Keith Kelly and I are talking about what media writers talk about when we get together -- our colleague Alex Kuczynski. This is because, in addition to working at the Times, Alex is blonde and imposing and very media-savvy herself -- a Valkyrie-ish media reporter. Kelly says he heard that when she first took over the media beat at the Times, a P.R. person asked her what she wanted to accomplish and she said she wanted to become famous -- which for Kelly, whose media beat at the New York Post includes quite a bit of coverage of the foibles of fame, seems to say it all.
What we are talking about, too, is Kuczynski's recent story about Tina Brown (the other person media writers invariably talk about when they get together). In the story -- which, Kelly reported in the Post, Tina was quite irritated about -- Tina tries to explain (i.e., spin) the mostly negative publicity and gossip and second-guessing that have surrounded Talk. As it happens, much of this negativity has come from Kelly himself, who has diligently reported in the Post on most of the rumors, defections, and nastiness that have shadowed Talk since its debut in August. Kelly, however, is fine with Kuczynski's piece. Unlike many Tina watchers and writers, Kelly has no anti-Tina passion at all. In fact, Tina sent over a baby present when Kelly's wife had their second child a few weeks ago. He covered Tina on the way up as attentively as he is covering her in her present free fall. Indeed, he thinks, judging by Kuczynski's story, that maybe Tina is even bouncing back.
But I disagree. If you read between the lines of Kuczynski's story, I analyze, what you have is an admission of defeat. Look what Tina is doing: She's blaming it all on Harvey Weinstein. Harvey, she says, made her put all those uninteresting stars on the cover; Harvey made Talk flack for Miramax's films. She's pulling back, too, saying the magazine is her new editor Bob Wallace's baby now. What's going on, I argue, is that Tina is clearing the woods for a soft landing.
Kelly doesn't much like this analysis. Hmmm. Hmmm. "I've already lost JFK Jr.," he says, stroking his beard with mild concern. "What would I do if I lost Tina too?"
Which is pretty much Keith Kelly's view of the media: who's in; who's out; who's alive and kicking; who's not. Unlike Kuczynski, who treats media as an important aspect of modern business and culture, or Carl Swanson at the Observer, who covers the media business as a chattering-class pastime, or Celia McGee, who covers it in the Daily News as society or show-business gossip, or this column, which tends to see it as human comedy, Kelly's coverage is nothing fancy. And it is this retro, tough-guy, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, no-nonsense approach that has made him the most influential media reporter in the city.
Kelly seems to have helped former "Details" editor Michael Caruso lose his job when he quoted him saying, "My numbers are so good I'm going to get a big fat raise . . ."
There is something, obviously, very insular about this condition: Media about media. (Or, in the instance of this present column, media about media about media.) Gossiping about gossipers. Almost all of us on the media beat live the life we report on: Kuczynski not only covers the media while working for the Times but lives with an ABC News correspondent; the Daily News' McGee is married to a senior HBO executive; when I am not writing about the media, I am most often trying to become a media mogul myself (what's more, my wife is a lawyer who advises media clients). Then there's Kurt Andersen, a former editor of this magazine and among the most well-known of media insiders (married, too, to a media insider), who has announced he's launching a new new-media business called Powerful Media that will report on old-media insiders.
In addition to prompting a host of journalistic questions -- how can one cover one's own profession, friends, future employers? -- the media's fascination with itself also suggests a level of self-consciousness and vanity that, for starters, undoubtedly says something about the narcissism of the age.
While these inversions, and this self-referentialism, and all the implicit ironies here (along with a lot of clubbiness), are of great interest to me, this stuff is, I infer, of little or no interest to Kelly. Kelly, indeed, is personally remote from this media life.
"He's a townie," sniffed a literary/media celebrity having dinner at my house.
Kelly, who lives in Stuyvesant Town with his wife, who is a nurse, and their two young sons, has been a faithful beat reporter for 24 years (save for the year he spent freelancing from Northern Ireland); his father was a pressman at the Daily News. If he weren't working media, he'd be just as happy working a crime beat, he says. In Kelly's media city, Si Newhouse is something like the mayor; Steve Florio, the police commissioner; Hearst's Kathy Black, the Brooklyn borough president; Time's Walter Isaacson, the media state's senator. At the moment, on Kelly's media crime beat, Tina Brown, you could say, is on trial for her life.
It is business reporting tabloid-style. Every Kelly story is present-tense and every firing or promotion writ as large as the next (writ as large as the juiciest murder). He is pure New York Post comic-book wham-bam -- Vogue's editor Anna Wintour taking a left jab from her former protégée and current Harper's Bazaar editor Kate Betts. But his influence is, well, Times-like.
There are those who even believe David Remnick got the job of New Yorker editor because of Kelly. Remnick made a surprise appearance on the long end of Kelly's shortlist after Tina Brown's sudden resignation from The New Yorker. Remnick, a writer with little editing experience, no management background to speak of, and a relatively modest profile in the magazine community, got the call to come in and talk to Si Newhouse the next day.