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A couple of days ago, journalist Vicky Ward once again alleged that editor Graydon Carter had cut incriminating reporting from her 2003 profile of prolific predator Jeffrey Epstein in Vanity Fair.
Lost were “remarkably brave first-person accounts” of Epstein’s conduct, Ward reported in The Daily Beast — accounts that might have saved others from becoming victims. This happened five years before Epstein received a laughable “sentence” for soliciting underage prostitutes, charges that looked outrageously inadequate long before Epstein finally was indicted for sex-trafficking crimes this week. Ward wrote that Graydon had told her Epstein was “sensitive about the young women.” (He has denied that.)
Graydon responded by telling Politico, “In the end, we didn’t have confidence in Ward’s reporting. We were not in the habit of running away from a fight. But she simply didn’t have the goods.” (A full statement from Carter is below.)
When I read that response, I tweeted that I believed Ward’s account because Graydon had cut verified material from my stories when I was a contributing editor in the 1990s, seemingly to placate a friend or a celebrity. I have never discussed this publicly, but now feels like the time to speak up.
Let me say at the outset how thrilled I was to be writing for Vanity Fair — at least for several years, before everything started to change. I was hired in 1993 when Graydon was maybe a year into the job. I was a staff reporter at The Washington Post, but I had a deal to do three stories a year for the magazine, which was throwing dazzling sums at writers. The money, the parties, the perks were all amazing. I remember venting at one point to an editor when I was reporting a particularly contentious story and he sent me for a spa day on the company. It was such a good gig that I was practically jealous of myself.
Every magazine editor has to make tough calls about what gets printed — what’s newsworthy, what fits the mix, what’s been adequately reported. Toward the end of my tenure, however, I wrote stories based on Graydon’s ideas that got published, but with revisions that he appeared to make in the wake of complaints from subjects.
During my first few years, Graydon never made any concerning changes to my stories. Tina Brown, then at the height of her power, had just taken over The New Yorker while Graydon was editing a magazine that the chattering class had dubbed “Vanishing Flair.” He had a lot to prove.
The magazine did tons of great work that had nothing to do with me, obviously, but it’s fair to say I delivered. On several stories I went head to head with The New Yorker and emerged victorious, starting with my first piece: an exclusive interview with Lorena Bobbitt that Gay Talese had been laboring to get for Tina.
In that competitive environment, Graydon let me loose on Hollywood and all was well. Then, in late summer 1999, Tina invited 800 guests to a launch party for Talk magazine. She was working for Harvey Weinstein (who, like Epstein, made it his business to court or badger the media, as the need arose) so probably there was limited latitude with respect to Hollywood coverage. Graydon no longer had to to look over his shoulder and worry about her magazine scooping his on juicy Hollywood news. Meanwhile, he had made a big splash with the Vanity Fair Oscar party and was making lots of friends in the entertainment industry.
A few years after my last story for the magazine, The New York Times reported that in 2003, Universal Pictures had paid Graydon $100,000 for suggesting the idea that became the Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind. The article noted the sometimes symbiotic relationship between glossy magazines and Hollywood but stated: “The payment of consulting fees to a magazine editor who controls coverage of industry subjects has no precedent, according to executives in the publishing and film industry as well as journalism scholars.”
The piece listed other bits of business: Graydon was a producer on a Barry Diller-bankrolled documentary about producer Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture. He had a producing credit on a CBS documentary on 9/11. He had a small acting part in a Paramount movie. CAA had tried to sell another film for him to produce. “At one time, Vanity Fair was among the few glossy publications that carried investigative articles about the entertainment industry,” the article continued, citing some of my stories. “But by the mid-’90s, some at Vanity Fair felt that Mr. Carter had been seduced by the entertainment machine he once skewered.”
I was not a source for that story, but with blood now in the water I got calls from The New York Times as well as the Los Angeles Times, which ran its own article, and even a paper in Canada. Reporters implored me to talk about my tenure at the magazine. Because I had been so grateful for the gig, because it had been such a great ride for several years, because I had cashed the checks and I hadn’t resigned, I declined to speak.
But I could have. Nothing cut from my stories was anywhere near as important as what Ward alleges was cut from her Epstein piece, but the cuts didn’t seem OK to me, either.
One example: For some reason Graydon was fascinated by Planet Hollywood. He asked me repeatedly to write about the struggling restaurant chain but I had no interest. After I finally gave in, it quickly became clear that my story would not be flattering to entertainment attorney Jake Bloom, who had been handed stock and whose clients, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, had wound up losing money in the venture.
As my reporting progressed, I called Graydon, twice, to warn him that Bloom — who Graydon acknowledged was a friend and advisor — probably would not be happy with the piece. Sensing potential trouble, I asked him just to drop the idea. Planet Hollywood simply didn’t seem that important. But Graydon wouldn’t do it. (Looking back, I wonder which of the many Hollywood players who invested and got burned might have urged him to assign the piece.)
One aspect of the story seemed like it would be the most delicious candy to Vanity Fair in that era: Bloom, expecting to make a life-altering killing on the stock, had built a multimillion-dollar house near Sun Valley, Idaho. I put in the God-is-in-the-details goodies: I remember there was a jacuzzi room graced with a large Buddha’s head. But things had gone south so fast with Planet Hollywood that Bloom was forced to put the house on the market before he really got to enjoy it. Not only was it a matter of public record, it was a perfect metaphor for hubris and thwarted ambition.
But Bloom told me that I absolutely could not mention the house — not because the anecdote was embarrassing but because, he said, there were armed anti-Semites in the area where he had chosen to build who might attack him. Bloom didn’t explain why he would want to spend time and money in an area where he thought his life was at risk, or why he thought the local killers would know nothing about a house valued — if memory serves — at $15 million until they … read about it in Vanity Fair.
The more he demanded that I omit any mention of the house, the more determined I was to include it. Then I got a call from a Graydon underling. There was a problem fitting in the piece, she said, and the one thing that needed to be cut was the house. I said I could easily suggest other parts of this overly long story that could be trimmed but no, it had to be the house.
Was including the house important in the grand scheme of things? Maybe not. But I felt that I was being sold out. I was confident that kind of information would not have been cut for anyone other than a Graydon friend. In the end, Bloom didn’t look great in the piece, but at least he got to sell his house without embarrassment.
Things got more serious not long after, when Graydon asked me to write a piece about Mike Myers. Producer Brian Grazer (whose credits happen to include A Beautiful Mind) had gotten into a fight with Myers over a planned movie based on the Dieter character on Saturday Night Live. Grazer was furious with Myers and I was told — I can’t remember if it was by my editor or Graydon himself — that he’d gotten Graydon to assign the story.
Soon it was clear why: Myers was as deeply unpopular in the industry as it was possible for an important talent to be. There was no way the piece could have been flattering. My strategy was simple: I called every producer and director who had ever worked with him. He was almost universally reviled, and many said he also had a habit of helping himself to material without crediting the source.
There was one anecdote about how Paramount had discovered, to its horror, just a few weeks before shooting Wayne’s World 2 that the script from Myers relied too heavily on a 1940s British comedy. Key players were called to a meeting in studio chief Sherry Lansing’s office, and several sources with direct knowledge of what happened told me Lansing had confronted Myers angrily and ordered him to rewrite the script fast, before the cameras rolled.
I reported the meeting as described, but then I heard that Myers had called Graydon (I was told by an editor that I had made Mike Myers cry) — and suddenly my copy was different. In the published version of the Wayne’s World 2 story, Myers had not poached the material but had used it having been assured by a producer that the rights had been obtained. Not one person had told me that, but that’s the way it read.
In the end the piece still wasn’t positive, but it was no longer accurate. Some of my sources felt betrayed. It was not just embarrassing; it was damaging to me.
It was also the last piece I wrote for Vanity Fair. The ranks of contributing editors were being trimmed, and while Graydon offered to keep me around without a contract, I declined — as he must have known I would.
I don’t know Vicky Ward, though I encountered her briefly when she was at Talk. But given my experience, I don’t find it hard to imagine that Graydon cut out information about Epstein, who had knitted himself into New York society so effectively. Having seen my own pieces nipped and tucked and altered for reasons that seemed to have nothing to do with journalism, I believe her. So should you.
July 10, 4:30 pm PST After this column was published, Graydon Carter responded with the following statement:
Anyone who is familiar with the editing process of a big magazine like Vanity Fair would know that the story the writer turns in goes through numerous layers of editing, fact-checking, and legal review. Not all things in the writer’s version make it into print. On the points of Kim Masters’ piece, I know Jake Bloom but not well. I do not ever recall a phone conversation about a piece about him. I don’t even remember the piece. As for Mike Meyers, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never met him or had a phone conversation with him.
I respected the work Vicky Ward did at Vanity Fair but unfortunately her recounting of the facts around the Epstein article is inaccurate. There were not three sources on the record and therefore this aspect of the story did not meet our legal and editorial standards.
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