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.
Likewise, 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 be getting a big fat raise,” accompanied by a picture with Caruso, in Kelly’s description, “sitting in a downtown trendy chair with big arms.” The quote, Kelly says with some satisfaction, really put Si Newhouse over the edge.
As it happens, Kelly’s sources are particularly good within Condé Nast, which may say as much about Condé Nast. Because Si Newhouse is particularly sensitive to what appears about him and his company in the press, it helps, if you work for him, to be able to float more or less unauthenticated rumors – and the most efficient way to do that is through Kelly. Indeed, at Condé Nast, the floating of rumors often creates a fact, or fait accompli – along with major and minor contretemps, scandals, and business reorganizations – so Kelly’s Condé Nast reports end up having a high rate of accuracy (high enough to overshadow his equally high rate of inaccuracies and bloopers).
But in a larger way, it’s not his scoops (and he has had many, minor and major – including the first report, last June, of the departure of the CEO of New York’s parent company) as much as it is just his attention that brings media people to Kelly. He’s our own local reporter, covering small events with the same verve as large events and never getting too far from the basics of who is hiring whom and who is abandoning whom. He is, he proudly points out, the leader on media medical stories, breaking the news of heart surgery for Steve Florio, Sonny Mehta, and Hachette’s Jean-Louis Ginibre, not to mention the story, early in the summer, of JFK Jr.’s broken ankle. (Kelly had a particular inside track with Kennedy, getting the first story about the plans for George as well as a host of stories about the ups and downs of the magazine. Their relationship, says Kelly, “was one Irishman to another.”)
The odd thing is that the media industry, which you would think would know better, reads Kelly as though the Post were the paper of record. Now, in its way, the Post has become, with a little critical interpretation, a good paper. Or a good example of the kind of paper you might read after you have read the paper you read. It is, in other words, from another age when people read a second or third paper – and, more important, when advertisers might have advertised in them. But people other than media people don’t read more than one paper (hard enough to get them to read one), and advertisers, as a rule, don’t advertise in what are called “overlapping reads.”
But the Post in fact is a first read, or a necessary read, for many media people, and the Times, with its disinclination to elevate gossip to news (although gossip is the news in the media business) or to get down with the minutiae of media life (the Times favors large social and business trends rather than mere deals and day-to-day jockeying for position), the softer second read.
This is not happenstance. The Post’s business section – not read by people truly in business but read and designed to be read by people in the media business – together with its “Page Six,” is an astute calculation. Media becomes vastly more significant when it is read (or watched) by other media. The Daily News, which has a larger and more stable base of readers than the Post, has much less influence (political and otherwise) in part because other people in the media don’t read it. The Post’s notorious view of Hillary is center stage in no small way because media people are reading Keith Kelly.
Which, about now, brings us to possibly the largest irony in the discussion of media about media, which is that the greatest media story of the age is the Murdoch story. In some ways, the Post’s strategy of covering the media reflects nothing less than Murdoch’s twenty-year insurgency – in other words, how to get yourself noticed. Then, having gotten noticed, you get to write your own story. Or, in the case of the Post’s media coverage, not write it. The most rumor-mongering media reporter in the media city, does not, of course, write about his boss. At the Daily News for a brief period before being recruited at the Post, Kelly broke the story of the sale of the Murdoch-owned TV Guide. “It wasn’t long after that that they call me up and offer me the Post job, and strangely enough that was my last good scoop on News Corp.,” says Kelly, with what might be an Irish twinkle.
Weirdly, this blatant conflict becomes almost part of the Post’s charm. In its newsroom, to my eye a third the size of the Daily News’, a quarter the size of the Times’, sitting now, far from its South Street roots, in a corner of the News Corp. headquarters on Sixth Avenue, its small staff puts out a perfect example of a kind of newspaper – an urban tabloid – that does not, practically speaking, exist anymore. It’s a play paper. There is something feel-good for media people about the Post. It recalls a simpler newspaper life – which is where all media people, if only in their imagination, come from. A few weeks ago, A&E aired a documentary paean to the Post made by BNNtv.com, a hip, Silicon Alley digital-broadcast shop – content people who never have worked for a newspaper and never will. It was a loving look at the Post – at the romance of a tabloid, when tough-guy reporters chronicled the passions of the city.
Indeed. Keith Kelly, sport coat over the back of his chair, denim shirt rolled up his arms, tie askew, is frantically working the phones, pushing up against his deadline – there are goings-on at Hachette Filipacchi, rumors of a big advance at Random House, an executive change at Fairchild in the wake of its acquisition by Condé Nast. These are the stories of the naked city.