Press Box

Wolff in Cheap Clothing

Vanity Fair’s sloppy, lazy media columnist.

Congratulations to Michael Wolff—failed Internet entrepreneur, New York magazine auction loser, and media mogul courtier—for his June column in Vanity Fair (“No Jokes, Please, We’re Liberal”) in which he belatedly discovers that right-wing pundits have a sense of humor and liberal pundits don’t. This topic that breezed through the Romenesko-fueled media zeitgeist in the summer of 2002 when self-confessed liberal John Powers essayed on it his LA Weekly column.

You could forgive Wolff for overlooking Powers’ piece if he’d concretized the idea of liberal humorlessness with specific readings from the humorless left. But Wolff is the kind of media observer who is too busy and too bored to actually consume the media he assesses. When Jesse Oxfeld interviewed him for in 2003, Wolff conceded that he “read very little” for work or pleasure. “I read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal. That’s about it.”

Gifted with a hyperactive and malicious mind, Wolff’s forte is not reporting and analysis. It’s the oh-aren’t-I-naughty clever slur, a talent worth admiring if not applauding, especially when you’re the target. Which I, and the Web site I call home, am.

After setting up his thesis in the first thousand words of his piece, Wolff, as is often his custom, loses interest in his ostensible subject. He abandons the topic of priggish liberals to fannywhack … Slate! He writes that Slate“is liberal media targeted at other people in the liberal media. Or, even more finely, targeted at other people in the liberal media who are concerned about issues such as the liberal media.” This sounds more like a description of Wolff’s article and Vanity Fair since editor Graydon Carter’s left turn than it does of Slate. After his set-up, Wolff towel-snaps Slate’s Mickey Kaus, claiming Mickey performs “O.C.D.-like reading and rereading of the liberal media.” Yes, Mickey might suffer from OCD, but Wolff’s inability to stay on track proves he has ADD.

He next asserts that “Slate is in size and reach, insignificant,” a put-down that might go somewhere if he could prove it. But he can’t. Nielsen/NetRatings quantifies for its clients the “size” (number of unique users) and “reach” (percent of population) of top Web sites. Slate’s audience of 4-5 million monthly usersroutinely places in Nielsen’s top 25 news and information sites for both size and reach. It’s also one of a very few sites in the top 25 not spawned from legacy media (such as ABC News, CNN, and the New York Times), and its ranking would be higher still if some of the sites that outrank it—Gannett Newspapers, Knight Ridder Digital, Hearst Newspaper Digital, Tribune Newspapers, Advance Internet—didn’t represent the combined ratings of multiple newspaper-affiliated Web sites. If Wolff has “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,” it could be that he needs to talk to somebody other than himself and under the age of 50.

Wolff takes a gratuitous swipe at my boss, Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg, calling him “an ambitious climber up the liberal-media ladder,” an unforgivable insult. Anybody who knows Jake’s career knows that he pinnacled the liberal-media ladder a decade ago and then bounded to the top of a tower crane that’s beyond politics. Wolff then recounts a totally fictitious story about Jake at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. What Wolff’s convention memory-logue omits is that far from disdaining Slate as insignificant or under-read, he thought well enough of it while at the convention to suggest to Jake that he could help broker its sale from Microsoft. Ear-witness Will Saletan of Slate confirms this account.

The real problem with Slate is that nobody who works at Slate actually wants to be working at Slate,” he writes. The steady migration of Slate staffers and contributors to the New York Times proves to Wolff that “the kind of people who work atSlatewant to be working at the Times.” While I’m sure the New York Times can be a wonderful place to work with excellent benefits and major opportunities for career advancement, Wolff has no idea of how many Slatefolks have waved off invitations to board the great ship of W. 43rd Street. But when you can write out of your hat with such confidence, you don’t have to ask.

Near the end of his piece, Wolff takes a shot at me, writing that I’m “an ever vigilant, indefatigable school monitor type.” I’ve been called many ugly things in my life—neo-con, without decency, Michael Kinsley’s butt boy—but school monitor, never. I’m not sure what piece I wrote that merits that slam, but I’m certain that it isn’t my 1998 review of Wolff’s book Burn Rate in Slate.

Tiring of his Slate-bashing, Wolff moves next to New York magazine, a grave and liberal publication he predicts will become, like Slate, a place that will “graduate lots of people to the Times,” and its editor, the “very correct and humorless Adam Moss.” Once again, the Wolff indictment isn’t very specific. New York should have run a cover story titled “The New Earnestness: Meet the New Old Fogies,” he insists. If that’s such a winning idea for New York magazine story, why didn’t Wolff write it when he had a weekly column at the magazine?

Why indeed? Like many Wolff pieces, this one bends in on itself to give a better gander of the writer than the subject he’s ostensibly writing about. (A brief check of his archives proves that “I” is easily his favorite word.) Because Wolff’s world revolves around the New York Times—his first journalism job was as a Times copy boy—everybody else’s must, too. Because Adam Moss isn’t editing the sort of magazine Wolff would have helped edit if his team had purchased New York, Moss is a fuddy-duddy. Because his circle—outside of the Times—doesn’t read Slate, the magazine is a failure. This isn’t media criticism. It’s public masturbation.


Disclosure: In 1998 or thereabout, Adam Moss flew me to New York and we had lunch to discuss a potential job at the New York Times Magazine. I remember Moss’ sense of humor as serviceable. The idea of me working at the Times Magazine petered out and I don’t think I’ve talked to him since. Send job offers and lunch invitations to (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)