good — will stumble toward Dinkins; and that the News, confused, will write its editorial with one eye on the circulation figures. But the whole race is on television­ — where Giuliani has a large residual Q fac­tor from the white-hat days when he fed defendants to the cameras. If Rudy final­ly does get his real comeuppance in November, we can only pray that it isn’t delivered by Ed Koch. ■

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Media NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Journalists at Play: the (MORE) the Merrier?

This year’s (MORE) Convention con­tained a number of serious elements:

  • the image and employment of women
  • the press and Indochina
  • the Indian movement
  • public broadcasting
  • minority coverage
  • the CIA
  • the nursing home scandal
  • self-censorship
  • conglomerates and book publishing
  • investigative reporting

But anyone who thinks the (MORE) Con­vention is a serious event in itself might consider that at this year’s gathering it was also possible to:

  • see three movies
  • meet Judy Collins
  • dance to the music of the Deadly Nightshade
  • get drunk every day without moving out­side the conference area
  • get hit in the face with a whipped cream pie
  • take a mallet and test your “Media Heavi­ness” on a device patterned after a test­-your-strength machine at a carnival
  • get stoned on not one but three drugs simultaneously, to the point at which the entire convention became a hallucinative blur.

So much for seriousness.

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(MORE) has been holding its annual A.J. Liebling Counter-Convention for four years now. The first one had something of the excitement of a countercultural event. The second rode on the crest of the Woodward­-Bernstein revelations and had a speedy, hustling, status-conscious quality that some said was directly attributable to the conven­tion’s being held in Washington. The third, held last spring back in New York, was galvanized by the prospect of the impeach­ment hearings. If you were a journalist, you didn’t really want to be anywhere else any of those weekends.

This year’s convention started out with some of the same crackling atmosphere of expectation, but it never really jelled. There was no single issue, like Watergate or impeachment or Vietnam, to serve as a focus of energy and talk. If there is a single big story it’s probably the economy, and the press hardly has a grip on that. (The one panel that touched directly on the subject, a discussion of business reporting with Emma Rothschild, Chris Welles, Leonard Silk, and other, was thinly attended.) Maybe that’s why the convention this year felt more like a party than ever before, a big, busy party that doesn’t really go anywhere and that lasts a little too long.

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***

Thursday night 8 p.m. — I enter the Commodore and on the mezzanine level the first thing I see is Relaxation Plus, a handsomely appointed massage parlor that offers, among other things, the use of its “Exciting New Infinity Room.” According to some leaflets circulating around the convention registra­tion area some distance off, Relaxation Plus offers “magnificently provocative girls” and “an unparalleled bacchanal” with “the wildest fantasies and mirrored gardens.”

The ballroom and foyer area where the convention started out was more crowded than Relaxation Plus. About 200 people showed up, mostly women, and waited an hour to see the movie “Antonia.” The first person I saw was a woman from my old consciousness-raising group. The second was an old boyfriend. The third was another friend, a playwright whose contempt for journalism knows no bounds. Mildly amazed, I asked him if he was going to register. “Yeah,” he said. “I heard there were a lot of parties.”

A few minutes later Dick Pollack, the editor of (MORE), remarked, with some wonderment, that the New York Times had listed the convention in that day’s Going Out Guide. One imagines an update of the famous Arno cartoon; Midwestern tourist husband to Midwestern tourist wife: ”Oh look, mother, let’s go down to the Commodore and hiss the journalists.”

It is worth wailing for “Antonia.” Judy Collins and Jill Godmilow’s film about the conductor Antonia Brico and her frustration at not being able to get conducting jobs primarily because she’s a woman. “A violin­ist can at least play for himself, alone in his room,” says Antonia at one point, in fierce distress, “but the orchestra is my instrument.  If I can’t get jobs, I can’t play my instrument.” For a moment, the well-worn topic of sex discrimination takes on stinging reality. I leave immediately afterward, while everyone is waiting for Judy Collins to show up.

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Friday 11 a.m. — I have managed to sleep through the opening of the first day, and run into Bella Abzug, the keynote speaker, in the lobby. “Have you spoken,” I ask. “Of course I’ve spoken,” she says. “You missed me! I was first.” And then grinning, she says, “I’m always first,” and bustles out.

The women’s conference is held in a long room, with panelists at one end facing an audience of perhaps 300, nearly all women. I take notes, but they’re not worth repeating. The fact is, the women’s conference is dull. It’s essentially a rerun of the Women in Media conference held last December, which was good then but seems a little stale this time around. The broad topics, employment and image, are broad; discussion is necessarily superficial. In the employment panel, a half-dozen women from places like Newsweek, Newsday, and the Long Island Press report on the status of their various anti-discrimination suits; after awhile, one EEOC case sounds much like another. A lot of specific workshops would have been better, where people could argue and get some hard information and advice.

Also by setting up a separate day, Women in Media gave (MORE) an excuse to leave women out of most of the rest of the conference. On More’s program, the women’s panels aren’t even described, and a check of the rest of the program yields the following irritating statistics: out of 106 panelists, 86 are men; out of 20 panels, there is one all-woman panel, entitled “Invading Male Turf”; there are seven all-male panels none of which is entitled “Invading Female Turf.” The (MORE) Convention, this year more than last, looks, as one woman reporter said, “male and pale”; there is even a token panel on minority coverage called “Token Assignments.” Reading the program, one wonders what this self-styled “counter-convention” is supposed to be counter to.

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Friday 12 noon — Kathie Sarachild, a film editor and a founding member of Redstockings, one or the first radical women’s group, takes the open mike to announce that Redstockings is holding a press conference in an upstairs meeting room. The subject of the press conference, she says, will be “Gloria Steinem’s 10-year association with the CIA.”

What followed was one of the most bizarre and grim events I’ve ever witnessed. It was also perhaps the only actual news occur­rence the entire weekend, although the daily papers seem to have ignored it.

They weren’t the only ones. When Sara­child made her announcement, there was a stunned silence in the room, then some minor crowd buzz, then nothing. The next person in line for the mike took it and started talking. I think about unions, and the conference proceeded as before. Maybe it just didn’t interest them that a major radical feminist group was attacking the editor of Ms. maga­zine on serious political grounds; maybe it was just too weird to take. In any case, few people followed Sarachild out of the room.

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Upstairs, about 30 people gather to hear what Redstockings has to say, and to read the 16-page newspaper-format press release they’ve distributed with the headline “Restockings Discloses Gloria Steinem’s CIA Cover-up.” Five members of the group sit facing us and looking serious. Since many people in the room are aware of Steinem’s previously publicized CIA connection as director of a CIA-backed research foundation, the ironically named Independent Re­search Service which sent American students to world youth festivals in 1959 and 1962, someone asks what the Redstockings have that’s new. They say two things:

1) Steinem’s “Who’s Who” entry for 1968-69 lists current membership on the Board of Directors or the Independent Re­search Service and notes that she was its director from 1959-62. In the 1973-74 entry, there is no mention of her board membership through 1969 and the directorship is listed as lasting from 1959-60.

2) In a Times interview in 1967, Steinem is quoted as saying that in working with the CIA she was never asked “to report on other Americans or assess foreign nationals.”  Redstockings contrasts this note with an excerpt from the Research Service’s report on the Vienna Youth Festival in 1961, which lists brief political and biographical descriptions or a number of the participants.

As cover-ups go, this one seems to be small beer: the offending pamphlet is 14 years old, and dropping embarrassing infor­mation from one’s “Who’s Who” entry may not be candid, but it’s anybody’s preroga­tive.

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The press conference continues in a con­fused and slightly tense way. Someone final­ly asks if Redstockings is saying Steinem works for the CIA or that Ms. magazine is a CIA front (the press release makes reference to Ms.‘s “curious corporate financing”). Sarachild says no, they’re simply “raising questions” about that. There is a peculiar moment when someone asks if Redstockings has confronted Gloria Steinem with their information, and if not, why not. “We wanted to bring it to you first,” says one of the women, “since you as the press are the representatives of the people.” This is the first time I’ve ever heard a radical describe the press so kindly. The Redstockings insist that it is not their business to confront Stein­em, it’s the business of the press, and that’s why they’ve called the press conference.

Maybe so, but the whole thing has an unnecessary air of McCarthyism about it. What could have been a legitimate attack on Ms. and, for that matter, Steinem’s politics, which many radical feminists regard as frustratingly reformist and even reactionary, has been cast in such a way that it looks sly and paranoid. It also looks very personal. At one point, a woman in the audience suggests that because the 1967 Times article describes Steinem as a “30-year-old free­lance writer,” she lies about her age, and the Redstockings agree. (Steinem turned 40 this year, a fact she consciously publicized.) And the Redstockings describe Steinem’s career repeatedly as having been “made” by Clay Felker (whose job as an editor of the CIA-fi­nanced delegation’s newspaper at the 1962 Helsinki festival is made much of in this connection, although the Redstockings stop short of charging Felker with knowledge or the CIA involvement). Sad days, when fe­mininists can’t give a woman credit for her achievements — whatever they may feel about her politics — but must attribute them to a man.

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I prepare to leave, feeling depressed and wishing that one of the most important radical feminist groups in New York had chosen to announce its resurgence in a better way. Before I go, someone in the audience who knows l work at The Voice comes up and says, “Did you know you were working for the CIA,” No. I say, but I have in my hand a list of names …

Friday afternoon’s session of the Women’s Day is too much like Friday morning’s. Two interesting things happen. One is when Wilma Scott Heide, a kindly looking gray-haired woman who’s past president of NOW, calls for an action to temporarily sabotage one network — that is, put it off the air for awhile by zapping its transmitter. This is not what you expect from kindly looking gray-haired past presidents of NOW. When she asks who would be willing to work on such a project, about half the room stands up.

The other interesting thing was the pies. The afternoon panel is drawing to a close, and Marcia Dubrow, a reporter from Reuters, is making an announcement. Sud­denly her face is covered with whipped cream. There is movement at the dais: then another panelist’s face is covered with whipped cream. Then three women grab the microphone, shout ”We’re from the humor liberation front,” and run out of the room, spraying shaving cream on the walls as they go.

Wondering why women are throwing pies at other women when they could wait a day and throw them at men, I investigate. It turns out the pie throwers are advertising their forthcoming book, a collection of humor by women, which they are going to call “Titters.” Yuk yuk. I haven’t laughed so hard since the last time I stepped out of the house and slipped in a pile of my neighbor’s dog’s leavings.

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Friday night — dinner at the Oyster Bar with friends. We discuss the liberal elite bias of the (MORE) Convention. In addition to slighting women and various minority groups, (MORE) slights the Daily News, New York’s biggest newspaper. Ellen Cohn, a Sunday News magazine columnist mo­derating the Invading Male Turf panel, has taken a lot of ribbing from News colleagues, many of whom feel left out. No wonder. The New York Times has 16 representatives on (MORE) panels this year, the Washington Post six. The Voice four. The News has two, including Ellen; the New York Post has none. Neither the News nor the Post is represented on a panel called “Why the Working Man (sic) Hates the Media,” al­though those are the papers, of course, which most “working” people (as opposed to us idle executive types) read.

Later Friday night — two dimly lit, large rooms have been set up with bars, nightclub­ type tables with little lamps, and piped-in rock music. The Deadly Nightshade, a women’s rock band, will play later. I prepare to go home with a firmly fixed image in my mind of half the New York press corps and assorted freelancers standing around like sophomores at a college mixer. Then I run into some people I know and decide to stay; we spend the evening gossiping and standing around like sophomores at a college mixer.

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Saturday afternoon — I go to the critics panel to hear Pauline Kael, Jules Feiffer, and John Leonard talk about criticism under the mildly hilarious orchestration of moderator Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker. Feiffer sounds gloomy, announcing that “there is no such thing as seriousness anymore, no one takes criticism seriously, very little means anything to us anymore.” He considers this the effect of the war, which has numbed people’s minds and destroyed our sense of good guys and bad guys. “Criticism, like so much else in America,” he concludes. “has been Vietnamized. I want to welcome you all to San Clemente.” Kael jumps in immediately, dis­agreeing with everything Feiffer has said (“I think he must be speaking out of some very personal despair”) and doing it with such quivering intensity that it’s evident seriousness is alive and well. Then Leonard talks about the pressures on a daily book reviewer that makes reviewing “not exactly a noble calling” (this was aimed at Kael), but “more like the work of  a sports columnist.” Then they talk about the func­tion of the critic, and Feiffer takes issue with Kael’s remark about his personal despair, and it’s all pretty interesting. Most impor­tant, it does the one thing that a panel of writers talking should do: it makes you want to go home and write.

Outside, I run into a half-dozen people who say I’ve missed the best panel, in this case, the one on investigative reporting. I would worry, but people say this to each other at the (MORE) Convention every year.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724644″ /]

***

This year, the (MORE) Convention has something called a Media Midway set up in the lobby outside the meeting rooms. It consists of the following things:

  • a life-sized photographic cutout of Elaine Kaufman, the woman who owns Elaine’s, a status restaurant for writers and other famous people. Next to the cutout is a sign saying, “Get your picture taken with Elaine.”
  • A game called “Spot the Typos,” which features some pencil, and a couple of bedraggled copies of the New York Post.
  • A game called “Test Your Headlining Skill,” with copies of the Daily News for reference.
  • The aforementioned Media Heavy machine. For 50 cents, you take a mallet and hit a lever that will make a ball shoot up a chart. Depending on your heaviness, you may ring the gong at the top. At the top of the chart is “$500,000 Book Advance,” with “Pulitzer Prize” just below, and “White House Correspondent just below that. In the middle is “(MORE) Contributing Editor.” At the bottom, just below “Copyperson,” is “Rock Critic.” Nobody is testing his or her media heaviness while I’m around, but the gong has been going off all afternoon.

***

There are more panels until dinner time, but I miss them in order to talk to some women about the Redstockings­-Steinem business. One of the women reports that a number of radical feminists met the night before to discuss the aftermath of the press conference. There was a lot of ar­gument over the pros and cons of the Redstocking action, and it sounds like a good meeting. I’m cheered simply to hear that radical feminists are meeting again

[related_posts post_id_1=”595776″ /]

***

Saturday evening — After dinner, a party, the location of which has been posted on the bulletin board. The party, in case anybody asks, was not put on by (MORE). Refreshments were joints, hash brownies, and balloons or nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide makes you feel blissful and induces a mild trance. The party had some of the atmo­sphere of a friendly opium den, with people sitting around looking dreamy.

After about an hour of this, I go back down to see Studs Terkel get the annual A.J. Liebling Award and to hear the big Saturday night panel. This time it’s on self-censorship, and the star lineup includes Brit Hume, Carl Bernstein, and Dan Rather. The panel is well under way when the hash brownie suddenly hits with a vengeance. I concentrate on staying upright in my chair, while the panelists talk turns to gibberish in my ears. I ask a clear-headed companion if the panelists are being interesting. “No,” he says, “they’re being boring.” Then I ask him if there isn’t an odd roaring noise in the room, praying that he will say yes so I can stop wondering if the roaring noise is just the sound of my brain disintegrating. My brain is not disintegrating: the noise is the roar of the crowd, which is getting louder and louder and threatening to drown out the panel entirely. It seems the bar has opened halfway through the panel discussion, and peo­ple’s desire to party is overcoming their desire to learn about self-censorship. Finally, the roar wins, and the panel shuts down.

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A party follows, which is much like the party the previous evening. Dan Rather drifts by at one point, talking to someone. A dozen people surround him as he moves, hanging on every word like a school of hungry fish. They look as if any minute they might start taking eager bites out of him. Someone is introduced to me who says something pleasant about my work. I can’t for the life of me think what to say back: finally, after a long and ghastly silence, I remember that the words one says under these circumstances are “thank you.” I manage to get them out, but she’s looking at me funny, as well she might. I get another word out — “good-bye” — and then get the hell out of there so I can go home and sleep off the brownie. I remember the last time I was this stoned: (MORE) Convention 1973 Rolling Stone party. That time the culprit was California joints the size of cigars. Hallucinatory. Everyone’s cars turned to fur, and every time David Halberstam spoke, a podi­um seemed to form in front of him.

Sunday — Sunday is quiet and subdued. The Media Midway is dismantled, there are no bars in evidence. People go around to the various literature tables set up outside the meeting rooms and pick up free copies of things like Seven Days and the Soho Weekly News and a beautiful slick magazine called Lithopinion. A man distributes the Redstockings press release/newspaper.

Like a lot of other people, I drift in and out of all the panels. Jack Newfield and John Hess talk about the nursing home scandal. Gay Talese talks, rather solemnly, about sex and journalism; Nora Ephron and David Obst give discouraging advice to hopeful freelancers. All the panels are mildly interesting; none of them seems more than that, except the panel on the assassination of JFK. It is well attended, and when the famous Zapruder film is shown, the room goes still.

Outside, in the lobby, they’ve opened up the bar again.

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The Artist

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For Fox News, It’s a Long, Profitable Endgame

In fifteen years, when the paleontology of the Cable Age is complete, the ouster of O’Reilly rex from his 8 p.m. slot in the news business will feel like a footnote. Yes, he was the most powerful of the dinosaurs who roamed through the living rooms of America. Yes, he made ungodly money for a network that tolerated his outrageously predatory behavior.

But the meteor was coming for him anyway.

All the stories about Bill O’Reilly’s exit point to a generational and political shift at the top of Fox. Everyone agrees this was most likely the call of James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s 44-year-old successor. “It’s James Murdoch’s Fox News Now,” read the headline of longtime Murdoch-watcher Michael Wolff in his column in the Hollywood Reporter last week. The New York Times explained it as James’s “elaborate overhaul.”

The conventional wisdom says that James is a liberal (or at least far more so than his father) — and his wife, Kathryn, is even more liberal — and he wants to move Fox News to a more respectable middle lane of politics. Ergo, he’s happy to kill The O’Reilly Factor despite its high ratings. Another thread in that wisdom says that James is a Davos-era CEO, personally shocked by Fox News’s culture, which gave rise to the Roger Ailes and O’Reilly scandals. Either way the basic idea is that James Murdoch was so moved by the revelations of O’Reilly’s serial harassment that he had to put his foot down, profits be damned.

Indeed, at the moment the profits The O’Reilly Factor generates are probably substantial; his four-million-viewer audience is twice what Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s most viewed host, brings to her network.

James, though, doesn’t seem to be thinking much at all about those four million viewers. Detractors would say he doesn’t care much about Fox News, has buckled under pressure there and let the network’s top talent out the door. Just how vigorously did James’s Fox News try to keep rising star Megyn Kelly? How shocked could James have been by the news in the New York Times that Fox had paid out millions in settlements on O’Reilly’s behalf, and how did he sign the deal that now pays out O’Reilly as much as $25 million?

James Murdoch’s admirers, and many in the C-suites of other media companies, likely see him playing the long game. And in the long view, Fox News dominates a market that is about to go off a cliff.

When Roger Ailes founded Fox News with Rupert Murdoch, the basic principle they grasped was the raw power of television to become the intimate political adviser to millions, right inside their living rooms. The reigning wisdom among the future-is-now CEO types James hangs around with is that cable news is basically a dead letter.

James, who is reportedly building his own off-the-grid survival compound in Canada and is a great friend of Elon Musk, is obviously a fan of the long game. And like many who would be visionary leaders of global corporations, he sees himself not as a caretaker but as something much bigger. For people invested in the long game in media, cable news — with its linear, watch-it-now-or-you’ll-miss-it distribution model and its reliance on carriage deals with ancient cable companies — is maladapted to the next epoch. The only hope for them is to attach their brand names to the new distribution models of the information age, so that there is a business to continue when the old audience, who could be counted on to slip a thumb into the familiar groove of channel 44 on the remote, melts away.

Much of the energy that once went to Fox, James seems to be pouring into National Geographic. Yes, that’s the yellow-bordered magazine with all the pictures and maps. It’s also a cable channel and a documentary powerhouse, and a global brand. Though National Geographic struggled along with the rest of the media, it has three things going for it that are like ambrosia to a modern media mogul: a paying, global audience; a product that can work across television, streaming video, print, and even big-budget movies; and a message that seems immune to political and social differences among viewers.

Sleepy old National Geographic is now Instagram’s most followed account not attached to a celebrity. Murdoch and the leadership at National Geographic have had Leonardo DiCaprio make them a documentary. They recruited Ron Howard and Brian Grazer for a $20 million miniseries about Mars, with tie-ins to books and digital spin-offs. Reportedly in the works is a collaboration with Steven Spielberg.

Meanwhile, at Fox News, the jewel in the crown, there have been better benefits, protections for trans employees, and (long overdue) changes in workplace culture. All good. But there is no big realignment as you see periodically at other cable networks, no highly publicized effort at a digital-first network, no major new developments in streaming or nonlinear TV.

The outsize influence of Fox News on the Republican electorate, and on the cable news–obsessed president, obscures that it is already a fading property. Fox has not even made much effort to get marquee names to fill its newly empty chairs. O’Reilly’s spot will be taken by Tucker Carlson, hired months before O’Reilly was jettisoned, not a net gain for the network. Tellingly, there is no replacement for Kelly, the anchor who in the old regime was supposed to be the network’s chief hope of attracting younger viewers into the next decade — if, that is, young viewers will be watching cable news in the next decade at all.

To that last question, James Murdoch’s answer seems to be “I don’t think so.” No, he isn’t planning to take Fox to the center (unless he can be sure to take the audience with him), nor does he seem to be gearing up to innovate the hell out of it. The pace of change there will likely pick up over the next few months — the network’s bête noire, journalist and Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman, tweeted Monday that at least two more lawsuits were likely to come to light this week.

The kind of change we’re seeing at Fox News, however, will continue to be reactive. If the past is any indication, the changes will be ones that remove troublesome elements and heal the wound quickly and efficiently. If that continues, Fox will diminish, slowly, as James tries to extract whatever profit he can while building up the parts of 21st Century Fox in which he has more faith.

There can be little doubt the recent New York Times coverage of his sexual harassment settlements was the reason O’Reilly lost his gig, and no doubt that the toxic newsroom culture he and his former mentor Ailes exemplified is fading to black. But so is the whole television business that was so new and full of possibility to Murdoch père and Ailes.

 

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Trump’s Least Dignified Apparatchik Survives Again

Back in February, before Passover and the “Holocaust centers,” less than three weeks after the inauguration, the press was already reporting that the president could be looking for a new spokesman.

“A longtime Republican operative, Sean Spicer is a close ally of White House chief of staff Reince Priebus,” CNN’s Jim Acosta observed before lining up an anonymous source to confirm to him that “Trump is upset with Priebus over the selection of Spicer for arguably the administration’s most visible position, next to the president.”

By that time, we’d already gotten the travel “not ban” ban and Melissa McCarthy’s withering impersonation of “Spicey.” Impromptu cellphone searches of Spicer’s staff came later that month. Despite all this, Sean Spicer is still there, still the president’s spokesman, still taking the podium. What gives?

Acosta did have it right that Spicer is an ally of Priebus. In fact, while Spicer may be new to the television audience, when he came in he was already familiar to the press, having become the chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee back in 2011. Most reporters who worked with him will tell you it’s not that hard to get him on the phone, or to get him to answer questions. The only problem was he was sure to call and yell about the piece afterward.

That, in capsule, decodes Spicer’s resilience as a press spokesman: In a White House that has made beating up the fourth estate official policy, Spicer, along with a number of other press officers and anonymous officials, gives reporters what they need (the getting on the phone part) while giving his bosses what they want (the yelling part).

Last week offered less headline-grabbing but more illustrative moments than just the Holocaust mess. It saw several stunning reversals of key policy positions Trump had advanced during his campaign. What might have been a short, newsless week was anything but for Spicer, even if the whole Assad-Hitler thing had never happened.

After bashing NATO on the campaign trail and giving agita to European allies, Trump changed his tune. “I said it was obsolete,” he said during a visit from NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg. “It’s no longer obsolete.”

Here’s how that played out in the press room: “I think, respectfully, I think you can look at what you’re referring to as a shift in a lot of ways,” Spicer told the press corps. “And by that I mean I saw a couple instances with respect to NATO being one of those shifts, and if you look at what’s happened, it’s those entities or individuals in some cases or issues evolving toward the president’s position.”

Writing about Spicer’s rhetorical gymnastics in the Atlantic, David A. Graham asks what the role of a presidential spokesman could possibly be: It is, he offers, “surely to defend whatever the president says his policy is right now. If even his own spokesman can’t understand and explain that, how is anyone else to do so?”

The answer is: Nobody can. But how many people can stand at a podium and tell the world that our president’s positions never change — it’s the rest of the world that changes?

The fact is, the White House press briefing is important not so much for whatever new information might emerge from it. Serious reporters save their questions for the seemingly endless parade of off-the-record interviews White House insiders are giving about everything from the president’s TV-watching habits to deep policy divides to infighting among rival camps in the West Wing. The briefing is more like a formal record of what the administration’s official line is on any given major topic at any given moment.

So what happens when there is no official position? Or the official position is self-contradictory? You get a spokesman unsuccessfully trying to navigate to the end of a briefing with whatever self-respect he can muster, and answers bizarre enough that they liberate the press corps from having to take them seriously.

The president switches his position overnight, Spicer gives his non-explanation. Reporters can write their dispatches on the NATO meeting and Trump’s “evolution” (i.e., flip-flop) without worrying that they need to seriously account for Spicer’s comments. McCarthy then makes fun of it all on Saturday Night Live.

Even the president gets what he requires, and why should he want more? A president who won with a campaign that was impervious to facts and dismissive of expert knowledge doesn’t really need a spokesman who will correct the image of a White House that runs on the same principles. No, he needs a spokesman who will amplify the blustering confidence of the president. Which Spicer does, at great cost to his own dignity.

It almost seems like we get each other now, the press and Spicer. In a weird kind of way, it’s working just fine.

By the time McCarthy returned on Saturday, it was almost difficult not to feel bad for the guy.

“Y’all got your wish this week, didn’t you, huh? Spicey finally made a mistake,” McCarthy’s Spicer, “sweating my Easter eggs off” in a giant bunny suit, tells the briefing room. After stumbling through the rest of the thing, bathed in that characteristic flop sweat, he makes his way back to the topic of the “Holocaust centers” and that famous dictator he’d awkwardly compared to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

“I am sensitive to the fact that they were sent there on trains, but hey, at least they didn’t have to fly United, am I right?”

Instantly he looks down, shaking his head and muttering, almost to himself, “Hunh, dang. That one jumped — that one just jumped right out of me.”

 

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In de Blasio’s New York, Transparency Laws Mean Nothing

In 2013, a self-styled crusader set out to raise the alarm over a lack of transparency in New York government. “The City is inviting waste and corruption by blocking information that belongs to the public,” the crusader said, angered that officials were ignoring the mandates of New York’s Freedom of Information Law, and doing so with few consequences and no meaningful oversight. “We have to start holding government accountable when it refuses to turn over public records to citizens and taxpayers.”

The crusader in question was Bill de Blasio, who, almost exactly four years ago, as Public Advocate, issued a scathing report condemning government agencies across the city for their records on FOIL. During his time in City Hall, de Blasio’s words have come back to haunt him, as his administration has proved decidedly less transparent than he once promised. Publications from the New York Post to the New York Times have criticized his reflexive secrecy — and sometimes taken him to court over it.

Now a wide-ranging survey of city agencies by the Village Voice has found that the problems de Blasio himself identified in his 2013 report remain unaddressed as the mayor heads toward the close of his term. A review of thousands of pages of FOIL records shows the city’s system for handling public information requests remains haphazard, under-resourced, and often excruciatingly slow. And the mayor’s own office is the slowest of all.

FOIL, when it operates well, provides a critical window into the functioning of government. In just the past few months, records obtained under the law have exposed how Donald Trump profited from the same kinds of energy efficiency subsidies he now attacks, and how lax enforcement allows bad nurses to thrive in New York State. Just last month the de Blasio administration lost a FOIL lawsuit brought by NY1 that saw the mayor’s office attempting to shield the release of emails from so-called agents of the city — a dispute that continues and has helped reveal the close relationships between the mayor’s office and developers. Beyond journalism, FOIL allows the public to pry open government’s black box and see how officials act in their name.

In April 2016, the Voice contacted two dozen city agencies seeking a copy of their FOIL logs — spreadsheets used to track the receipt and disposition of information requested under state law. The goal was to find out how transparent agencies were about their FOIL procedures and how fast, on average, they responded to requests from the public. To do so, we evaluated them in two stages: first, how quickly (or — in some cases — if) they responded to the request for the logs; and second, on the data those logs contained.

Major problems surfaced the moment the project began. In submitting our requests, we found a hodgepodge of contact points. Some agencies, like the FDNY and NYPD, only accepted FOIL requests via snail mail, a violation of state law. Some asked for requests via email, while others accepted requests only through web forms. Some publicly listed the names and addresses of FOIL officers; many others didn’t. (A new online portal, fully operational in the past year, means records can be requested electronically for all agencies, according to the mayor’s office. More on that system later.)

While you might expect the mayor’s office to be attentive to what de Blasio has called a critical government function, it was actually among the slowest, producing its log only after 84 days. The Administration for Children’s Services was slowest of all, at 183.

Most prompt were the Department of Emergency Management and the Taxi and Limousine Commission, both of which produced their FOIL logs in under 5 days. But on average, it took 64.8 days to fulfill what should have been a simple request. And that average doesn’t include the agencies that ignored us entirely: Six of them, including the FDNY and Department of Correction, never responded at all, as of the end of our survey period, on March 17. (Some have since produced the requested records after being notified about this article.)

Norman Siegel, a prominent civil rights attorney who has spent a career tangling over public records (and who has represented the Voice in FOIL matters), expressed little surprise at our results. Some city agencies are so notorious for stonewalling FOIL requests that he and others have simply stopped trying.

“My experience is that the FDNY and the NYPD, for example, they thumb their nose at FOIL law,” Siegel says. “And that’s unacceptable.”

When we analyzed the logs themselves, we discovered that the mayor’s slow response to our request was not an anomaly. The logs showed that de Blasio’s office has the second slowest response time of any agency in the city. The mayor’s office took an average of 66 days to respond to FOIL requests from the public, more than double the 31-day combined average for other agencies.

Natalie Grybauskas, a City Hall spokesperson, defended their record.

“We take our FOIL obligations seriously and endeavor to respond to all requesters promptly,” she told the Voice via email. She pointed out that the mayor’s office is often on the receiving end of complex requests — email chains that can stretch back years, for example — something that might be less common, she argued, at other agencies. “Many requests [received by City Hall] are expansive and open-ended,” she wrote. “Under the FOIL statute, we are required to review each individual document to prevent release of personal information or something that may harm the public welfare.”

As Grybauskas points out, it can be difficult to compare response times for various agencies. But according to Bob Freeman, director of the state Committee on Open Government and one of FOIL’s original drafters, that shouldn’t matter all that much.

“I understand that they have other things to do and this may not be at the top of their list of priorities,” Freeman says. But too often, he adds, agencies say short staffing keeps them from following up with what is, after all, state law. “Compliance with FOIL is a governmental obligation,” Freeman notes.

Many requests to City Hall — the mayor’s daily schedule, for instance — were straightforward, and were often closed in a day or two. But others dragged interminably. Thirty-nine percent of requests took more than 60 days, and 17 percent took more than 120 days. A few took nearly a year.

Analysis of the FOIL logs from other agencies yields results all over the map. Average response times ranged from 3.6 days to 69 days, with just over half of the agencies in the survey coming in under the 30-day mark. That disparity was one of the primary problems identified in de Blasio’s 2013 report.

Because of inconsistent recordkeeping, our survey has significant limitations. Most agencies don’t record whether a request was denied or fulfilled. Redactions to some of the records also varied wildly. Some agencies redacted the names of requesters, some redacted only a few names here and there, and some didn’t redact anything.

Even that suggests a problem, Freeman says. “Our general view is that the request itself is public, including the identity of the applicant,” he says, except in extraordinary circumstances. If someone requests documents related to personal medical information, for example, that could be properly redacted. But many agencies went far beyond that.

The NYPD’s logs were among the least complete of the agencies that responded — unsurprising, given that the department is routinely sued for noncompliance with FOIL and is notorious for knee-jerk denials of even clearly public records. (The NYPD did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Its logs demonstrated that opacity, often containing only vague, cursory descriptions of the records sought; “various documents” was frequently the only notation. The department also redacted the names of requesters entirely, making it impossible to say whether they were journalists, attorneys, victims of crimes, or even other law enforcement agencies. Beyond that, the logs contained obvious errors that throw their accuracy into doubt. One entry, for example, was listed as being processed and closed on September 5, nearly a month before it was received. In the end, the department had a comparatively good response time of 34 days, though that’s tempered significantly by all the recordkeeping muddle.

Last year, as part of an effort to streamline FOIL’s functioning, the de Blasio administration launched OpenRecords, a platform that allows requests to be submitted to any city agency from a single online portal. But OpenRecords still isn’t fully operational; all agencies currently accept requests through the site, but they may not respond through its automated system, according to Grybauskas.

When the Voice used OpenRecords to submit some of the requests for this project, we found the results weren’t appreciably faster. In fact, of the four agencies that took the longest to respond to our initial request — as long as 183 days, or nearly five months — all were contacted through the portal.

A common complaint of city agencies is that they lack the personnel to handle what seems to be an ever increasing volume of FOIL requests.

“I’ve had some FOILs where they say they need a year to get back to us,” Siegel said, speaking generally of city government. “When we pursue it, they say, ‘We don’t have the staff.’ My answer is: Get the staff. This is the law.”

We asked agencies how many people they had working on responses, but higher staffing levels didn’t always mean better performance. The Department of Correction, for example, said it had one attorney devoting about half their time to FOIL, along with two assistants, and six other lawyers devoting about 10 percent of their time. That’s more than a lot of agencies, and yet they ignored our FOIL back in April; a spokesperson later told the Voice that the main FOIL officer was on vacation when it arrived, and it somehow got lost in the shuffle. (The department has since complied.) According to Grybauskas, the mayor’s office has seven staffers handling FOIL, either full- or part-time, and one more full-time staffer on the way, and that didn’t seem to help them, either.

“My instinct is that people in government generally don’t take FOIL seriously, and they get away with not taking it seriously,” Siegel says. In that sense, nothing has changed since Public Advocate Bill de Blasio found most city agencies “in breach of law” in 2013.

There was a notable exception, however, in our survey. Even with a comparatively high volume of requests — more than two thousand over our survey period — the Taxi and Limousine Commission managed an average response time of under four days, far and away the best of the group.

Asked for her secret, Sonal Sahel, the TLC’s assistant general counsel, makes it sound pretty simple. Her office tries to focus on its “legal obligations pursuant to the FOIL statute,” she says.

“We don’t like to think of it as an option, I guess.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a chart erroneously stating that the Department of Transportation did not respond to our request for their FOIL log. In fact it did, in August of 2016.

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The DOE Called This Queens School Newspaper “Fake News.” The Students Responded With Journalism

Last week, the staff of the Classic, the student newspaper at Flushing’s Townsend Harris High School, gathered in a third-floor hallway to discuss a plan of attack for reporting on a decision that could change their school forever. Following allegations that interim principal Rosemarie Jahoda had berated individual teachers, ignored students with disabilities at her previous high school, and bungled the handling of an Islamophobic incident at Townsend Harris, the New York City Department of Education was bringing in candidates who might replace her. The staff of the Classic, which had reported for months on the controversy, had decided to take it upon themselves to meet the contenders.

Classic editors Mehrose Ahmad and Sumaita Hasan explained that reporters would be stationed at every entrance of the school, while the two editors would host a Facebook livestream from a student sit-in happening outside the office where candidate interviews were being held. Photos of the candidates had been distributed to the student reporters so they could identify them on sight. Suddenly, the hallway fell silent: A candidate had arrived, and Classic news editor Aly Tantawy was already grilling him.

“How are you going to help the students of this school move past the controversy of the past few months?” Tantawy asked. The candidate, who had come from the Bronx, answered confidently — perhaps he’d been warned of an ambush from this fastidious team of student journalists, whose dogged reporting on their own school’s alleged dysfunction had hurried the process of which this candidate was now a part.

For years, the Classic had focused on the regular beats of a high school newspaper — teacher retirements, curriculum changes, bell schedule. It was not an investigative outlet. But with Jahoda’s appointment, the very nature of the school appeared to be imperiled, and the paper’s staff decided it was time to step in. “The seriousness of the allegations [against Ms. Jahoda] kept on building up,” Ahmad told me. “We needed some answers from Ms. Jahoda, and she kept not responding to our requests. So we needed to pursue and continue to investigate so we could write stories that evoke a response not only from Ms. Jahoda, but from the community as well.”

Jahoda had arrived at Townsend Harris at the beginning of the school year, after the previous principal abruptly left to run a nearby high school. The DOE took the opportunity to install Jahoda as the interim principal after her rocky nine-year tenure as an assistant principal at Bronx Science, another elite public high school, which had culminated in an official complaint in which twenty teachers referred to Jahoda as a “dictator.”

Immediately, she made her presence known at Townsend Harris with a crackdown on lax regulatory enforcement. The school consistently earns high national rankings, reflecting heavy student workloads and nearly nonexistent misbehavior. So administrators and teachers did not follow procedures as strictly as their counterparts at other schools — essentially a perk for the high-performing, constantly stressed student body. Jahoda disagreed, abruptly canceling an after-school field trip over missing paperwork and aggressively clashing with faculty about the minutiae of other regulations. Frustrations reached a head in December, when students staged a sit-in in a hallway outside of classrooms while a deputy superintendent, Leticia Pineiro, toured the school following the complaints against Jahoda. When Pineiro got into an argument with protesting students, the Classic was there to livestream the encounter. From there, the story took off.

“It wasn’t my idea to do the livestream, or anything really,” said Classic faculty adviser Brian Sweeney, an English teacher. “The student journalists were the ones who kept pushing this story along, kept asking questions, and stayed in school late to keep reporting.”

An interim principal who wants the job usually gets it. But in the weeks following the December sit-in, the Classic reported that Jahoda had ignored discrimination against Muslim students at Townsend Harris; the paper also published an exclusive interview with the mother of a visually impaired Bronx Science student who said Jahoda had refused to provide her child necessary services. The Daily News and the Post picked up Ahmad and Hasan’s reporting. Local politicians and alumni grew alarmed that Jahoda was poised to lead a school known for its diverse student body. In response, the DOE put the process “under investigation,” then announced a complete restart after a pointed demand from the PTA, promising to “continue to listen to feedback from this school community.”

But it did not react kindly to the Classic‘s coverage. According to a letter written by State Assembly Members David Weprin and Nily Rozic, at a recent District Leadership meeting a DOE representative called the Classic “fake news” while defending Jahoda. The paper’s editors were astonished to hear a representative from the city’s supposedly inclusive school system parroting Donald Trump. “We both felt very disparaged,” Hasan told me. “While we’re still students, I think what we’re doing is real reporting, and it shouldn’t be belittled in any way.”

“Being called ‘fake news’ just motivates us,” Ahmad added. “We now have even more questions than we began with, and we want to prove ourselves even more.”

Jahoda herself has proven an elusive subject. Earlier this year, students waited outside her office for several hours after repeated requests for an interview had been denied. Their principal said she was busy and briskly avoided interviewers while exiting the building. Finally, two weeks ago, they got an interview, but still, access remained limited. Jahoda had banned media from covering Wednesday’s sit-in (this reporter was allowed entry by virtue of being an alumnus) and wouldn’t discuss several topics during the interview with the Classic.

Sweeney, the adviser, wonders if the paper will be able to keep reporting so independently if Jahoda is installed as the permanent principal. While the Classic‘s charter promises that Townsend’s administration won’t interfere with coverage, students would most likely self-censor criticism of the person responsible for running the school and releasing transcripts to colleges.

Back outside the candidate interview office, where students were still protesting, Ahmad summoned Hasan excitedly from across the hall. Their first FOIA, which requested that the DOE disclose who applied for the principal position, had just been denied — a frustration to which professional journalists across the city are accustomed. Despite the rejection, the two students together held Ahmad’s phone as if it contained precious cargo, beaming at having gotten a response.

“Maybe we’ll file an appeal,” Hasan said. “Who knows? The answers are out there.”

 

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Federal Judge Says NYC’s Regulation Of The Press Will Go On Trial

A journalist’s lawsuit alleging that the NYPD’s regulation of the press violates the constitutional rights of a free press can go forward, a federal judge ruled on Monday. In rejecting the government’s motion to dismiss the suit, Judge J. Paul Oetken affirmed that the government cannot arbitrarily restrict journalists, and that the NYPD and the City of New York’s policies for revoking and suspending journalists’ press credentials may be be unconstitutional.

“Arbitrary restrictions on news-gatherers may run afoul of the First Amendment,” Judge Oetken wrote in rejecting the city’s motion to dismiss the case. The plaintiff, he said, “has carried his burden to allege a protected interest in his press credential.”

The lawsuit, brought by freelance photojournalist J.B. Nicholas, stems from an incident in October of 2015, when Nicholas was on assignment for the New York Daily News. A building under construction on 38th Street had partially collapsed, trapping two construction workers towards the rear of the building.

Nicholas (who – full disclosure – has written for the Voice) arrived on the scene with his press credentials. The dead body of one of the construction workers had already been retrieved. While Nicholas waited in a nearby store for the second worker to be retrieved, police rounded up other journalists and corralled them into a “press pen” down the block and out of sight of the action.

But while most of the official press was kept from covering the story, photographers from numerous government agencies and even ConEdison were operating freely inside the police cordon, Nicholas said. When the second construction worker was freed, the complaint states, Nicholas approached, and, without interfering with the emergency workers, photographed him being placed in the ambulance.

Nicholas says getting the shot, which he couldn’t have done from the police press-pen, was important, and not just because it’s his job. “Those photos tell an important story that New Yorkers need to see,” he told the Voice. “There’s a story about the deunionization of construction in New York. Most of these guys are immigrants, legal and not, working for probably $100 a day in cash, all to build multi-billion-dollar condos. And there’s a cost for that exploitation — there have been 31 construction workers killed on the job in the last two years. So if you lose that photo, the impact of that story, the cost that’s paid for all this, it gets lost. The picture might trigger some inquiry. Think of the picture of the Syrian kid on the beach.”

But the press officers for the NYPD weren’t happy with Nicholas getting the shot, which ultimately led the story in the Daily News. As a video Nicholas took during the episode shows, they immediately approached him, confiscated his press pass, and ejected him from the scene.

Nicholas said he wrote to the NYPD repeatedly to discuss the return of his press pass, but was rebuffed. Meanwhile, his career suffered. “To be a photojournalist in New York, you need to have a press pass,” he said. “Without it, you can’t cross police lines, which is the only way to get the shot, you can’t photograph in court.” Unable to perform the basic tasks of spot-news reporting, Nicholas saw his assignments dry up. In December of 2015 he filed his lawsuit against then-NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton. The suit alleges that police violated Nicholas’s constitutional rights to freedom of the press, speech, assembly, and intra-state movement, as well as his rights to equal protection under the law and substantive due process.

As Nicholas’s amended complaint explores in depth, the history of NYPD interference with journalists efforts to do their job is considerable, ranging from freezing out disliked reporters to the violent arrests of credentialed press at protests of the 2004 Republican National Convention to numerous arrests and obstructions of journalists during Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and 2012 to the assault and false arrest of a New York Times photographer documenting stop-and-frisks in the Bronx.

Nicholas has his own stories. He was arrested in 2014 as he was attempting to photograph NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Only after multiple witnesses told prosecutors that in fact it was Goodell’s bodyguard, a former police detective, who had run into Nicholas with his truck, choked him, punched him, and thrown him to the ground were the assault charges against Nicholas dropped. The year before, Nicholas was acquitted in case based on his taking photographs of paramedics in the subway.

FROM LEFT: Craig Ruttle, J.B. Nicholas, and Joe Marino testify at a City Council hearing on the freedom of the press last year.

Nicholas is acting as his own lawyer in the suit. At a hearing before Judge Oetken last May, he got the court to dig into just how the NYPD decides who can and can’t report in the city. Regulations state that if the NYPD tries to revoke a journalist’s credentials, they’re entitled to a hearing to challenge the revocation. “What do the hearings look like?” the Judge asked the city’s lawyer, Mark Zuckerman. “Are the hearings ever done?”

“I don’t have the answer to your question,” Zuckerman conceded. “I can’t tell your Honor conclusively whether it was done or not.”

What about how the police department decides when it’s going to suspend or revoke a journalist’s credentials, the judge asked. “Is there a written standard?”

“I’m not aware of any written standard,” Zuckerman answered. “There’s nothing in the rules about a written standard for what’s necessary to take a summary suspension.”

Zuckerman conceded that Nicholas was still entitled to a hearing, and a week later, Nicholas got one, presided over by DCPI’s commanding officer, Edward Mullen, and Lt. Eugene Whyte. Nicholas’s card had been revoked at the direct order of Steven Davis, the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, who was on the scene that day, so Mullen and Whyte were effectively being asked to rule on an action of their boss. According to Nicholas, he wasn’t allowed to see any evidence against him and Whyte bullied the witnesses he called in his defense. Nonetheless, at a status hearing for his lawsuit a month later, Nicholas learned that he’d be getting his press credentials back.

Even so, Nicholas is determined to forge ahead with his lawsuit. “I did this for my colleagues. I did this for my city,” he told the Voice. “There’s an ongoing pattern of the NYPD keeping journalists away from breaking news scenes for no good reason.”

Efforts to control the press aren’t unique to New York, Nicholas says. They happen everywhere, including the White House.

Norman Siegel, a lawyer who has worked on numerous First Amendment cases and helped shape the current NYPD press credential policies, says the case goes to the heart of questions of press freedom. “The standard by which the NYPD pulls someone’s press pass or denies them renewal cannot be subjective, it has to be objective,” Siegel said. “If it’s subjective it invites discrimination based on the viewpoint or even personality of the journalist. We saw last Friday how freedom of the press can be abused, when [White House Press Secretary Sean] Spicer decided not to let certain media outlets in. Freedom of press is a cornerstone of our system. It’s being undermined not only by the Trump administration, and sometimes by the NYPD.”

The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.

The case now moves into the discovery phase. Nicholas is still acting as his own lawyer – “It’s an exercise in personal empowerment, I hope to inspire others,” he says – which means that soon he will be personally deposing witnesses, including the the DCPI officers who revoked his credentials and former Commissioner Bratton.

“I’ve got a lot of questions,” he said. “Are there any records of how they handle press credentials, suspensions, revocations? Who keeps notes on this. Where are those notes? Let’s see the logs. How many journalists have been arrested?”

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Tune In to Pineapple Street’s Podcasting Revolution

On a Monday so windy even the Brooklyn Bridge seemed to sway, two of New York’s leading cultural critics sat on matching chairs in a DUMBO studio, perched on their heels like kids at story time. Jenna Wortham, wearing all black cut with a graphic button-down, grinned. On the floor beside her lay a folded copy of the New York Times. Across sat Wesley Morris, her Times colleague.

The near symmetry felt sibling-like, same-same but different. Morris looked less Vogue, more Broadway, with his boxer’s build clad in a sweater, khakis, and a flat-billed hat that Wortham was making fun of. The contrast between chic and earnest extends to other aspects of their chemistry. “One of the funny dynamics” of the duo, says Samantha Henig, who heads the podcast division at the Times, “is that Jenna is so of the internet and Wesley is really not. But he’s also unbelievably plugged in,” she adds, “so I don’t know how he does that.”

They’d come for their weekly appointment at Pineapple Street Media, a dynamic young podcast agency that boasts clients like Hillary Clinton and Lena Dunham, who calls PSM founders Max Linsky and Jenna Weiss-Berman the “funniest, smartest people in Brooklyn.” On the Monday in question, Weiss-Berman was in New Orleans on a project but would return to edit the audio. She’s said to have an artist’s touch; “film editor meets poet meets DJ,” in Dunham’s words. Linsky plays director: He leaned in a chair and threw out notes — “I’d really like to hear you guys on why it’s so hard to talk about Shyamalan, because you have to give away the ending” — and made fun of the hat, which would cameo in the week’s installment of their podcast, Still Processing.

“So, I’m Fat Albert,” Morris says, after Wortham launches with an impression, to which she responds, “You are wearing a newsboy cap.” Morris counters that “we live in a world where the opposite of what is true can be true. I am a living alternative fact.” Wortham: “That hat is an alternative fact.”

Few mediums are more personal than the podcast. Audio — accessible anywhere, recordable anywhere — suggests the thrill of anonymous phone sex, the purity of lifelong pen pal–dom. Earbuds in, listeners can shut out the external cacophony of the modern world, seduced by a voice traveling through those thin white tendrils. “What’s more intimate than being whispered to?” as Dunham says, on the allure of the form. In the debut episode of Clinton’s podcast with Linsky, which aired November 6, she hints at vulnerability when she says, “Contrary to some opinion, I do have feelings. I can get hurt.” Linsky, who told me he loved her more with every meeting, and was set to continue with the podcast from the White House, deadpans: “I think we just broke news here.”

Hence the allure. And yet most of the top podcasts on iTunes are led by white male hosts. Homogeneity spreads; people take cues. For a generation raised on a monolithic radio culture, the temptation to mimic can be strong. Robert Boynton, an NYU professor focused on audio journalism, draws a through line across media. “In the Seventies and Eighties, every newscaster had a certain kind of sound. Then there was a period when everyone was trying to sound like Ira Glass. It’s amazing how many guys are out there — nerdy Jewish guys with nasal voices — and they all sound like him. Including the guy from Gimlet, who even says, ‘I’m the guy who’s confused for Ira Glass.’ ”

Monoculturalism in podcasting reflects the “built-in advantages and disadvantages of the existing world,” says Shaun Lau, a Chinese-Japanese-American podcast host who has sought to raise awareness of homogeneity in the industry. Podcasting could theoretically raise up outsiders, but its economics are tricky: low barriers to entry, but high standards for success. To sell advertising, a show must be popular (and thus findable), featured on the iTunes homepage, or given press. Hosts with built-in fan bases, or backing, tend to triumph in this sphere. “It’s not that listeners necessarily prefer [white male hosts], but they gravitate toward them,” Lau says, “because there’s money and resources behind established traditional media.”

Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham brought New York Times cred to Pineapple Street.
Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham brought New York Times cred to Pineapple Street.

Still Processing — and Wortham, and Morris — twists the rules. A product of one of the most established media properties in the world, it stars two people who differ from the podcasting mainstream in obvious ways: They are both black, and they both identify publicly as queer. The show was inspired by Another Round, the BuzzFeed interview series hosted by Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu (and produced by Weiss-Berman, who was formerly at BuzzFeed), but the goal was never “to make a show about being black in America,” says the Times‘ Henig, who was instrumental in launching Still Processing and signing on Pineapple. (Clayton and Nigatu are also black.) The point is the “passions of Wesley and Jenna,” Henig says. This has something to do with “the fact that they’re young and that they’re people of color. But also, they’re so cool. It’s basically inevitable that — if you have a conversation with one of them — it is the most insightful conversation you have that day. We’ve been lucky enough to experience that in the office, but we wanted to broaden the audience.”

The hosts speak with casual authority on vital topics, as any critic might aspire to (though many can’t). But their scope is as varied as their work, their chemistry as electric as any great duo’s. Morris is a wonk and a populist, able to “look at the world from an airplane but also a microscope,” as Wortham puts it. Her writing is finer-boned, crafted with referential architectures strong enough for the far reaches of Twitter. Linsky reminds them not to forget their “veggies” — their written work — but otherwise they have no directives. Some segments could double around a dining table in a black home, such as a recent one on saying bye to Obama (the “ultimate black dad”) or another on Kanye’s erraticism. Meanwhile, the hat episode seems built for an Indian uncle: swerving from a Wortham-essay-pegged breakdown of the creepiness of Amazon’s Alexa to the legacy of M. Night Shyamalan, defended by Morris — against his co-host’s protestations — as a fun “paranoid moralist.”

Increasingly in today’s world, one wonders what is universal and who is central. Wortham, an alum of wired.com, skirts the edges of tech, culture, and identity in her writing — carving out her own corner of the internet wherein she is a rightful star. (A shimmering Lemonade essay prompted a thank-you note from the Queen herself, signed “Love, Beyoncé” and ‘grammed by Wortham.) Morris was forged in that other crucible: the print world. After winning a Pulitzer for his film criticism at the Boston Globe, he moved on to pen dense, sardonic crit for Grantland. Linsky points to Morris’s essay on Hollywood’s treatment of the black penis — dropped by the Times with the surprise factor and gotta-have-it feel of an album release — as an example of his uniqueness in media. Morris worked on the essay for months; Linsky recalls congratulating him on his viral success the day it was published. “[Morris] said, ‘Oh, did people like it?’ ” Linsky remembers. “He hadn’t looked at his Twitter, his Facebook, his email.” Weiss-Berman agrees. “He’s so mentally healthy,” she says, sounding awestruck.

Wortham calls him “focused.” Meanwhile, Morris says he’s learning from Wortham how to live online; only recently has he had the urge, after snapping a picture, to share it on Instagram. Since the podcast’s launch, the two have become constantly connected, when not in person, through machines. “She’s an elemental part of my life,” Morris says. “I talk to Wesley before I go to bed,” Wortham echoes. “And when I wake up I email him.” Morris partly puts down their canny performance skills to a lifetime of code-switching. “Any person who has learned to be fluent socially in different environments — racially, sexually, whatever — you learn how to be a version of yourself depending on context.”

There’s an argument to be made that the nature of a critic’s existence matters, that in a field that maps vision and empathy, the old view of authority turns illogical. The latest episode of Still Processing holds a gem of a segment suggestive of this idea. The subject is tired enough: Dunham’s own Girls, the final season of which debuted last Sunday. To Morris’s broad insights (Marnie is a drag, Zosia Mamet a genius), Wortham — who wrote the definitive critique of the show’s psychic narrowness years ago — drills to the core of the Girls hot-take industry, using her life to explain larger shifts. “If you are a black woman like I am, you deal with these women the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed,” she says, evoking clueless girls flicking their wet hair on her face on the train. She cites Insecure, Atlanta, and Broad City as palliatives. In the past, “spending my leisure time with these women was not something I wanted to do.” Today, watching the credits roll the names of twenty-year-old women, Wortham has reconsidered: “My cold heart beats with pride.”

Weiss-Berman and Linsky recording with Hillary Clinton in November.
Weiss-Berman and Linsky recording with Hillary Clinton in November.

Still Processing, like most shows in the Pineapple Street stable, is de facto progressive. If the agency has an ethos, it might be locational. Clinton and Dunham respectively claim headquarters and a home mere blocks from the studio. And it was in the borough that Morris and Wortham were first introduced, by the New York magazine writer Rembert Browne, at an anniversary party for the Awl. (There is something of the young media nerd’s fever dream to the entire operation.) It was prickly love at first sight. “We both were excited and intimidated by each other,” Wortham says. “Like, we wanted to talk to each other more, but we’re both like, ‘Oh no. That person’s too cool for me.’ ” Morris was blunter: “I thought you didn’t like me. Or just that you had better things to do.”

Pineapple operates without v.c. money, a rarity in podcasting. Revenue relies on a Draper-esque hustle for clients, and advertisers, that’s demanded by a market lacking a clear competitive structure. (Theoretically, for podcast production, “all you need is a computer, or even a phone,” Weiss-Berman says.) Agencies tend to favor either a “churn” approach (as seen in the stark and effective fare of Panoply Media, the Slate-affiliated studio that produces podcasts for Condé Nast, the Wall Street Journal, MTV, New York magazine, Rolling Stone, and other old media heavyweights), or lush standardization à la public radio (think Gimlet Media, with a roster of shows as linked-yet-distinct as an haute couture collection). Pineapple is more ad hoc. Self-funding allows freedom, with limits. Branded content supports pro bono work and designer shows like Dunham’s Women of the Hour — which Weiss-Berman launched at BuzzFeed, its first home. Linsky wouldn’t give specifics, but hinted at big projects in
the new year.

A co-founder of the journalism site — now also a podcast — Longform, Linsky once wrote wild features for a Florida alt-weekly, assigned in a haze at the end of the last decade, as the print world collapsed. Weiss-Berman found her way to audio through the nonprofit StoryCorps, where she interned while working in the collections department at a big law firm (“the guy who took my job after me got indicted,” she notes wryly), and started side-hustling. She still edits for Longform, and did through her tenure at BuzzFeed, where she headed audio. Henig, the Times staffer who tapped her for Still Processing, knew her via Longform; Henig is married to Evan Ratliff, a fellow co-founder. She hoped to channel Another Round, and figured Weiss-Berman could help the Times, then a podcasting novice, do so.

The timing — coinciding with Dunham’s desire to strike out on her own — struck Linsky as meaningful. Combined, he and Weiss-Berman share an enviable contact list. “Why shouldn’t we start our own thing right now?” he recalls asking her soon after the Times‘ request. Within weeks, Weiss-Berman had quit and set up a new shop with Linsky, eventually hiring a handful of assistant producers and paid interns and shifting to DUMBO. The office is cozy and spare, with rugs, pineapple-themed décor, a photo of Larry Bird (in honor of Linsky’s Boston roots), and scattered knickknacks donated by Elisabeth Watson, a production assistant on Girls who helps with Dunham’s podcast.

Neither founder came to podcasting with a grand vision, and they say Pineapple’s strategy is equally organic, a matter of placing one foot after the other on a path that feels right. “I think Max correctly has realized that a lot of what any of these enterprises — doing an independent website, or podcast — involves is a kind of ‘going for it’ [mentality],” says Aaron Lammer, another Longform co-founder. “There’s not really a procedure or standards. It’s making things up as you go along. Neither [Weiss-Berman nor Linsky] had to go to podcasting business school.”

In person, the partners project inverse energies of what you might expect. Linsky is intense, whereas Weiss-Berman — the one everyone says knows everyone — seems almost shy. In press, she is spoken of reverently, including and especially by Linsky. (One article refers to her as “the Jenna Weiss-Berman.”) “No one else works like her,” says Dunham, who first met Weiss-Berman at Oberlin when a roommate dated her. The luster of her rep seemed a surprise to Weiss-Berman when I mentioned it, so much so that once Linsky left the room to take a call, she gently asked for details. Like the stars of Still Processing, Linsky and Weiss-Berman were dressed evocatively, if less glamorously. Linsky wore the neutral baseball-hat-and-jeans uniform of “the rube,” as he called himself, explaining his role as the audience stand-in, nudging Morris and Wortham into lines of conversation that might serve listeners perhaps less savvy than they. Weiss-Berman wore a sweatshirt she’d bought online. Like her, it was insidery, playful, and low-key, printed with that unmistakable credit: EXECUTIVE PRODUCER DICK WOLF.

Weiss-Berman admits to an undying love for her roots, but says she’s sensitive to the implications of public radio, particularly of “the white voice.” Speaking naturally and forcefully is something she and Linsky are keen to encourage hosts to do (they laugh that Morris and Wortham are naturals, Morris at times maybe too exuberant).

Still Processing seems cast from a different mold than public radio journalism: that of the buddy comedy, perhaps — or, to step into a genre of the home — of a phone call between brilliant friends. “We’re not looking to be a billion-dollar podcasting company,” Weiss-Berman says. Nor is the point to remake NPR for millennials, exactly, though the closest Pineapple Street has to a mission statement sounds primed for a fundraising callout: “Just good people,” Weiss-Berman says, “and good work.”