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Ex-Editor, U.S. News
Divided Over Split


By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 28, 1998

  Style Showcase


    Fallows Fallow's tenure of U.S. News lasted 22 months. (Bill O'Leary/The Post)
When James Fallows announced his own firing as editor of U.S. News & World Report last month, he blamed it on a fundamental clash of vision with the magazine's owner, Mort Zuckerman.

That was just the beginning of mutual recriminations so bitter that Fallows and Zuckerman are still haggling over a severance package. Zuckerman and his deputy, Harold Evans, believe that Fallows failed miserably as an editor while wrapping himself in a cloak of self-righteousness.

In an angry 10-page letter to Fallows, obtained by The Washington Post from another source, Evans accused him of being "doubly disingenuous" in describing his dismissal as a matter of editorial differences with Zuckerman. In fact, said Evans, Fallows's final weeks on the job "were occupied not by discussions of journalistic principle but by the negotiations you conducted . . . to increase the level of your departing compensation."

Fallows, in response, says that "Mort deserves to have the person he wants running the magazine," but adds this jab at Zuckerman's record: "It's hard to think of successful magazines that have rapid turnover of editors."

The ill-fated tenure of Jim Fallows highlights the hazardous, musical-chairs world of magazine editing, where the trick is to please three crucial constituencies: readers, advertisers and – perhaps most important – the boss. Far more than newspapers or networks, a magazine reflects the personality of its journalistic leader, who tends to bring in a coterie of hotshots who share his or her vision. The New Yorker's advertising trumpeted that it was "Edited by Tina Brown" – that is, until she quit and was replaced by writer David Remnick.

Indeed, U.S. News had been planning a fall television campaign featuring Fallows as the pitchman. But, as he quickly learned, an editor's job security is roughly equivalent to that of a baseball manager with a struggling team.

What began less than two years ago as an unorthodox experiment – Fallows, an author, media critic and onetime Carter White House speechwriter, had never been an editor – has ended in finger-pointing. Sources familiar with Zuckerman's thinking say he believes Fallows polluted the news columns with opinion, was too detached from the week's news and drove dozens of talented people out of the magazine.

Fallows and his loyalists portray Zuckerman and Evans as heavy-handed meddlers who pushed dumb ideas and tried to use the magazine to promote their friends. And some U.S. News staffers worry that future editors, if they show signs of an independent vision, will ultimately encounter the same problems with Zuckerman.

Zuckerman has told friends that he has erred by turning star writers into editors – such as Fallows and Pete Hamill, later fired from the New York Daily News – because their sizable egos and strong views make it difficult for them to run a collaborative enterprise.

Over time he came to view Fallows as someone who didn't understand the values of a newsmagazine. Last fall, for example, Fallows was considering a cover story in which a disgruntled doctor blasted the practices of health maintenance organizations. Working title: "The Patient Is the Enemy."

Zuckerman thought the piece was terribly one-sided, part of a pattern of editorials masquerading as news stories. He ordered up a more balanced article that ran with the headline: "Are HMOs the Right Prescription?"

Fallows's supporters dismiss such objections as after-the-fact rationalizations, saying Fallows became more vigilant about opinionated stories after Zuckerman kept pressing the issue. They say Zuckerman soured on Fallows because the editor was constantly trashed by the media establishment he has long criticized.

"The pressure I was putting on people was to make sure things were played straight," Fallows says. But, he adds, "If every single paragraph is balanced, you may get nothing. Balance can come over the course of weeks."

There were other battles. In February, Evans told Fallows to send a reporter to Ohio to cover hostile reaction there to the White House foreign policy team talking up military action against Iraq. Zuckerman and Evans were stunned to discover that the editor hadn't done it. Fallows offered excuses – his reporters were all busy, the freelance budget was limited – but they saw it as fresh evidence that he cared little about breaking news.

"There was a failure of communication," Fallows says. "I didn't understand this was an order. I thought it was a suggestion. If I had understood it to be an order, we would've done it."

Zuckerman repeatedly urged Fallows to jump on such breaking stories as the attempted Republican coup against Newt Gingrich and the peace negotiations in Northern Ireland. The owner was disappointed each time. Both Zuckerman and Evans urged Fallows to use Daily News reporter Fintan O'Toole on the Irish situation and complained when O'Toole was given just two pages.

"We published almost 2,000 articles during the time I was there," Fallows says. In this case, he says, "the Irish peace talks were mishandled."

Evans asked Fallows to put together a dramatic story on reports of a comet heading for Earth. The resulting piece, said Evans, was "perfunctory." He also criticized the magazine's coverage of the Monica Lewinsky investigation as "slow off the mark and weak initially." Zuckerman felt the problems with Fallows's approach were reflected in declining newsstand sales.

News judgment, of course, is inherently subjective. Fallows says the magazine excelled at business and technology coverage and smart, ahead-of-the-curve pieces on such topics as charter schools, credit-card fraud and religious pressure on the Republican Party. "U.S. News knows it's the smallest, has the least money, closes a day earlier than the other two newsmagazines," he says. "It has to concentrate on areas where it can win. . . . I am proud of what we did."

But Zuckerman and Evans were frustrated by what they saw as a clique of insiders around Fallows that made many reporters feel like second-class citizens – a magazine "divided between the new and old guard," as Evans put it. Zuckerman was particularly upset at the loss of more than 50 staffers, a process that began when Fallows fired or demoted five senior editors and axed political writer Steve Roberts even before taking the helm.

Robin Knight, whom Fallows terminated as London correspondent, told Zuckerman in a letter: "The tragedy of the Fallows era is the huge damage that has been caused to so many lives. . . . The folly of appointing Fallows as editor ruined my career and devalued 28 years' commitment to U.S. News & World Report." Fallows dismisses Knight as "an aggrieved party."

Fallows's allies maintain that divisions on the staff diminished over time, particularly as his most vociferous critics left the magazine. As for the turmoil of his early months, Fallows says: "My instructions were to make big changes."

The carping by Zuckerman and Evans, as the Fallows camp sees it, sometimes involved efforts to push their friends. Staffers say Evans, the magazine's editorial director, promoted authors he had helped recruit when he was president of Random House.

One was liberal columnist Joe Conason, whom Evans wanted to profile Clinton-bashing publisher Richard Mellon Scaife; Fallows was wary of Conason's politics, and while Conason was paid for the piece, it still hasn't run. Another was paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, who recently published a memoir. "I called Reeve myself and asked him and his contacts to be exclusively available to U.S. News," Evans said. Fallows raised what Evans calls "nonsense objections" that this was "celebrity journalism," but the profile eventually ran.

Such controversies are continuing. Some U.S. News staffers have complained about Evans making suggestions on the story about Tina Brown's departure from the New Yorker, despite the fact that they are married. Brown "has become a brand, a kind of literary Martha Stewart," gushed the story, which included precisely one sentence reflecting criticism of her stewardship.

Evans says he always tries to correct errors but that "the final call is the editor's." Stephen Smith, Fallows's successor as editor, says Evans was asked to read the Brown story for accuracy, caught one mistake and made one suggestion at Smith's request. "This was an amicable and above-board transaction," Smith says.

U.S. News staffers still hoot about Zuckerman trying to assign a story on Hispanic culture to his friend, socialite Bianca Jagger. Zuckerman says reports that he dated Jagger are false and that he asked only that she be consulted on the story.

The constant infighting turned Fallows's final months into a bad melodrama. Rumors about his impending doom made hiring difficult; several journalists called to say they had been sounded out about his job. Finally, Evans asked Fallows to step down by the end of August, first privately and then at a June 15 meeting in Zuckerman's office. Fallows made a last-minute appeal to Zuckerman, asking if this was what he really wanted, but to no avail.

The maneuvering infuriated Evans. "You seemed to regard my role as simply that of a buffer or cushion between you and Mort. . . . You, bluntly, were more concerned to appease his supposed hostility than to confront my journalistic misgivings," he wrote.

On June 29, Fallows launched a preemptive strike, announcing his own firing at a staff meeting and releasing a 19-page letter blaming it on disagreements with Zuckerman. Management came to call this his "Pearl Harbor" attack. That night, Zuckerman and Evans scrambled to close a deal with Smith, the editor of National Journal, to replace Fallows.

Zuckerman praises Smith in a way that suggests his disdain for Fallows. He says Smith "was brought in to re-focus the balance of U.S. News & World Report to news, breaking news and making news, while still devoting appropriate attention and space to the world of ideas, and to convey this news in an authoritative, non-editorializing manner." Smith, he pointedly notes, will lead the staff "in a coherent and unified way."

A few Fallows loyalists have left, such as top editors Steven Waldman and Timothy Noah, and political columnist Ronald Brownstein has returned to the Los Angeles Times after concluding that he missed daily journalism. Smith says he plans no major shake-up.

Fallows, meanwhile, is still fighting over his severance package. He initially argued that Zuckerman should pay severance for the two decades he has worked for the real estate developer, mainly at the Atlantic Monthly. Zuckerman countered with what he views as a more than generous offer – but based on the editor's 22 months at U.S. News. The two sides have now agreed on a figure but remain at odds over language restricting what Fallows can say publicly about his tenure.

"The company has a severance formula for employees who are fired," Fallows says. "What's at issue now is how that applies to me."

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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