The Blind Leading the Mauled 

White tigers, white men and white mischief

Thursday, May 20 2004

NEXT TO CONAN O’BRIEN’S and Jimmy Kimmel’s skewering of their networks at TV’s annual “upfront” pre-season presentation to advertisers, and the great newspaper race to be the first to publish Hollywood suck-up allegations about Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter, the real funny business was largely overlooked this week: the changing of the culture guard at The New York Times.

The surprise drop-kicking of Steve Erlanger as the Times’ cultural news editor should be seen as yet another slash in top dog Bill Keller’s bloody purge of anyone and anything relating to predecessor Howell Raines’ editorship. “It was done in a brutal way,” one Times insider tells L.A. Weekly. “It came totally out of the blue. It was as ugly and shocking as the stuff in the old Soviet Union and China.”

Sources say Erlanger’s ouster had more to do with the recent double whammy delivered by Adam Moss (the Times’ features czar who jumped to New York magazine in February) and Howell Raines (whose I-did-it-my-way-and-it-was-the-right-way rant ran in the May issue of Atlantic Monthly) than with the quality of the Times’ cultural coverage. And that’s the point. Erlanger did nothing wrong to deserve a boot in the ass. Needless to say, Erlanger is said to be pissed at what he sees as guilt by association: the fact that Raines praised him lavishly in the Atlantic article. “Erlanger thought that was the kiss of death,” an insider says. “You have no idea how much Howell is still talked about in the most loathsome terms at the highest levels of the Times.

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Erlanger refuses to comment. But the former Berlin bureau chief was not an obvious choice when Raines pushed him into editing culture back in 2002. (The NYT’s culture desk shares Hollywood coverage with the business section.) After Raines was fired and Keller was installed, Erlanger settled in nicely. Sure, he wasn’t considered a good administrator, but that said more about the Times’ long and quaint tradition of turning great reporters into mediocre managers than it did about his overall ability. Soon, Erlanger had another new boss, this time Moss, who was promoted by Keller from magazine editor to assistant managing editor for features.

Again, all was well until Moss abruptly departed in February, though everyone but Keller had known something was going on because Moss suddenly started sitting in his office with the door shut and the window blinds closed for hours and hours. According to several insiders, that’s when Keller panicked. Why? Because the Times’ guy who supposedly had his finger on the pulse of what was artsy and trendy was exiting just when the paper was in the final throes of rethinking and redesigning its cultural coverage for a fall debut. (For more, go to “Kellerwood”). Rumors began circulating that Keller was looking to replace Moss with longtime pal Jon Landman, the Metro editor who became a hero for helping to unmask the now-infamous fabulist Jayson Blair. Landman was also a hardcore Raines nemesis. (Landman sent that April 2002 e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.”)

Erlanger had no problem with the prospect of working for Landman, sources say. But he did have a problem with Landman replacing him, which was announced on May 12. The axing took Erlanger totally by surprise. Later, in his parting remarks made to the staff, and buttressed by email, Erlanger said Keller told him "that he would feel easier with a more experienced manager to do the building" on the Times' culture renovation project. "I felt that what we are doing here is too important to him and to the paper for him to feel at all uneasy....my personal feelings aside."

Keller offered him Rome or Jerusalem, presenting it as the choice of a cushy job or being on the front page every day. Ever the news man, Erlanger opted for Israel.

This wasn’t the week’s only episode of Keller acting the Tough Guy. The Erlanger exiling coincided with Keller’s attempted takedown of fellow alpha male and archrival Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll, who had totally eclipsed Keller in Pulitzers this year and won industry hosannas.

As L.A. Weekly reported in last week’s Web exclusive, first one, then two, then three of America’s finest newspapers began running around like chickens with their heads cut off to “Get Carter” and examine the Vanity Fair editor’s financial ties to Hollywood.

The Los Angeles Times had been probing for weeks when Keller received an e-mail tip about it. Suddenly, The New York Times was pursuing it too, on stern orders from Keller. Then The Wall Street Journal began making calls until media editor Rich Turner called off the dogs, deciding the story wasn’t all that interesting.

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