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Meet the (Meta)Press: Michael Wolff

Who Reports on the Reporters?

By Jesse Oxfeld - April 8, 2003

It's not quite five years since Michael Wolff first appeared as New York magazine's media columnist, but it's nearly impossible to imagine the media-about-media firmament without him. No one writes as he does, smoothly and lucidly and cleverly and engagingly, but also with such brutal candor and such original and unvarnished viewpoints. No one analyzes as he does, explicitly from personal experience, informed by insights from important (and usually anonymous) players, and culminating with such grand and confidently declared conclusions. And no one seems to lunch as he does or punctuate as he does (there are just so many commas—one New York letter-writer noted 10 in a May 2002 sentence—and parentheticals, and they're all so perfectly deployed). Whether you love him or hate him—there are many in each camp—he's a journalistic force to be reckoned with.

This is particularly remarkable when you consider that prior to his New York gig Wolff was neither a force nor, for the most part, a journalist. He was instead, famously, a two-time failure. The first came in his younger days, when after building a name as a magazine writer and non-fiction author he took an advance on a novel that, it turned out, he simply couldn't write. ("It was a life and career calamity," he once told The Washington Post.) Later, in the mid-1990s, he tried to turn his small publishing company, which produced guides to the then-new internet, into a cash-spewing new media firm. What Wolff New Media was supposed to do didn't matter; the only point was to make money. Which it didn't, hence failure two. But that second failure led to Burn Rate, his best-selling account of the experience. And Burn Rate led to the New York job, which put Wolff, finally, in the right place and at the right time. Last year he won a National Magazine Award for commentary, and recently he's been churning out not only his weekly column but also a fairly regular stream of cover essays, on the city's reaction to war, on anxiety, even on private-school culture. In the current issue, he reports from Qatar on Gen. Tommy Franks's high-priced briefing room (where, characteristically, he berated a briefing officer for giving out useless information) and also files a cover-story rumination on New York's 35th anniversary. Finally back in Manhattan last weekend, he spent a few minutes on the phone with mediabistro.com, talking about his column, his background, and how not to conduct an interview.

Born: August 27, 1953
Hometown: Paterson, New Jersey
Now lives: Upper East Side, Manhattan
Reads for work: "I read very little. I read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. That’s about it."
Reads for fun: See above.
First section of the Sunday Times: "Whatever nobody else in my family is reading."

Tell me a little about your job history.
It was kind of hit and miss. I’m 49 years old. That’s a lot of job history.

What are some of the relevant things along the way?
I haven’t had a job since I worked at The New York Times almost 30 years ago, let me put it that way.

What did you do at the Times almost 30 years ago?
That was my first job. I was a copy boy, news assistant, news clerk, whatever.

So, there must have been something during the intervening 30 years that takes one from copy boy at The New York Times to an Ellie-winning columnist for New York magazine.
Well, I’ve written books. I’ve not written books. I’ve started businesses. I’ve gone bankrupt. And somehow I found myself as a columnist for New York magazine.

And how did that come to be? Were you old friends with [New York editor-in-chief] Caroline Miller? I mean, how did that opportunity arise?
No, I wasn’t. I had never met her before. You don’t know anything about me, do you?

It's a Q&A. I'm trying to let you talk about this stuff.
These are terrible questions. You can’t just ask someone, give me your resume.

Fine. I’ll skip the resume questions, then. I'll write my own introductory stuff.

Rush Limbaugh has labeled you unpatriotic, after your trip to the Gulf. How does that feel?
I guess it feels OK. It feels pretty good.

Is that something you try to do at New York, get people angry?
No. That’s sometimes the effect, although it seems to me that for every one person I make angry I seem to make a hundred pleased. But Rush Limbaugh—I mean, I don’t know. I've just become a useful part of his political agenda, and I guess he’ll become a useful part of my literary agenda. So we’re all just engaged in some sort of role-playing here.

What sort of writing would you classify yourself as doing—by which I mean, there is some reporting in every column but it’s not a reported piece, there’s certainly analysis but it’s not an op-ed column. How do you describe it?
These are essays. I think I am doing the job of a columnist, which is both reporting and offering opinion, and because it’s a long column, I get to do a little storytelling too.

How do you place yourself in the media-about-media cosmology, compared to a Howie Kurtz, or a Jim Romenesko, or anyone else doing this type of coverage?
The column is purposefully called "This Media Life." In fact, when it came into being it was merely called "Media," and I changed it because it was really about—I really write this column out of my intense involvement in this industry. It’s not me looking at the media, but it’s me writing from very much inside the media. I am as culpable as anyone else.

I never make the pretense of being a media critic, of being a media-business reporter, or of doing any of the other jobs or taking any of the other points of view that most people writing about the media take. I am, as I said, culpable. I am as engaged in this business as anyone else, and one might even say more so. I have in some way had every role, or at least as large array of the roles you can have in this business. All my friends are in this business. So, that was, from the beginning, my interest in writing about this column.

One of the things I find interesting about your column is how you can turn most anything into a media story, not just AOL Time Warner or the Times or Fox News—there was a period last summer when within two or three weeks you talked about Woody Allen as viewed as a media spectacle, Andrew Cuomo and the gubernatorial race as a media spectacle. I remember wondering after reading those column, are you intentionally shoehorning these things as media stories so that you'll have an excuse to talk about them, or is that really how you view the world, where everything naturally to you is viewed as a media story?
To some degree it's true, every story is a media story—or at least the stories that I write. If I write about politics, that is obviously a media phenomenon. I mean, Woody Allen, for instance, is certainly a media phenomenon. At the same time, the column is very wide-ranging and so are my interests. And one of the nice things about the magazine is that it lets me go where I want to go—so, in fact, I can go to war for this past two weeks. Now, obviously, war is a media phenomenon also, and the point of view that I usually come at this with is just writing about that. I am interested in that particular view. In other words, there are a lot of correspondents who have recently gone to war and they write about troop movements. That is obviously less interesting to me than the media process of this war—which is obviously as significant as even the troop movements.

But what I'm wondering is, is it naturally your reaction to all of these things—you look at things that are not explicitly media stories and immediately see them through a media prism—or do you become aware after the fact that an event can be turned into a media story and thus fodder for the column?
Probably both. I am certainly looking at things through a media prism, so it’s easy to get there and you don’t have to jump through hoops to get there.

What's your workday like? From reading the column, it sort of seems like you just go and hang out in Michael’s for a couple of hours and schmooze with people, and then at the end of the week you write up something about it.
Geez. That does sound like a nice life. The column takes seven days of work. I start early and I work through the day. I go to lunch a couple of times a week.

Fair enough. Certainly the column gives off a brash manner, and judging from our conversation, that doesn’t seem to be a faked manner for the column. Is it part of the persona of the column? Or is it just Michael Wolff?
I think the column is who I am and there is not a conscious persona in the column. I mean, this is not an artifice that I am working to create here. But it certainly reflects a particular point of view.

There's an interesting balance in your column, on one hand you've got the average Joe’s mix of envy, at times, or exasperation or just fascination with media mogul, but at the same time you're often seeming to move in their world and be at their events and—as you wrote about—once found yourself having dinner with Rupert Murdoch. How do these moguls react when you wind up seeing them face-to-face?
I think that they are slightly—well, I was going to say that they're slightly non-plussed, but the truth is, I don’t really think I register all that much. I think occasionally I am of interest to them and occasionally I have written something that someone has told them they should read, but I don’t really think that these guys are all that wrapped up in what people are saying about them.

Did you have any sort of a particularly memorable or embarrassing or funny run-in with any of moguls?
Not too long ago, I was at some sort of cocktail event where I was going one way and Barry Diller was coming the other way, holding two drinks. We were a foot apart, and we faced each other, and Barry nodded at me and he said, “Michael." Then he said, "I would shake your hand, but fortunately I'm holding two drinks.”

What comes in the future for you? Do you hang out at New York writing a weekly column every week? I can't imagine what you move on to from that.
I have no idea either. If you have ideas, I'm certainly open to them. The real point is, I think I have the best writer’s job in America. From the beginning, almost from the first column, this just felt right for me, and I don’t think anybody could want for more. I get an incredible audience. I get an incredible amount of space on a weekly basis. The people at the magazine—I never dreamed that a writer could be treated the way they in fact treat me. So if I could do this for the rest of my life, I would be a happy man.

Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.



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