Tina and Sympathy

Photo: AP/Wide World Photos

Four years ago, after the Internet business I ran collapsed, I became a columnist writing about life in the media world. A few weeks ago, Tina Brown, whose media life I have written about with great interest, started a post-defeat column of her own – also about life in the media. Possibly she admired my style of finessing failure. Of course, there are other models she might have been following. Steve Brill, for instance, went to Newsweek to write a column after closing Brill’s Content and exiting his other enterprises. Or there’s Kurt Andersen, who, after his business, Inside.com, folded, started a columnlike show on public radio.

Conversely, there’s Bob Greene at the Tribune, who fell from grace and lost his column (proving that we can all fall farther still).

What people do when confronted by failure is clearly a large question of the moment, especially for people of the boom – do we struggle or do we retreat? What media people do in the throes of failure may well be of even greater magnitude and entertainment value – because it involves getting back on the horse in public. It’s a fight against obscurity. (There could be instances of media narcissists who become merely private people, but, of course, we wouldn’t know that – and, at any rate, it’s unlikely.)

The most frequently asked question about Tina Brown in the months since her magazine folded has been: “What do you think she will do next?” I’ve been asked this question on a regular basis by media pros as well as by media passersby (my mother, for one, is very interested).

The assumption here is not only that Tina won’t give up and that she will have a second (or third or fourth) act but that she will demonstrate some unique survival skills. She is an operator and will figure out the best way to operate – so we should pay attention.

While I am as interested as anybody in success and failure strategies, what is most curious to me, as a media columnist, about the advent of these columns born of media failure is what it says about the business itself – what insights can be gleaned from the power adjustments and career moves of the permanent media class.

It’s like politics, perhaps, and where politicians go when they’re thrown out of office and what this says about how power is held and transferred. Is a column the equivalent, say, of a perch in a law firm or investment bank? Or is it like a choice appointive position, one with tons of patronage? (The ability to bestow a kind word in a column is, after all, a kind of patronage.) Or is it a judicial move? (A column is something like a kangaroo-court judgeship.)

Of course, there is here a much larger, nearly existential question about the nature of media success and failure. In no business do we capitalize those words so emphatically as we do in the media business – worshiping Success and demonizing Failure (Jerry Levin, for instance, late of AOL Time Warner, whom Tina has been particularly harsh toward in her column, has been telling people how unfair it is that his entire career is being judged on the basis of one deal). Success and Failure are our ultimate subjects (and nobody has made them more alpha and omega than Tina herself).

What’s more, many of us, reaching a post-midlife stage – Tina turns 50 this coming year, as do I – and in the midst of what looks more and more like a long and fearful economic malaise, obviously find a heightened personal resonance in the Success and Failure themes. While there may be more than one act, there aren’t endless acts. What we do now might be … well … We had better get it right.

Tina’s new column, running weekly in the Times of London, is audacious. Brill’s Newsweek column, on the other hand, is earnest. It has a quality of good works about it – community service. Andersen’s public-radio gig is – public radio. It’s nicely self-effacing (and only slightly smug).

But Tina, with determination, has launched herself back into the fray.

She’s using her new column to flip from being a figure of the Zeitgeist – and to some extent its victim – to a definer of it (interestingly, she began as a Zeitgeist definer, realized there was more profit in being a Zeitgeist figure, and now has come back to being a definer again – a much safer place).

Cattiness is her column’s métier. She’s stylish and crass (always her stock-in-trade).

She is Clare Boothe Luce – a figure of café society as well as one of its representational painters. (Truman Capote once tried, and failed, to assume this role.)

Or, possibly, Tina is Dick Morris (who went on to write a column after he was ejected from the Clinton White House).

She is very much the insider who, with little left to lose, sees clear advantage in being willing to tell – or seeming to tell – all. The betrayals obviously please her – she cackles.

Now, I can’t help guiltily wondering if I might have influenced her here, too. In my four years on the media-life beat, I may well have conclusively demonstrated that there’s little downside to being mean about media figures – they are so unpopular that for every enemy you make, you gain a thousand friends.

But Tina, in the four columns she has so far written, has gone further than I ever would. She is going after her cohorts, people she’s had in her own home (I really don’t think I could do that – if anyone ever actually came to my house). In her debut column, Tina told the story of poor Martha Stewart, at a party at Tina’s house, going “head over heels, legs in the air” into the garden flower patch. “When it happened, I didn’t even give that to ‘Page Six,’ ” one of Tina’s former publicists told me the other day.

Oddly, or very smartly, Tina’s column is appearing in an English paper and is available here principally as an Internet phenomenon. The personal-diary style of the column, a decidedly English form, invites a certain take-no-prisoners quality, a pitiless confiding tone, which is not often evident in American columns – it’s Waugh-ish. Witty. Cruel. Snobbish. What’s more, it transparently deals in a British system of media awards and punishments – slaps for fools and enemies, praise for friends and prospective allies. There is, too, another, riskier streak (at least insofar as importing the column back into the U.S.), which is, if not racism, then an archness and condescension of an extreme and unconcealed British kind. So far in the column, we have had “small-bottomed Puerto Rican trainers” (at her gym), a “handsome black face” (Carl McCall), and a “rabbinical” Jerry Levin. Of course, the very Englishness that makes the column so naughty and sharp (someone will invariably call it edgy) is the same Englishness that Tina has been selling to America (and especially to New York) for twenty years now.

What I wonder is whether these columns represent a movement back to basics (the writing life is where we all began – if also something we all have tried to escape), a rediscovery of our inner hack, or if this is a publicity strategy – another calculated and adroit way that media pros use the media.

In my experience, writing a column turns out to be a wonderful alternative to dealing with employees and payrolls and investors – it’s a fine place to end up. But it is hard to imagine Steve Brill, a bully of vast ambitions, being satisfied with merely a bully pulpit – although I hear he is. Likewise, Kurt Andersen tells me he has never been happier. A Tina confidant has told me she couldn’t be any happier, either – that a great burden has been lifted from her.

Still, there is a sense of wilderness years – Tina as Churchill writing a history of civilization, or perhaps, even more accurately, Nixon writing of his personal crises (it’s payback time, of course).

There is also a sense of Tina as a back-bencher. The fame party she led is out of power. Now she is biding her time with her column and other pursuits. It’s an unfocused and yet active period. She’s busy trading favors and trying to keep her voice out there, her views known, her presence large.

She is often quoted, not only the bons mots from her own column passing into other columns but in frequent interviews with media reporters (the other day, the Wall Street Journal had her saying that if she was starting a magazine now, she would start it on the Web, perhaps unaware that almost all Web magazines have failed).

She is involved in shepherding the careers of her former staffers, both offering her obviously canny advice and working the phones – this is loyalty, but calculation too. It’s how you run a shadow government – you’re preparing, always preparing, to come back.

There are also the favors she’s calling in, or which are coming back unbidden (as all favors should). Her media friends are widely plugging her column (undoubtedly, it is the most widely read column in America not published in America). Tunku Varadarajan, at the Wall Street Journal, who previously worked for the London Times and who was taken up by Tina when he arrived in New York – lauded in Tina’s New Yorker as the most eligible bachelor in town – not only recently proclaimed her column a trenchant and wicked piece of social commentary (a “savory brand of cat-wit” with a “drizzle of insouciance”) but then went on to deeply dis the present New Yorker without Tina.

And then there’s Tea & Sympathy – which goes to show that the wilderness can have a certain style advantage, too. Tea & Sympathy is a kitschy restaurant in the Village that Tina, formerly a doctrinaire patron of the most expensive and tony places in town, has lately made her in-place (although in her column she continues to portray herself as lunching every day at places of fabulous renown). As it happens, Tea & Sympathy, where I’ve had the misfortune of being taken on several occasions, is almost unbearably hideous – the kind of place that English people, out of a special English masochism, might gravitate to in New York, but that represents many of the reasons they left England in the first place. Ugly service, spectacularly bad food, and a sense of both cultural and actual impoverishment.

But it’s not without its celebrity status – Rupert Everett, Kate Moss, and Naomi Campbell are said to show up once in a while. It offers glamour of the reverse-glamour sort (so far out it’s in), which is useful to Tina-in-exile, not least of all because the price is right – the new Tina’s everyday glamour budget must have diminished.

Given such retro-ness, there is, predictably, a book that is soon to be published: Tea & Sympathy: The Life of an English Tea Shop in New York.

And, as things have transpired, Tina, who has become chummy with Tea & Sympathy’s owner, is throwing the party for the book at her house on East 57th Street (where Martha fell down in the garden). The book’s author was delighted to learn she was to be fêted by Tina, and all the author’s tea-shop-ish friends were similarly delighted to receive their invitation to Tina’s home. But then, a few weeks ago, in a flurry of consternation and embarrassment, things just not coming together the way they should, the calls went out – Tina had taken over the guest list, and the author was being limited to just a few guests of her own.

I’m sure you understand. Terribly unfortunate. But Tina insists on doing it her way.

The buzz lives on.

Talking about Tina….
Book ‘Em
A new bio roughs up the media world’s power couple – no surprise there. But how, exactly, did Tina-and-Harry-bashing become everybody’s favorite pastime? (July 23, 2001)

All Talk
On the eve of the millennium, Tina Brown’s somehow supposed to get ‘Talk’ off the ground – while everyone roots for her to fail. (July 25, 1999)Off-site Link
The London Times - Features
Tina Brown’s column appears in this section of the Times

Tina and Sympathy