It’s a struggle to come up with a fitting analogy for the career path of onetime media mogul confidant Michael Wolff, an engaging writer who, after maybe five years of near-ubiquity at New York, now ruminates in obscurity. Maybe he’s the Jason Giambi of print journalism: Like the onetime Yankees slugger (owed some $80 million by the team), Wolff, after losing a highly visible attempt to buy New York, signed a lucrative deal with Vanity Fair, praised a star by editor Graydon Carter, only to virtually disappear from that monthly’s pages. Wolff’s body didn’t shrink and burst with parasites, but in his world—the elite lunch crowd in Manhattan—he’s a pariah.
More optimistically, you can see Wolff as Bill Clinton in early 2001 after the Marc Rich pardon and public feud with Al Gore. Clinton had to be dragged from the White House, and when he tried to secure pricey offices in midtown the outcry was such that the first black president was forced into damage control and wound up in Harlem. Some of his planned lectures were canceled, postponing a huge payday, but the ever-resilient Clinton recovered and today has not only a very large bank account but is once again considered the sage of the Democratic party. I’m not exactly sure why that is; Clinton was a genius at getting himself elected but wasn’t of much use to his colleagues, losing a congressional majority and failing spectacularly in the 2002 midterm elections.
Nevertheless, while Wolff has emerged as a .200 hitter for Vanity Fair, getting benched most months, his essay in the June issue, “No Jokes, Please, We’re Liberal,” has ruffled feathers just like his weekly columns did in New York. I happen to like Wolff, both personally and professionally, since he has an attribute that’s rare among his crowd: thick skin. Call him a brown-nosing shill and he’ll just move along, perhaps filing the insult for future use, but not issuing a call for pistols at dawn.
It’s a little strange that Carter, in his “Editor’s Letter,” praises Wolff’s current column as “superb,” but hasn’t seen fit to print his pieces 10 times a year as promised, but then the former smoker has bigger fish to fry, one imagines, like stopping the war in Iraq. In any case, Wolff chastises his fellow liberals for their general lack of humor—I could’ve told him that a decade ago—and singles out Fox News’ Roger Aisles as a swashbuckler who’s having a lot of fun these days, unlike the “earnest” stiffs at The New York Times, New York and, in a weird waste of space, the staff at Slate.
It’s true that Slate, recently sold by Microsoft to The Washington Post, is one rugged online destination, the creamed spinach to Gawker’s Ring Dings, but I do think that Wolff is a little off in his description of the website. He writes: “I have never actually met anyone who has read Slate who hasn’t at one time worked at Slate or considered hiring someone who might have worked at Slate… The real problem with Slate is that nobody who works at Slate actually wants to be working at Slate. The people who work at Slate are not people who get pleasure out of telling their parents they work for an online magazine. Rather, the kind of people who work at Slate want to be working at the Times.”
No doubt there’s some truth in that, but the same could be said about any number of print or online venues. The logic eludes me, but the notion that the Times represents ultimate status among those who want to teach lesser mortals how to think still exists today. When Wolff describes the ethos of Slate as, “We’re smart people communing with like-minded smart people, marveling together at the quaint habits of the regular people,” he could be talking about any number of publications and journalists.
Wolff slags Slate editor Jacob Weisberg as an “ambitious climber up the liberal-media ladder,” which seems accurate to me, considering his decade-long successful attempt to insinuate himself among the Beltway intelligentsia, but I doubt he wants to leave Slate for the Times. First, he’s probably paid very well—I once contributed a piece to Slate and the fee was handsome—and a position at the Times would probably force him to shut down his side business of collecting “Bushisms” for paperback stocking stuffers, a not inconsiderable perk.
And would the Times allow Weisberg to continue his Slate column, “The Big Idea,” the title of which showcases the author’s astonishingly self-regard? Probably not.
Jack Shafer, an acclaimed former weekly newspaper editor, has been at Slate since the project began and currently writes fairly entertaining media criticism, even if his tone, as Wolff suggests, is reminiscent of a hall monitor. For some reason, that insult got under Shafer’s skin, even more than being called “Michael Kinsley’s butt boy.” I guess it hit a nerve in Shafer’s past, like someone dredging up the embarrassing tidbit that you were once a member of an REO Speedwagon fan club (I peg Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter for that one). Shafer, who usually can take a shot, responded in Slate on May 5 that Wolff’s column was an unfocused sour-grapes complaint for losing the New York “auction” and accused him of “public masturbation.” Not one of Jack’s classic put-downs.
(For the record, I’ve said in the past that Shafer’s true calling is replacing the slimy Howard Kurtz as the Washington Post’s media critic, or failing that, getting close to Kinsley’s butt in the same function at the Los Angeles Times, putting David Shaw out to pasture.)
There is, I guess, an element of bitterness in Wolff’s piece, although he’s certainly correct that liberal and left-wing pundits are a very humorless lot. I can think of only Alexander Cockburn who tickles the funny bone as consistently as conservative commentators like Mark Steyn, James Bowman, Matt Labash and Holman Jenkins Jr., to name just a few. Still, with the exception of New York’s current editor (and former Timesman) Adam Moss failing to replace Wolff’s media column, I don’t see much difference in the weekly where the occasional VF writer once held court and today’s rendition. Two recent New York covers (“It’s the Party of the Year” and “Suddenly Skinny: And Sexy and Confused”) are no different than the thin content offered by Wolff’s editor Caroline Miller.
Leave it to Andrew Sullivan to bring this particular media feud right into the gutter. Sullivan, whose political opinions change almost daily, blasted Wolff on his own website (May 9) as an unpleasant “charlatan” who once wrote “a piece of tripe” about him. He continues: “But then Wolff does write for Vanity Fair. It doesn’t get much lower than that. (I might add that New York magazine has become infinitely better since Wolff stopped driveling in it.”
I wonder how “low” Vanity Fair would be in Sullivan’s estimation if Carter came calling with a five-buck-a-word assignment.
It’s time Wolff is traded to another liberal team. Now that Newsweek is having its Dan Rather/Howell Raines moment, with the requisite soul-searching that’s already commenced, an invitation by editors there to print a weekly column by Wolff makes a lot of sense.