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James Fallows Fired After Stormy Tenure At U.S. News

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 1998

  Style Showcase


    Fallows Fallow's tenure of U.S. News lasted 22 months. (Bill O'Leary/The Post)
James Fallows, the acerbic media critic and magazine writer who was elevated to editor of U.S. News & World Report, has been fired after 22 months.

Stephen Smith, a former editor at Newsweek, Time and Knight Ridder who now runs National Journal, has been tapped as Fallows's successor, according to a knowledgeable source.

In a meeting yesterday that prompted some tears among staffers, Fallows attributed his ouster to his disagreements with owner Mortimer Zuckerman. These included Zuckerman's cutting of the magazine's editorial budget and pushing for more rehashing of the previous week's news, Fallows said. And there were other clashes: Three staffers say Fallows resisted Zuckerman's attempt to have a piece on Hispanic culture assigned to celebrity socialite Bianca Jagger, whom Zuckerman once dated.

Harold Evans, the former Random House presi dent who is now Zuckerman's editorial director, insisted he made the decision to replace Fallows, although he said Zuckerman was "supportive."

But much of Fallows's staff blamed Zuckerman. "It is just sort of a pathology on Mort's part," said senior writer Timothy Noah. "He just couldn't stand Fallows making the magazine his own magazine. . . . The bottom line is that Mort has been sabotaging his own magazine, and it's been sickening to watch."

"The better the magazine got, the angrier Mort got," said Steven Waldman, the national affairs editor. "That's the psychology here I can't pretend to understand."

Zuckerman was incensed, staffers said, when Fallows abruptly announced his dismissal, which came after negotiations over a separation agreement broke down. Fallows spoke to Zuckerman afterward and then sent out an e-mail message saying Zuckerman wanted it known that his firing was Evans's decision.

Among the decisions forced on Fallows was a plan for U.S. News to run a 10-part serialization of Evans's forthcoming book on American history. "Jim's been struggling with his conscience over this for some time," a Fallows confidant said. Evans said Zuckerman acquired the serial rights when Evans was hired last fall but that the plans were not final.

Fallows, 48, declined to comment yesterday. In reading a 19-page speech to his staff, he said: "When an owner and an editor 'disagree' about a magazine's direction, the owner's view prevails. . . . I will always be proud of what we have done together."

After the shooting of fashion designer Gianni Versace, Fallows said, several newsmagazines gave the killing "15 pages or more, and Mort was highly critical that we had given it only a few." (Actually, U.S. News ran a one-page story.) But Fallows said the magazine avoids "celebrity news" and that "it was not worth rehashing last week's events to that degree." He said his philosophy "has been mischaracterized – often by people who have been fired – as an aversion to news in general."

Ironically, the ax fell after Fallows was all over television last week promoting what was probably the magazine's biggest scoop ever, a report on two hours of previously undisclosed Monica Lewinsky tapes.

Zuckerman, a developer who also owns the New York Daily News and the Atlantic magazine, did not respond to a telephone message yesterday. He went through four editors in five years after buying Washington-based U.S. News in 1984, and last year fired Daily News Editor Pete Hamill.

Evans said he was "not prepared to go into detailed criticisms of Jim, who has made a contribution to the magazine." He said only that "it's time for a change." Earlier this month, after months of review, "I made it clear to Jim that he should be prepared to relinquish his position."

Maintaining that the decision was his, not Zuckerman's, Evans said: "I have not been known simply to be a lapdog." He said it was his contractual responsibility to hire and fire editors: "Otherwise, what's the point in having me?"

U.S. News (circulation 2.2 million) has remained the No. 3 newsmagazine under Fallows, trailing Time (4.2 million) and Newsweek (3.2 million). It has the smallest staff, the fewest pages and the earliest deadlines. While advertising sales have been rising for two years, Noah and other staffers say Zuckerman has cut the budget for travel and part-time stringers and closed three of the five foreign bureaus, in London, Jerusalem and Beijing.

Fallows, a protege of Washington Monthly Editor Charlie Peters, is a former Jimmy Carter speechwriter who became Washington editor of the Atlantic and a National Public Radio commentator. Many in Washington's media establishment regard him as sanctimonious for his criticism, particularly in his book "Breaking the News," of journalists who sound off on television and rake in big speaking fees. And many were rooting for him to fail.

Fallows caused considerable turmoil even before moving in by firing two top editors and political writer Steven Roberts; others, including columnist Michael Barone and investigative reporter and editor Brian Duffy, left soon afterward. Now an exodus of Fallows loyalists is widely expected.

"People are really shaken," Waldman said. "Everyone's sort of assessing their options."

"I'm deeply disappointed because Jim had an enormous commitment to putting out an interesting and engaging magazine and he gave every drop of blood he had," said Ronald Brownstein, the political columnist lured from the Los Angeles Times. "If that's not good enough, it's hard to see what would be."

Reviews of the brief Fallows era were decidedly mixed. The magazine drew praise for some of its trend-setting reporting on science, religion and social policy, but was ridiculed for a cover story on how Julia Child changed American society. After U.S. News devoted one page to last summer's attempted coup against House Speaker Newt Gingrich, talk grew louder that Zuckerman felt Fallows was blowing off important stories.

"I thought it was a thoughtful magazine, but probably drifted a bit far from the news," said Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson.

While many journalists criticized Fallows for focusing on "policy-wonkery," as one former reporter put it, some on his staff praised him for standing up to meddling by Zuckerman, who holds the title of editor in chief. "Everything I've seen of Mort's editorial instincts has suggested to me that while he's a brilliant real estate tycoon, he does not have very good news sense and it's dictated by cocktail party chatter," Noah said.

Rumors about Fallows's impending unemployment had reached the point that the magazine was having trouble recruiting staff, prompting Fallows's announcement yesterday. Waldman said it was hard "to ask people to break their back and work their hearts out and have the owner either taking shots at you in the press or being unwilling to correct criticisms made of us."

Fallows, who had never been a news manager, has told friends he would probably return to some combination of magazine work, book writing and radio commentary. The selection of Smith, 49, who has transformed National Journal by hiring such high-profile columnists as Michael Kelly and Stuart Taylor Jr., will probably be announced this week.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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