Benetton and Newsweek: A Chatterbox Investigation

Shortly after Chatterbox posted an item (“United Killers of Benetton“) questioning whether it was appropriate for Benetton to enlist death-row inmates to hawk mohair sweaters, the New York Post broke a related story. According to the Post, corrections officials in Missouri, North Carolina, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Oregon were claiming that Benetton had obtained access by using Newsweek’s name. The apparent basis of this charge was a letter sent by Speedy Rice, a law professor at Gonzaga University who was Benetton’s front man for the project, to various state corrections departments. In the version of the letter sent to a Missouri corrections official (to read it, click here), Rice said the project involved Oliviero Toscani, “an Italian photo-journalist” (true as far as it went, but in this instance Toscani’s client was Benetton), and “Ken Shulman, a recognized free-lance writer” whose résumé, also included with the letter, mentioned Newsweek and a few other news organizations Shulman had worked for. (Shulman is a Newsweek stringer.)

Chatterbox was initially inclined to pass this one by. It hardly seemed Shulman’s fault that his résumé accurately reflected his affiliation with Newsweek. And though at the time Toscani’s client was Benetton, Toscani really is a “photo-journalist” (at the moment he’s Talk’s creative director). What’s more, the letter did mention a Benetton link, albeit (at least in the Missouri version) on the second page. It was perhaps a little slippery to describe Benetton merely as the “sponsor” of the project. But the Missouri Department of Corrections should have been alerted to Benetton’s commercial interest in the project by the following zany sentence: “Benetton’s only condition is that the inmates be photographed in their normal prison clothes and not clothing which would promote another company, such as a GAP shirt.”

On closer inspection, however, the evidence that Newsweek got used and the wardens got tricked and that Benetton was basically dishonest is better than Chatterbox originally thought.

This evidence consists of two “consent to interview/photograph” forms from the Missouri corrections department. Before the Benetton team could be admitted to see any given death-row inmate, this form had to be signed by both inmate and visitor. If there was more than one visitor, apparently one visitor could sign for all. In the two forms Chatterbox has seen, a box marked “researcher/interviewer (print or type)” was filled in with the word … “Newsweek.” One of these forms was signed by Ken Shulman; the writing is nearly illegible, but Shulman verified for Chatterbox that it was his John Hancock. (Click here to see the Shulman-signed form. Obsessive-compulsives will note that on this form the word “Newsweek” actually appears twice.) The other form was signed by Julie Wasson, who worked on the Benetton project as an assistant to Rice; Wasson didn’t return Chatterbox’s phone call, but the signature is fairly legible and is identical to Wasson’s co-signature on the Rice letter. (Click here to see the Wasson-signed form.) Wasson, of course, has no connection whatever to Newsweek. Neither form mentions Benetton, or any other sponsoring organization, at all.

Chatterbox was a little surprised when he saw the form filled out by Shulman, because the day before, Shulman had told Chatterbox, “I had nothing to do with gaining access to the prison. The people who did handle that were completely up-front and honest about who we were and who we were working for.” (Shulman had also told Chatterbox he “wasn’t very pleased” that Chatterbox’s earlier item referred to him as “someone named” Ken Shulman: “Don’t you have Lexis-Nexis where you work?”) The “researcher/interviewer” form suggested that Shulman’s protestation of innocence wasn’t entirely true. In fact, Shulman, before entering at least one prison, had signed a form that identified him as working for Newsweek. When Chatterbox faxed the form to Shulman and asked him about it, Shulman said that though the signature was his, “the handwriting on ’Newsweek’ is not my writing.” He said it had been put there by “whoever filled out the form.” When Chatterbox asked Shulman if it said “Newsweek” on the form when he signed it, Shulman said he didn’t remember.

What does Newsweek make of this? Its spokesman, Roy Brunett, reiterated what the magazine had already told everyone else: that Newsweek had nothing to do with the death-row project, and “if anyone misrepresented our position in any way, we would take that matter very seriously.”

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, who admittedly is a bit of a blowhard (when he ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 1998, he repeatedly attacked his opponent, Kit Bond, for being soft on crime), is sufficiently incensed by all this that he’s filed a lawsuit against Benetton, Toscani, Shulman, Rice, and Wasson alleging fraud and trespassing. “This is a secure place,” Nixon told Chatterbox. “You don’t want people lying to get onto death row.” (Missouri’s corrections department apparently has a policy forbidding entry to its property “for any commercial purpose,” so we can assume that had Benetton made its intentions clearer, the state would have said no dice.) It was Nixon’s office that provided Chatterbox with the damning documents on Wasson and Shulman. Chatterbox had expected to see one with Toscani’s signature on it, too, because the petition Nixon filed in court said, “To gain entry to the facility, Defendants Wasson, Shulman and Toscani [italics Chatterbox’s] represented themselves to be employees of Newsweek and the purpose of their trip to be for a media interview.” But apparently Nixon doesn’t have a “consent to interview/photograph” form signed by Toscani, so Toscani’s inclusion is a bit of a reach. (Scott Holste, a spokesman for Nixon, told Chatterbox that Toscani’s name was included because the signer signed “on behalf of” everyone from Benetton, and that included Toscani.) Toscani didn’t return Chatterbox’s call seeking comment.

To summarize: It was dishonest of Shulman and Wasson to represent themselves as being from Newsweek, which the “consent to interview/photograph” forms show they did, no matter who actually scrawled in the word “Newsweek.” It was sneaky, and perhaps dishonest, for Toscani to allow himself to be admitted under these circumstances, even if he didn’t sign any documents saying he worked for Newsweek. And it was a little dim of the Missouri Department of Corrections not to wonder why their inmates weren’t allowed to wear items from the Gap. Whether Benetton’s trickery rises to the level of outright fraud is hard to say, but more lawsuits could be on the way in North Carolina and Kentucky.

On the subsidiary point of whether Jay Nixon (a Democrat) is related to Richard Nixon: He’s a little coy when you ask him. “Perhaps distantly,” he told Chatterbox. “I’ve not dug my family tree back that far.”