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Adventures in Journalism: Scary Little Man
In this week's episode of Adventures in Journalism, William Georgiades gets fact-checked—by Dave Eggers.- December 2, 2004
[Backstory: In the last installment of Adventures In Journalism, the writer pranked the New York Press (while he was an editor at Esquire) by pitching them stories using the identities of various women who had no journalistic experience but hinted at salacious possibilities should they get an assignment. In this week's installment, the writer decides to pitch a story about the prank to a small San Francisco magazine...]
When I was a glorified secretary/assistant editor/gatekeeper/ apprentice at Esquire in the mid-'90s, the newest batch of up and comers, the ones who lobbied most heavily for the title, was a careerist triage who edited a magazine called Might in San Francisco that was ostensibly mailed out to every single magazine editor in New York. It had a tiny distribution and landed on so many editors' desks that it seemed like an extravagant pitch letter or a really well-done resume, updated every few months or so. And, of course, in time they contacted me—or rather, one of them did—because he so badly had to write 250 words about Vince Vaughn and he, yes he, was the only journalist who could capture the nit and grit of this rising young actor in two paragraphs.
The writer was Zev Borow. His colleagues were Dave Moodie and Moodie's moody partner Dave Eggers. Eggers himself couldn't be bothered with mainstream magazines, aside from putting his own journal out and making absolutely sure that everyone who ever worked in media saw every single copy of his effort. But Moodie and Borow were hungry and their pitches would flutter through the fax and onto my desk and sure enough, soon enough, as email correspondence deepened, I was asked if I would like to write something, in turn, for them.
So, apropos of nothing, I wrote a tidy little attack on the writer Jay McInerney, stating that he was fired as a fact checker at the New Yorker but went on to play tennis with a New Yorker editor and that he recycled his material. I included his lovely, haunting quote to Tatler: "It's dangerous work being the creature of the moment, the voice of a generation." It was a nasty piece of work and Dave Moodie said he would have to pass, as he might, just Might, not want to piss off Jay McInerney. Did I have anything else I wanted to write about?
"Well, yes," I said. I had a little piece that might well work for him. Might had a satisfying little regular feature where they called up music publicists and offered them outlandish freebies and then printed the greedy responses complete with real names. It was mean and funny but not very fresh at all, given that SPY had done the same thing a few years earlier and that SPY had been a direct rip-off of Private Eye. But, yes, I said, I had a piece that would work well as a little chart exposing how the alternative press engages in a casting couch system so that one male writer can be rejected but the same male writer writing in the voice of a woman, including sensual images and suggestive language, almost always gets a response. (This was based on an experiment I conducted with an editor at an alternative newspaper in 1995. Details are here.) "Great," said Zev. "Send it over."
First he sent me his ideas for the story:
Will Georgiades Comment on alt. weeklies/not pc as made out to be/not alternative at all short intro set up/pithy Chart headings be a commentary in and of themselves each chart heading pointing to their lack of alternative. five names; five headings; 25 boxes; 15 words per Names of editors; weekend deadline.
So it was official. I took that nine months of diligent labor, cut it all down into bite sized chunks, formatted it into a charticle and sent it off, licking my lips. I also told Zev that I could give him background information to verify the charticle. He assured me that would not be necessary and asked when his Vince Vaughn story would be appearing.
Then the fact checker from Might got in touch. He said my charticle was very funny and asked if I could in fact provide the real names and phone numbers of the five women who had participated in the experiment. The fact checker seemed extremely nice and I imagined a small, hairy, pleasant man from San Francisco. He told me his name was Dave Eggers.
Then, of course, it all tumbled—the five women who had helped me conduct the alt weekly experiment all became that much less consensual. Rebeccah had a crisis of conscience, or rather she was still worried that exposure to this cunning stunt would be bad for any coverage her band would receive and dodged Eggers' calls. The girl I had been sleeping with wouldn't take Eggers' call because she was no longer sleeping with me. Pamela, lovely Pamela, was somewhere far away on a movie project, her assistant explained. Mistress Nadine was no longer speaking to me or inclined to do me any favors. Yummy was the only one to take the call and she told the truth—that she allowed her name to be used, that she got a call from The Editor, that he said thank you but it never came to anything. And that was that.
The fact checker left a message on my work voice mail at four in the morning. "Your story doesn't check out Will," he said, with a little too much familiarity. I went mildly ballistic. A revenge strategy that had lasted now for 18 months was thisclose to being realized. How could an obscure fact checker from some hill town in the West come between me and my petty dream? Couldn't he just take my word for it? So we got into it, in the way that editors will, via email.
Not knowing that I was communicating with the future of moral certainty, I expressed my outrage at the fact checker's prolonged absence, his rushed method of checking facts, his gullible naiveté. Then I tried a different track. If this were a tissue of lies, I argued, then surely I would have gotten five different women to lie in place of the five original women. Even as I suggested this, I realized how crazy it sounded. And this did not sway my serious ethical San Franciscan fact checker. In fact, it seemed to set him off.
I took a few little slaps, either on my work voicemail (always at four in the morning) or from an AOL email address. I was told I was being dishonest and unethical, which was annoying as the whole point of the story had been how dishonest and unethical the New York Press was. Then some nice career advice: It was unwise of me to make enemies; I'd already made enemies at the New York Press and making enemies at Might wasn't going to do me any good. Then a parental suggestion: "It's all right to have a chip on your shoulder, Will, but I'd be a little worried about the size of yours." (Who was this clown calling me 'Will'?)
The volley didn't end, and some of it was rather cute. One email said, in total: "You are a scary little man!" Of course, I am benign and rather tall, but we all know that when one finger is pointing out, three are pointing back at the tiny accuser.
When I told him that this story was too good to be entrusted with some trust-fund-intern-fact-checker at a nothing magazine and I was informed of the true identity of my correspondent. "I am not an obscure fact checker," he protested. "I am the editor and publisher of Might." "Oh!" I typed in response, unable to think of anything better.
I suggested Dave Eggers call the aggrieved party, call the subject of the experiment—The Editor—himself. Though embarrassing, I knew enough to know The Editor was a decent fellow and he had to tell the truth. (Didn't he?) But what was the truth? I was so shaken by the fact that most of the women wouldn't back me up and by the shrill righteousness of this obscure fact checker from California that I wasn't too sure what was true anymore. Was all this effort a tissue of lies to make a mild point that nobody cared about? Well, yes.
Dave Eggers called The Editor. The Editor, rather reasonably, said I was a crackpot. I believe that was the exact word he used, because it was later relayed to me in yet more heated tones. The Editor told Dave Eggers that he never called any of those women back and that he could tell each and every time I sent a dummy pitch letter. He knew my game. The case was closed. I must be a liar, a very unreliable narrator indeed. Sometimes the truth is just so tidy. And convenient.
Three weeks later, still obsessively reading the Press on an uptown bus, I saw a new column had appeared: "A Letter from San Francisco, by Dave Eggers", obscure fact checker and publisher and editor of non-obscure media-friendly anti-magazine magazine.
A few weeks after that, Dave Eggers wrote the cover story for the New York Press—4,000 words on how he hated the use of the word "fuck." I thought it was clearly a killed piece from the soon-to-be-defunct Might. I read it and gloated because the writing was so poor, the point so labored, the thought so unoriginal, the presentation so hackneyed. It is a beautiful thing when a bad piece of writing gets a platform.
Not so much later, everyone at Esquire was fired in the bold Hearst corporate decision to hire half the staff of GQ in order to turn Esquire into a profitable men's magazine. Everyone of consequence was fired, that is, which meant that I was not. New hires were announced every day and the atmosphere was so fast and loose, the hatred for literary journalism so acute, that a twentysomething editorial assistant from GQ was installed as the new literary editor. Under these conditions, anything could happen.
Meanwhile, the media pages were abuzz with the thrilling news that Might magazine had lost funding and the trio of breathlessly exciting editors were about to take Manhattan by storm. And indeed they did: Zev and Mr. Moodie both went to a music magazine. I had always assumed that Dave Moodie was the true voice of Might—he was urbane, amused and, I noted the one time I met him, not tiny. He was the Dean Martin to Zev's Jerry Lewis. So I sent him a pitch letter at Spin. He explained that in a fight between Dave Eggers and myself, he had to side with his old friend and that he had been heartily amused by the heated correspondence. He also thanked me for the story idea, saying he might find a use for it, but he had no use for me as a writer. It was a nice little blow and I was glad to see the boys from California getting the hang of New York nastiness with such swift aplomb.
Dave Eggers took his fuck-you attitude (while hating the word "fuck") all the way to the bank. His first stop was a job at Esquire as the editor-at-large in charge of the January feature, the Dubious Achievement Awards, a section on which I had steadily worked, in grunt-like fashion, for over two years. Would Dave and I now have to work together?
In an odd coincidence, the week before he started work, I was fired. I'd just gotten a 50 percent raise and a new title, having been promoted from a nothing to a nobody. It was explained to me that room had to be made for the new blood. "Gen-X blood, you mean?" I asked. With thin lips and downward eyes, you might think an editor-in-chief of a men's magazine might be a bit of a man when it came to firing people. He looked good this one, with his freshly shaven head and charcoal grey suit and powder blue shirt and peek-a-boo tight, white tee-shirt and tidy little glasses; he looked manly. And it was up to Human Resources to behave manfully. It was up to me, of course, in my too loose blue Prada trousers and too tight Hugo Boss shirt, to take it like a man.
I sank without a trace after that, as the editor-in-chief of a magazine nobody will ever recognize. Dave went on to flaunt convention wearing t-shirts and jeans to the office and causing everyone I was still friendly with in the research, copy-editing and art departments to speak ill of him. (Then again, they spoke ill of everybody who was new there.) He wrote celebrity profiles and after a year or so quit and huddled back to his home in Brooklyn. He built a website and wrote mean things about his year at Esquire with a rather familiar hint of obsessive resentment. Oddly, those first anti-magazine columns are no longer available on his website. They were so unpleasant and funny that I called him up and asked him to write for me at Black Book and he rather graciously turned me down, explaining that he was knee-deep in a book project.
Esquire was rumored to have put him on their blacklist, so that while his books and publishing ventures and charities and hijinks continue to be newsworthy, they supposedly refuse to mention him by name. I have no idea if this is true or not, as I have not been able to look at the magazine since they fired me, even when they put Mr. Rogers on the cover.
His book turned out rather well, receiving precisely the amount of attention that every aspiring writer dreams of. A magazine in London asked me to review it and I spent a day at the public library going through the whole personal history rendered into a book. When you dislike someone, it's disarming to read their personal memoirs and to discover that the object of your scorn has experienced misfortune. Annoyed at how moved I was I wrote a scathing review, walked the length of Manhattan, then rewrote the review in glowing terms, alighting on the final image of the book, the fact checker from California and his ward playing frisbee over the graves of their parents.
William Georgiades wrote about the New York Press two weeks ago.
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