Standing up for Graydon Carter.

Standing up for Graydon Carter.

Standing up for Graydon Carter.

Media criticism.
May 14 2004 7:00 PM

Defending Graydon Carter

How grievous are his ethical transgressions?

Graydon Carter
Carter: Slimier than the rest?

The Los Angeles Times and New York Times land on Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter's neck this morning with articles accusing him of … well, I'm not exactly sure what the accusation is.

The two newspapers compile similar dossiers on Carter's extracurricular adventures in the movie business: He's produced pictures (The Kid Stays in the Picture; 9/11, a CBS documentary), worked as a paid consultant (Brian Grazer's A Beautiful Mind), partnered with screenwriter Mitch Glazer to pitch (unsuccessfully) a movie based on a Vanity Fair story, acted (the Alfie remake), and built friendships with Hollywood notables (Barry Diller, Jim Wiatt, Grazer again).

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Both stories agonize about his conflicts of interest: Should an editor whose magazine covers Hollywood be in the business, too?—but neither explicitly accuses him of any wrongdoing. Now, both papers may have the quid pro quo goods on Carter to prove he used his power at Vanity Fair for wanton personal gain, but my suspicion is that they rushed these two pieces into print today because they knew the other was working on the story and didn't want to get beat on the broad outlines of the story. The fact that Carter didn't speak to either publication may be a harbinger of devastating follow-ups. See this mid-week report by the LA Weekly's Nikki Finke and her addendum, which not only speculates that the Los Angeles Times has the goods but also says the Wall Street Journal has joined the chase.

But if this is all the two newspapers have on Carter, how outraged should we be? First, it's somewhat hypocritical for the New York Times to investigate Carter's alleged conflicts of interest when it's allowed Bernard Weinraub, the husband of Columbia Pictures Chairman Amy Pascal, to cover Hollywood so extravagantly in recent years. As leading Weinraub basher Mickey Kaus asks in this Nov. 7, 2003, "Kausfiles" entry what's worse, 1) Weinraub's conflict of interest ("… suppose a Times reporter were married to the head of a major drug company. Would that person get to cover the pharmaceutical industry's trade association … ?"), or 2) his failure to work the inside sources that come with being Pascal's spouse to write interesting stories.

The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times come off as if Carter is the first editor of an entertainment magazine to dabble in Hollywood. But Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, whose magazine has covered Hollywood personalities for more than 30 years, announced his own three-picture deal with Paramount in 1978. None of the movies (a San Francisco musical; a high school drama; a Caribbean dope-smuggling movie) got made, but that didn't keep Wenner out of pictures. He's "acted" in three—Almost Famous, Jerry McGuire, and 1985's Perfect, based on a Rolling Stone cover story and filmed as an extended commercial for the magazine. Upon Perfect's release, Wenner turned Rolling Stone into an extended commercial for the movie, putting the stars, John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis, on the cover and running a story about the flick by Travolta. Wenner has also befriended a slew of powerful Hollywood hotties—Travolta, Michael Douglas, Richard Gere—and pampers film-land celebrities in UsWeekly. If we're going to march Carter to the gallows for crossing over, let's reserve a noose for Wenner.

And for Tina Brown. When she started Talk magazine, underwritten by Harvey Weinstein's Miramax Films, she declared forthrightly that her magazine would be a "cultural search engine" for movie and TV productions. As the New York Observer's Carl Swanson reported on April 12, 1999, Talk's writers contract was designed to pilfer reporters' movie rights. It gave the magazine an automatic two-year option on those writers' articles. Talk converted one story into a Miramax movie deal (who knows if it ever got produced), and another went into development as an ABC-TV movie, according to an Aug. 9, 2000, article in USA Today. If I had 50 cents for every writer and publisher who thought that his feature story or proximity to Hollywood was going to translate into film credits and a villa in Pacific Palisades, I'd be rich enough to start my own mini-major studio.

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The problem with the current flurry of Carter coverage is that it insists on viewing him through the ethical lens you'd use on the editor of Barron's. That's crazy. I'm not suggesting that Vanity Fair should operate in an ethical universe of its own choosing, but the bar needn't be as high as that of the New York Times (or depending on your view of Weinraub, as low). The ethics cops walking the Carter beat don't seem to appreciate that Vanity Fair—like Wenner's Rolling Stone and Brown's Talk—is primarily an entertainment book. Just because it dabbles in Hollywood investigation from time to time shouldn't distract us from its primary role as whore for the Hollywood beast. And for all the column inches dumped on Carter in these two stories, I see no real evidence that the magazine is any softer or harder on Hollywood than it's ever been.

What's more, Carter hasn't pretended to be the sort of objective journalist who occupies a cubicle at the New York Times since the '70s and '80s when he worked at Life, TV Cable Week,and Time—assuming that he did then. He was a cheap-shot artist (accent on "artist") at Spy, which he co-founded in the late '80s. In his latest incarnation, he's a radical journalist who loves nothing more than to kick off each issue with a rabble-rousing denunciation of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration that's more Susan Sarandon than Leonard Downie Jr.

Absent some new revelations, the tragedy of Graydon Carter won't be that he cut deals in Hollywood while editing a magazine. It will be that he missed Wenner and Brown's lessons and forgot to front-load his Hollywood ambitions as synergistic magazine magic.

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