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  • In George, Room for All Kinds Of Views

    By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, July 19, 1999; Page C1

    When conservative Republican Ann Coulter turned in her first George magazine column, about health care, John Kennedy Jr. wanted more specifics.

    Fine, said Coulter. "So I sent in a paragraph denouncing Teddy Kennedy's proposal and it ran!" Kennedy, she said yesterday, "was totally fair and even-handed. He wanted people to be reading ideas, and it didn't matter that he didn't agree with them."

    Perhaps it is no accident that George, the nonpolitical magazine about politics, reflected the inescapable paradox of Kennedy's life.

    Kennedy cast himself, as one friend put it, as "the anti-celebrity," which was of course impossible for someone whose fame preceded his 1960 entrance into the world. But if Kennedy was the natural politician who never ran for office, George became the political monthly that kept an ironic distance from politics, built on storytelling and irreverence and lists of the most famous and the most fatuous but notably without sharp partisan edges.

    With rare exceptions, Kennedy's magazine did not put politicians on the cover. Instead, he often selected babes Elizabeth Hurley, Pamela Anderson, Julia Roberts, Demi Moore, Cindy Crawford, Calista Flockhart, Salma Hayek in brightly colored or scanty costumes, along with such hunks as Tom Hanks, Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis and George Clooney.

    The combination never quite jelled, and the magazine's long lead time prevents it from jumping on the news. A number of journalists said over the weekend that they had stopped reading George, or were paying it little attention. They were not Kennedy's prime audience, of course, but it's hard to imagine even a quasi-political magazine succeeding if those who chronicle politics consider it marginal.

    Colleagues say Kennedy never allowed his personal views, even his disgust over a topic, to interfere with the magazine's agenda. He refused even to veto pieces about the sex lives of public officials, though he surely must have been hurt by the posthumous revelations about his father's White House escapades and chafed at the relentless focus on his own romantic life.

    Shellshocked George staffers, gathered at the office over the weekend, refused to say anything publicly until the missing Kennedy plane is found near Martha's Vineyard. They remain fiercely protective of his privacy, noting that most of those blabbing on television didn't really know Kennedy and that his real friends are staying quiet.

    Since Kennedy, while a certified nice guy, was not a figure of major accomplishment, the explosion of coverage to Princess Di levels speaks more to the emotional connection to his family and the images people have had of him since his John-John days in short pants. In the familiar ritual of national mourning, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings took to the airwaves all day Saturday, and yesterday the all-news cable networks stuck with wall-to-wall coverage of the frustrating search.

    The newsmagazines all crashed new cover stories, and the decision cost hundreds of thousands of dollars at U.S. News & World Report. Mort Zuckerman's magazine closed as usual Friday night, and 2 million copies were awaiting delivery when the decision came to scrap them and produce a new issue on "The Kennedy Curse."

    At George's 1995 launch, Kennedy said that "a couple of issues down the line, my last name isn't really going to matter." But, of course, it did, which is why his creation may not be able to survive him.

    Easy Money

    Journalists covering fledgling Internet companies are constantly dazzled by the huge profits involved. A San Jose Mercury News reporter decided to get in on the action and wound up getting suspended for an indefinite period.

    Chris Nolan, a high-tech gossip columnist, accepted an offer of 500 shares of Autoweb.com, a Net car-shopping service, before it went public in the spring. Nolan was given the opening price of $14 a share the sort of deal generally available only to insiders and top brokerage customers and sold after the stock hit the market for $29 and $45. Her profit: $9,000.

    "What Chris Nolan did clearly creates the appearance of a conflict of interest, if not an actual conflict," says Editor David Yarnold. "What she did was wrong and cast the credibility of the Mercury News into question, and that makes me angry and upset."

    Nolan told the Wall Street Journal, which disclosed the transaction, that "I frankly needed the money. We don't take vows of poverty and chastity when we go into the newspaper business." Yarnold calls that claim "an insult to the Mercury News. She makes a six-figure salary. I think that's preposterous."

    Nolan told her paper she is friends with the Autoweb executive. She mentioned him once in a column about a fund-raiser but said she planned never to write about him again. Nolan tried to clear the deal with an assistant business editor who now says the matter slipped his mind.

    Pundit Under Fire

    Arizona Sen. John McCain sure took a few swipes at Newsweek's Howard Fineman.

    After Fineman all but declared victory for George W. Bush on "Imus in the Morning," GOP presidential candidate McCain said Fineman was one of the Washington "gasbags" who had "parachuted" into New Hampshire. "He doesn't have a clue as to what's going on in New Hampshire. . . . I'm sure Howard is relaying with great accuracy everything he hears at cocktail parties here in Washington," McCain told Imus.

    Fineman quickly called the show to tell McCain he has "a great shot." He now says the senator "has a point" about Beltway chatter, but that he's logged thousands of miles on the campaign trail. "I was just calling to joke with him, but also to point out that I'm not a stranger to New Hampshire either. I've made a half-dozen trips there during the campaign."

    Not to worry: McCain sent Fineman some red boxing gloves and suggested they duke it out on pay-per-view.

    Hillary Agonistes

    A book about a Senate race? Not too many of those around. But the expected showdown between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudy Giuliani has changed the landscape. New York magazine columnist Michael Tomasky has agreed to pen a campaign book for Free Press for early 2001. "This is a race that's going to have a lot of passion, and political and cultural meaning that even the presidential race won't have," he says.

    News for Sale

    The Fox affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn., recently found an unorthodox way to boost revenue.

    "Fox-61 News is the most credible programming for the image of your company," said a sales circular obtained by the Associated Press. "When an organization is involved with positive news coverage, that organization is looked upon extremely favorable [sic] in the community."

    The deal: A business pays $15,000 for a news segment that would run three times in one day on WDSI-TV, along with 18 promotional spots.

    David Janecek, vice president for news at Pegasus Broadcast Television, which owns WDSI, says the pitch was "certainly a mistake." He blames the inexperience of a station that didn't have a news team until six months ago, saying he was supposed to clear any initiative by the sales department.

    "This never saw the light of day," Janecek says. "I immediately had it yanked from the street."

    Lead of the Week

    "Is Dubya dumb?" Roger Simon in a U.S. News & World Report piece assessing the smarts of George W. Bush.

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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