This is my farewell column for Media Ink, which is going out of publication with my retirement.
I know some of you were expecting a state of the industry address, but we always covered media as a contact sport, with the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. So I’d prefer to give a snapshot of the most memorable behind-the-scenes moments and the larger-than-life characters I experienced in my 23 years writing the column.
Martha Stewart, while at the 25th anniversary party for her longtime publicists, sisters Susan and Allyn Magrino, at the Rainbow Room asked the photographer to take a picture of her with me.
“Martha,” I said, “do you realize that of all the media reporters, I am the one that has covered you the longest?”
Without missing a beat Martha said, “Yes and you were always the meanest.”
I replied, “Richard Johnson [The Post’s longtime PageSix editor] “will be very disappointed to hear that.”
John Kennedy Jr. chided me once for lambasting him over a photo of himself that he published in his editor’s note in George magazine, in which the one-time Sexiest Man Alive appeared to be posing nearly nude.
He was actually wearing a bathing suit, but a shadow covered his mid-region, so there was the hint that the hunk might indeed have been letting it all hang out. It helped flagging newsstand sales, but advertisers did not like it, I wrote at the time.
“Nude is nude,” Kennedy wrote in his letter to me. “That’s not nude. Perhaps you spent too much time in Catholic school.” He signed it, “Cheers, John Kennedy.” It was one of two snail-mail letters from him I still keep locked in the family safe.
I heard afterwards, that JFK Jr. had personally called the ad agency execs quoted in my story to explain the editorial mission. Needless to say, they all took the call.
Long before he landed at The New Yorker, David Remnick was already a Pulitzer Prize winner from his days at the Washington Post and his work in Moscow. And he has won more National Magazine Awards at The New Yorker than any of his peers in the magazine world.
But Remnick was always gracious. He was one of the first to call me last month after news of my retirement broke. And he leveled the best praise a reporter could have. “You were tough but fair.”
My only regret is that when his name first surfaced as a potential replacement for the legendary Tina Brown, I set the odds at 50 to 1 that he’d ever land the job. Sorry about that, David. But, hey, at least we had you in the game.
When The Post came knocking in July 1998, Pete Hamill had already left the Daily News — where he had hired me to work during his brief stint as editor-in-chief — after clashing with then-owner Mort Zuckerman.
But as my lifelong literary hero, I had to get his advice. My politics, like Pete’s, were generally left of center and I worried at the time about The Post’s decidedly right-of-center bent. But Pete advised it probably would not be a problem if I stuck to what I was hired to do and did it better than anyone.
And he told me not to tell the News where I was going. “It’s none of their business,” he said in his gravelly, streetwise Brooklyn accent.
So I made the jump and have been here for 23 mostly glorious years, even writing a tribute to Hamill last year when he died at 85.
When David Carr came to town — working for what would become a spectacular flameout, Kurt Andersen’s Powerful Media — he was still relatively unknown, noted mainly for editing the alternative weekly Washington City Paper.
He invited me to lunch at Broadway Langan’s, owned by Irish-born saloonkeeper Des O’Brien, which Carr already knew was the favored Post hangout.
He always hated to lose, but generally complimented you if you beat him to the punch — even after he moved to the New York Times. He loved working for The Times, just as I loved working for The Post. And he was always a little crazy — in a good way.
When I got ticked off that he was getting too many of what I termed “gift-wrapped scoops,” he responded: “You’re just mad because you finally have some competition.” God rest his soul. He died at his desk in The Times newsroom on Feb. 12, 2015, at age 58.
Best Photo Op
I was working a story at Rao’s, the famously hard-to-get-into Italian restaurant in East Harlem. This was in the early days of the smoking ban when the Bloomberg administration was fining establishments that violated the new city law.
At one of the side booths, Graydon Carter, then the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair and his wife were dining with billionaire Ron Perelman and his wife. When dinner was over, Carter asked for the now verboten ashtray so he, a famous chain smoker, could enjoy an after-dinner smoke.
“Graydon Carter is smoking a cigarette,” noted Jennifer Ceasar, the photographer I had brought on my assignment. I told her to take the shot and so she hid behind my shoulder and snapped Carter lighting up.
Two days later the shot was published in the paper with the word, “Rebel” slapped diagonally across the top. We didn’t identify the restaurant, but apparently the distinctive photos on the wall left little doubt where it was taken.
As I was leaving work that day, I happened to bump into the Post’s editor-in-chief Col Allan. “I got a call from Graydon Carter this morning,” he said. “Oh yeah?” I said, expecting to hear the worst. “He said he always wanted to be described as a rebel on the pages of the New York Post.”
On 9/11, many of our reporters were stuck in the outer boroughs because all the bridges and tunnels were closed and the subways had shut down. I managed to walk (and run) from our apartment in Stuyvesant Town to The Post’s midtown Manhattan offices after I saw the towers fall that morning.
I volunteered to go down to Ground Zero, but Jesse Angelo, the city editor at the time, turned me down. “I’m not sending a father of two young kids down to the World Trade Center today.” (I had two sons then: Ruairi, not quite 4, and Luke, not quite 2. Eamon would not show up for another year.)
The next morning, Rich Wilner — who would go on to become The Post’s longtime business editor — was on city desk duty. And he okayed me to head downtown. The story I wrote became a two-page spread in next day’s paper: “Painful Return to Edge of Hell.” The famous photo to the firefighters raising Old Glory, shot by a photographer of the Bergen Record, was featured along with it on the front page.
By the following Sunday, most of the other columnists were exhausted after working round the clock, so Jesse asked me to cover an evening mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for first responders and the friends and family of victims. Cardinal Egan said instead of calling the WTC site “Ground Zero,” he liked to call it “Ground Hero” because of the way New Yorkers had pulled together in a time of crisis.
I will never forget the young woman I interviewed waiting on the long line to attend the service. She was a nursery school teacher at the Buckle My Shoe School and she saw the towers fall from the school’s window, knowing that her fiancé was inside. The name of the school and the horror she witnessed still brings a tear to my eyes.
I will also never forget my coverage of NYPD officer Vinny Danz, the first police officer who died on 9/11 to get a memorial service. Vinny — who had just moved from his station in the Bronx to a unit on E. 20th St in Manhattan — called his wife Angela at 9:50 a.m. after the Twin Towers had been struck:
“Hi hon, it’s me,” he said in the message he’d left on the answering machine. “There are a lot of hurt people here. Please pray for them and pray for me. I love you. I’ll talk to you when I get out of here.”
Danz never spoke to Angela again. Thirty-eight minutes later, the North Tower collapsed. And as the day of his memorial service approached, they still had not found his remains. Angela gave me her only interview, which was published in The Post the day of his memorial.
I remember that day hearing a WCBS 880 reporter on the steps of the church where the memorial was being held say: “Angela tells her daughters, ‘Daddy is in Heaven now.” The SOB was using my quote with no attribution to The Post! But I never complained because there were many more important things to worry about at that time.
In 2011, someone contacted me with an explosive tip: a New Yorker writer guilty of plagiarism.
Big story if true. So I began interviewing all the people the writer, Jane Mayer, had allegedly ripped off. But to a person they said it was not true. Reporters I called said Mayer had properly credited them whenever she relied on their information for a 10,000-word story on the Charles and David Koch — the billionaire brothers she claimed were secretly financing the Tea Party movement.
I told our editors what I found: No plagiarism. It instead smacks of someone trying and smear the writer. The editors, all the way to the top, okayed the story. And the headline the next day read: “Smear Disappears.”
In 2016, Jane Mayer published her book “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.” Among the nuggets: private detective she had hired cornered the private detective tailing her who admitted he was working for the Koch brothers.
In the book, she recalled the dread she felt when my original call had gone into the New Yorker about plagiarism. She was worried that if it had been written that way, it would forever pop up on Google. And she said in her book that she was forever grateful that we ran the story discrediting the claims.
Tina Brown was always a blast to cover. And as the one-time editor of The Tattler in London, she totally understood The Post’s high-brow/low-brow balancing act, and her Fleet Street cred helped enliven The New Yorker magazine.
She probably had the sharpest wit of any editor I’ve encountered. When she found I was jumping to The Post, she penned a letter (yes, with a stamp) that I still have. “I’m very excited to hear about your move to the New York Post,” she wrote, adding “although my husband [Harold Evans, who was then the editorial director for all of Mort Zuckerman-owned publications including the Daily News] “is considerably less excited than I am.”
The launch party she and her publisher Ron Galotti tossed in 1999 for Talk magazine on Liberty Island (after then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani refused to give them a permit to hold it on the waterfront at the Brooklyn Navy Yard) turned out to to be the last great party in the golden era of magazine publishing. Every celebrity in the world from politics to Hollywood it seemed turned out for the party.
Talk’s backers pulled the plug in the wake of the 2001 recession. Our front page headline the next day was: “Talk Shuts Up”
Kelly Gang Inc.
The Kelly Gang started almost as a lark, as a social gathering when a bunch of media folks with the surname Kelly ended up getting big promotions around the turn of the century.
Tom Kelly had landed a big book deal for his first novel, Ed Kelly was tapped as president of American Express Publishing, Jim Kelly was the top editor of Time magazine.
Michael Kelly was running Atlantic magazine while another Mike Kelly had left Entertainment Weekly to try a digital venture. Top cop Ray Kelly joined in with us media types early on.
Tragedy struck in 2003 when journalist Michael Kelly, who had written “Martyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War,” was killed while covering the war in Iraq. The next year, 2004 on his St. Patrick’s Day birthday, we threw a fundraiser at Michael’s Restaurant for the Tom and Jack Kelly Education Fund to raise money for Michael Kelly’s kids.
It was supposed to be a one-time event, but so many media people turned out and asked that we do it again that we decided to keep it going as a charity. We picked a different one each year, ranging from Wounded Warriors, to the Kips Bay Boys and Girls Club to Cristo Rey High School to the Breezy Point Disaster Relief Fund.
Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly appeared twice as did former Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly. To date, the Kelly Gang Inc. raised over $1 million for charities, and it is my fervent hope that it continues long after Media Ink is gone.
Thanks to my two predecessors in the Media Ink column, Maureen O’Brian and Michael Shain. While I ended up with the longest run at its helm, it would not have existed without both of you.
Thanks to all my editors, too numerous to mention, who saved me from going overboard at times, and who threw me life preservers when I was the man overboard.
Thanks to my wife Pat for putting up with all the trials and tribulations that a journalist’s family has to tolerate. And my three sons, who never quite understood why I could not ask my bosses to let me cover the Mets instead of the media business. (I told them if I did sports, I’d be on the road half the time and could not coach Little League or soccer.)
And thank you dear readers going back nearly 34 years to my days at Magazine Week, Folio, Advertising Age and the Daily News — especially readers of the New York Post for making me part of the media scene here for the past 23 years.
I had a blast, and I hope you, dear readers in the media world and beyond, had half as much fun reading Media Ink as I did writing it.