Magazines, bring back the write-around!

Scrutinizing culture.
Oct. 4 2007 10:54 AM

Magazines, Bring Back the Write-Around!

Regain your dignity with this secret weapon.

How to save magazine journalism.
How to save magazine journalism

Don't get me wrong, I love magazines. I've written for a wide range of them, from Punk to The New Yorker. They are—or were—a great American phenomenon. But magazines, many of them anyway, are now slowly killing themselves, killing their credibility, by turning into fawning fools for access.

Recently I addressed a root cause of this, the creeping sickness that is the celebrity profile, the way in which so many once-respected magazines have ceded their integrity to celebrities, and more specifically to control-obsessed celebrity handlers who skillfully wield the promise of "access" (which usually, in this debased form, means a half-hour of carefully monitored, virtually pre-scripted, mostly trivial if not addled chat, recorded by a writer who often requires pre-approval for pliancy, accompanied by an "exclusive" cover shot that must be pre-approved by the celeb, taken by a photographer who often needs pre-approval too).         

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The cult of the cover shot—think fast: When was the last time you learned anything from one?—is particularly pernicious and sad because it's a sign that most magazines have lost the ability to find and give cover treatment to stories that don't feature a famous face. But the recent Bill and Hillary tag-team mag-control operation—and GQ's craven cave-in to it—suggests that the contagion, the plague of fawning-for-access journalism, has now spread to politics, with Bill and Hillary playing the role of Brad and Angelina.

It's deeply depressing, but I think I've come up with a possible solution. A counterweapon, a way for magazines to rise up from the bended knee they offer to the publicity industrial-complex.

I'll get to my solution—well, suggestion—in a moment, but first let me fill you in on the Clinton-GQ dustup.

The quick story is this: GQ commissioned Joshua Green, a serious political reporter on the staff of the Atlantic, to do a piece on infighting within Hillary Clinton's campaign. I guess they wanted Politico-type insider street cred. Instead, they threw away whatever cred they had. And ended up in a scandal first reported by Politico.

Green was a good choice: He knew the turf, having written a much-admired cover story on Hillary for the Atlantic last winter. But in the course of reporting, Green had dinner with a Hillary mouthpiece. Next thing we know, one of Bill Clinton's aides is in the GQ editor's office telling him there'd be a "problem" with granting access to Bill Clinton for GQ's "Man of the Year" issue if GQ ran a muckraking Hillary story.

Of course, any editor with a backbone would say, "Thank you, your crude effort to kill this story will be included in the story. Goodbye."

Instead, the GQ editor killed the story. Profile in courage!

What is even more reprehensible is that GQ'seditor then began to claim—in a cringe-inducing, unconvincing way—that the visit by a Clinton consigliere had nothing to do with his killing the piece. Instead, unforgivably, he turned on his own reporter and in a spectacularly demeaning way suddenly claimed there were "problems" with the story unrelated to Clintonian pressure.

Here's what reporter Joshua Green told Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post: "GQ told me it was a great story and a hell of a reporting job, but they didn't want to jeopardize their Clinton-in-Africa piece. GQ told me the Clintons were unhappy and threatened to revoke access to Bill Clinton if the Hillary story ran."

And here's what GQ editor Jim Nelson said: "[T]he story didn't end up fully satisfying. ... I guarantee and promise you, if I'd have had a great Hillary piece, I would have run it." He added that there was no connection between the two Clinton stories.

Who do you think is telling the truth here, and who is shamefully prevaricating? I know who I believe.

I'd like to emphasize that my disgust with this comes not from any anti-Clinton bias. I've actually endorsed Hillary Clinton (months ago, in another publication). While this incident might cause me to reconsider, I think the Clintons have the right to exercise as much control as they can. That's politics. But editors have the obligation to resist them. That's journalism. Or used to be. It's more the magazine editor's spinelessness than the Clintons' attempt at control that makes the skin crawl.