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The Me in Media

Why has Mort Zuckerman grafted a glittery, high-profile head to the working-class body of the "Daily News?" The answer has to do not with business but with vanity.

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Mortimer Zuckerman hires editors with such verve and determination that it certainly seems as though he has some clear plan in mind for his media empire. Now he's hired Edward Kosner, a longtime editor of this magazine and more recently editor of Esquire -- the kind of high-powered, socially connected magazine editor TV movies are made about -- to edit the Sunday Daily News, that package of police stories, lottery tales, color comics, human-interest bromides, and ethnic special sections that, it might surprise many Manhattanites, is still published every Sunday.

While this may seem like a really obvious error -- hiring a person whose interests and aspirations are at odds with those of the readers of the publication he's supposed to edit -- it is also something of a consistent strategy for Zuckerman. Earlier this year, he hired Harry Evans, the bon vivant and former editor-in-chief of Random House, to be his editorial director. Indeed, Zuckerman, who made his fortune in the real-estate business, has hired an astounding array of highbrow talent to edit his middle- and lowbrow publications.

Oh, yes, the other part of the Zuckerman strategy seems to be that before his celebrated editors can do much of anything to his publications, he fires them.

The publishing business has a long history of mercurial owners who want something that is often elusive: respect, notoriety, smart dinner conversation. But Zuckerman's mercurial nature and his quest for personal stature may, even in the publishing business, set a standard.

"What does Mort want?" is the question that comes to frustrate nearly all of his lieutenants and managers. How he plans to get it with the Daily News is an even more perplexing question.

And yet while what he wants often isn't very clear to the people who work for him, he doesn't hide it, either. Seldom has a man's acquisitiveness been so out in the open. We in the Manhattan media world believe we know him -- and what he wants. "Mort is Mort," we say.

Indeed, though he's a fabulously rich guy, there isn't more than a degree of separation between him and us. I have one friend who was hired and resoundingly fired by Mort and another who was his girlfriend; my wife, a media lawyer, had a client who got clobbered by Mort.

And, of course, you can always read about Mort. He is as well documented as any mogul -- more so, certainly, than your average real-estate billionaire. You can read Betty Rollin's book, First You Cry, about her fight with breast cancer, and the boyfriend who dropped her because, after the cancer, she couldn't have children -- that was Mort. Or you can read Gloria Steinem's Revolution From Within, in which she offers her tale of betrayal at the hands of a hard-hearted paramour -- that was Mort.

Since Manhattan became a two-horse town -- Wall Street and media -- there have been lots of rich people who have demanded inordinate attention. But Mort is not, as my friend his former girlfriend says, "just another slobbering shopper" like so many other billionaires. He moves in the company of writers -- I haven't known a writer to reject his seduction -- and reeks of class and distinction. At the same time, Mort is Mort, a poster boy for "I want what I want when I want it."

But what he wants is not just the big house (although he does have a very big house on the beach in East Hampton), or the trophy wife (after a series of well-chronicled courtships, he married Marla Prather, a National Gallery curator, in 1996; they had a daughter in 1997), or the rapid compounding of his fortune (he has continued his real-estate business and leapt up the Forbes list). He also wants the literary life, to be able to talk as an equal with intellectuals, to hang not just with businessmen but with the artistic and the stylish. The fact that he can appear often on Charlie Rose to talk earnestly about foreign affairs encapsulates his achievement.


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