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Media Notes: Howard Kurtz on New York Magazine's Adam Moss

(Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 7, 2009

NEW YORK -- When Adam Moss put "The Sex Diaries" on the cover of his magazine -- explicit jottings from such hot- to-trot folks as "The Polyamorous Paralegal" and "The Trader Who Will Fly for Sex" -- it hardly seemed like a subject fit to print for the New York Times.

Yet days after the late-October story, Times columnist David Brooks was soon applying erudite analysis to how "the diarists are often texting multiple possible partners in search of the best arrangement." And for Moss, that response was why he came to New York Magazine, after running the Times Magazine, five years ago -- to spark conversations on far-flung subjects.

The previous owners "made it into a generic city magazine," Moss says, sipping bottled water in his SoHo office. "It was a magazine about a point of view. There was a New York-ish way of looking at the world."

Moss, 52, wields that asphalt-jungle perspective, but doesn't hit the Manhattan social circuit so lavishly chronicled by the magazine. "Adam is a workaholic," says political columnist John Heilemann. "You won't see him at Michael's schmoozing. His life is the magazine. He's neurotic and crazy in making sure everything's exactly as it should be."

Perhaps that makes Moss well suited to this city, which is also a little neurotic and crazy. But the anxiety level shot up in October when New York's owner, investment banker Bruce Wasserstein, suddenly died of a heart attack. It was only after Wasserstein's family announced that it had no plans to sell the magazine that staffers began to resume normal breathing.

Wasserstein had bought the publication in 2004 from Primedia, owned mainly by the buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. Wasserstein "owned the joint, but he let us run the place," Moss says. "It was only after he was gone that I realized how much, actually, I cared about him as a person. I was surprised by how much grief I felt."

One way that Moss has put his stamp on the weekly is by attracting top writers. Over dinner, he talked Kurt Andersen, whom KKR had fired as the magazine's editor in 1996, into returning as a columnist. Moss "has done an amazingly good job," Andersen says. "He doesn't put his feet up and relax. He really is obsessed in a self-critical way in trying to make it both good and popular."

The nation's best and most-imitated city magazine is often not about the city -- at least not in the overcrowded, traffic-clogged, five-boroughs sense. Sure, some cover stories scream New York: "Is Goldman Sachs Evil?" "Bernie Madoff, Monster," with the crooked trader depicted as The Joker. "Last of the Schlemiels," with Woody Allen and Larry David. And the photo of Client No. 9, Eliot Spitzer, with a red arrow -- labeled "Brain" -- pointing to his zipper.

But what about the recent cover story on Nancy Pelosi? What does the House speaker have to do with the Big Apple? "No good reason," Moss says, but his high-profile reporter Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote it, and Pelosi "filtered through Vanessa's eyes becomes a natural for us."

Here is part of that filtering: "The Nancy Pelosi smile, as you may have noticed, is a thing to behold, mostly released in conjunction with serial spasms of eye-widening, an odd tic that is likely meant to connote sincerity and optimism (wide-eyedness and all that). Her smile, too, is very big and very quick, coming out of almost nowhere like the Cheshire Cat's, then disappearing without a trace, often replaced by a wholly unnecessary grimace, a look of vast disappointment at some slight, threat, or sign of disrespect -- either real or imagined." For good measure, the piece said Pelosi has been criticized as "a castrating San Franciscan shrew."

Pelosi's office was appalled. Nita Lowey, a fellow House Democrat, says she was furious about the "sexist" piece: "It would never be written about a man. The focus on her looks was so extraordinarily offensive." Moss dismisses the criticism, saying "the thrust of the piece was that she got things done. Nothing sexist in that."

New York, once the Sunday magazine of the old Herald Tribune, was founded in 1968 by New Journalism guru Clay Felker, and over the years has showcased such writers as Tom Wolfe, Nora Ephron, Gloria Steinem, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, Richard Reeves, Dick Schaap, Woody Allen and George Plimpton.


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