Vanity Fire

Graydon Carter’s political outrage has fueled a resurgence in Vanity Fair’s serious journalism. But how far can he push the signature high-low mix of this Conde Nast cash cow?

David Hirschman’s question for a 2004 Media Bistro article was the same one reporters had been asking Graydon Carter for more than a year: “Do you plan to keep Vanity Fair more political?” Hirschman was referring to the magazine generally and to Carter’s ferocious editor’s letters in particular, which, since 2003, had become an outlet for his disgust with the Bush administration. Carter’s reply was defensive. “Vanity Fair’s always covered politics quite heavily,” he said. “I think that my own participation has probably run its course. I’ve said everything I want to say.”

He had not, however. Two and half years have passed and Carter shows no sign of quieting his political voice. Vanity Fair readers can now expect to open their magazine each month and find an editor’s letter that, instead of introducing an article — though that occasionally happens — or extolling the virtues of the current issue, will attack the current administration. Carter’s foray into political commentary began with his May 2003 letter, which went to press on the eve of the Iraq war. In it, Carter acknowledged the strangeness of editing a glossy and, at least superficially, celebrity-obsessed magazine that also publishes serious, long-form journalism: “I’m in the curious position of being in Los Angeles preparing Vanity Fair’s annual Oscar party … and at the same time organizing our coverage of the conflict,” he wrote. In the space of half a page, Carter went on to criticize the president’s complacency (“I see none of the worry lines that should be etched in the face of a man taking the greatest military power ever assembled to war”), his decision to declare war on “a country that has not attacked us,” and what he saw as the careless economic and diplomatic policies of the administration.

Carter’s political letters continued in the next issue, and the one after that, and on and on, surprising not only some readers but also several of his longtime friends. After all, Carter had never affiliated himself with a political party, and, before 2004, had never even voted. “I never thought of him as someone who’d get onto a political soapbox that way and I was happy to see it,” says George Kalogerakis, who worked under Carter for many years at Spy and later at The New York Observer and Vanity Fair. “I thought it was one of those things that, in the old fashioned way, he would play close to the vest.” But instead, says Kalogerakis, now a deputy op-ed editor at The New York Times, “he was very much saying what he thought.”

Carter’s political passion has unquestionably benefited Vanity Fair. It has deepened his commitment to serious journalism and rescued the magazine from a fallow period around the millennium. He recently embarked on a hiring spree, snatching up five high-profile editors and writers in the span of a year. He’s expanded the front section of columns, a mix of commentary and reported articles that now tend to address political issues, and premiered an environmental edition. Even as he stays with Vanity Fair’s strange but time-tested formula, Carter is adjusting it, stretching its limits.

Vanity Fair has never been an easy magazine to define. Jack Shafer, the media critic for Slate, describes it as the “the wicked offspring of a tryst between Esquire and Vogue” with “the incredibly high production values of Vogue and the wraparound glossy advertising package and the serious reporting that Esquire had” during the days of Harold Hayes. Resurrected in 1983 by Si Newhouse, the billionaire owner of Advance Publications, it was conceived as a general-interest magazine covering literature, the arts, politics, and popular culture. It was initially modeled after The New Yorker and an earlier Jazz Age Vanity Fair started by Condé Nast in 1914, which published a slew of famous modernist writers as well as the work of Picasso and Matisse, but eventually died in 1936. Newhouse’s new version floundered under its first two editors, Richard Locke and Leo Lerman, but gained traction under Tina Brown, the former editor of The Tatler, the irreverent British society magazine that Newhouse bought in 1982. In her eight years as editor at Vanity Fair, Brown made it a success by blending high and low culture — coverage of scandal, celebrity, high society, politics, and international affairs. When Carter replaced Brown in 1992, he inherited a healthy magazine in terms of buzz, circulation, and advertising. After two shaky years, during which the magazine was mockingly called Vanishing Flair, Carter began to make the magazine his own, refining Brown’s blueprint. In 1994, he established the now famous Vanity Fair Oscar party and the Hollywood Issue, which according to Steve Cohn, editor of Media Industry Newsletter, “put Carter on the map.”

But around the turn of the new century Vanity Fair seemed to lose its delicate balance, tilting too far toward the celebrity half of its personality. “I think at that time there was a move away from substance,” said Alex Shoumatoff, a contributing editor from 1995 until 2001. “It was more sort of fluffy celebrity stuff.” In 1999, Shoumatoff had been working on a series of articles on the environment in time for the 2000 presidential race, but they never made it into the magazine. He left to start his own Web site. There, in a 2001 explanatory post, he described his disappointment with the state of magazine journalism: “The current zeitgeist is anti-environmental, anti-intellectual, parochial, and dumbed down … in issue after issue there was nothing there, nothing to read or think about, only articles on the latest Hollywood scandal or palm-sized organizer.” Indeed, in 2000, coverage of celebrities, Hollywood, and high society dominated the pages of Vanity Fair. The cover of the January issue, along with the usual movie star (this time a demure Cameron Diaz), featured headlines like “The Messiest Rockefeller Divorce Ever,” “ New York’s Hottest New Restaurant,” and “High-Tech IPO Madness.” But political and international reporting didn’t disappear completely. That year there were profiles of Terry McAuliffe and Tony Blair, two articles on the civil unrest in Sierra Leone, and Gail Sheehy’s searing character study of the presidential hopeful George W. Bush. But in general, Carter’s major accomplishments in 2000 were, journalistically speaking, lightweight. He premiered the Music Issue, which confirmed the magazine’s trend toward glossy photo portfolios, popcult coverage, and a desire to recruit advertising. (“O.K., so we’ve done our annual Hollywood Issue for the past seven years,” he wrote in his editor’s letter. “And now we’re trying to do the same thing for music.”) Carter also changed the magazine’s typeface, redesigned Vanities, a department dedicated to style, celebrity, and humor, and introduced Fanfair, a section devoted to short takes on art and culture. That same year, he published Vanity Fair’s Hollywood, an enormous photography-laden coffee-table book.

Vanity Fair’s journalistic slump coincided with Carter’s involvement in several Hollywood projects and a divorce from his wife of eighteen years, Cynthia Williamson. The rumors in the industry were that Carter had grown bored at the magazine. He began using the powerful connections of his editorship to gain entry into Hollywood. In the late nineties, he suggested to Brian Grazer, a Hollywood producer, that Sylvia Nasar’s book, A Beautiful Mind (which had been excerpted in Vanity Fair), be adapted into a movie. In 2004, the press discovered that Carter had received a $100,000 consultant fee for the suggestion, which, given Vanity Fair’s coverage of Hollywood and its annual New Establishment list of power players, was considered unkosher; Grazer and Ron Howard, the producers of A Beautiful Mind, have been included on the New Establishment list in some capacity every year since 2001. According to Ann Louise Bardach, a former Vanity Fair writer who is the director of The Media Project at PEN USA/University of California, Santa Barbara, Carter “is a really solid committed journalist.” But, she adds, “He also enjoys being a Hollywood player. And those can be conflicting interests when it comes to the movie business.”

In 2000, Carter began working on his own film project as the producer of The Kid Stays in the Picture, a biopic about the producer Robert Evans. USA films, which was then headed by Carter’s close friend and New Establishment list regular Barry Diller, financed the film. According to two former writers, Vanity Fair began to cover Hollywood less often and less critically as Carter became more involved in his Hollywood side projects. In early 2000, Carter even considered leaving Vanity Fair to become a creative consultant for, the now-defunct Internet venture of Dreamworks and Imagine Entertainment (run by Grazer and Howard).

Carter was not, it seems, unaware of the decline of serious, long-form journalism in his magazine. He refused to be interviewed for this piece (and asked his staff and his contributing writers not to cooperate), but in a July 2000 editor’s letter in which he congratulated himself and Vanity Fair on winning two national magazine awards for reporting and photography, he wrote somewhat guiltily, “I sometimes worry that our coverage of Hollywood and all its appendages — the New Establishment, the Oscar Party, the Hollywood Issue, the cover stories, and so forth — tends to overshadow the heart of the magazine, which is storytelling on a grand scale.”

The events of September 11 led Carter to step up his magazine’s national and international coverage. For the November 2001 edition, Carter actually separated Vanity Fair’s two halves and released two magazines, the regular Music Issue and a smaller issue entitled “One Week in September,” which contained, among other things, a photo portfolio of New York City firefighters and an essay by David Halberstam. Carter made a forced attempt to connect the discordant magazines in his editor’s letter that month, which ran in the music edition. Vanity Fair’s strange mix of celebrity and seriousness was reunited in the December issue, which featured a bare-chested Brad Pitt on the cover, reported articles about Flight 93, Osama bin Laden, and the bombing of Afghanistan.

Still, Vanity Fair’s renewed dedication to political reporting got off to a rocky start. Like most media outlets in 2001 and 2002, the magazine was largely uncritical in its coverage and portrayal of the Bush administration. The February 2002 cover featured an Annie Leibowitz photograph of Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Rice, Tenet, and Card as the heroic leaders of the war on terror. The magazine hit its nadir when it ran three embarrassingly credulous pieces based on interviews with Iraqi defectors. Those articles, written by David Rose and published in 2002 and 2003, linked 9/11 and Iraq, asserted that Saddam Hussein was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, and presented Ahmad Chalabi as an Iraqi hero. Frighteningly (as The Village Voice pointed out in 2005), Rose’s article on the presence of WMD in Iraq was cited as support for the rationale for war laid out in a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. “We were all kind of prepared to be just as mindlessly admiring of White House power as we were in the Clinton years but very soon it turned out obviously that that was misplaced,” said one current Vanity Fair writer, who asked to remain anonymous.

Vanity Fair’s dedication to serious journalism hit a turning point in the middle of 2003 at around the same time that Carter first began criticizing the administration and the war in his editor’s letters. In a 2003 Financial Times article Carter told the interviewer that he considered foreign reporting the “meat of the magazine … I love that more than anything.” By 2004, Vanity Fair’s political coverage was in full swing, with the publication of three 20,000-word special reports. The articles, reported by two teams of Vanity Fair contributing editors, were exhaustive reconstructions of the events leading up to the war in Iraq, the 2000 election debacle in Florida, and the September 11 attacks. In the editor’s letter that accompanied the investigative article on the path to war, Carter admitted that Vanity Fair had been deceived by Chalabi, but went on to note “that unlike the White House and the Pentagon … Vanity Fair did not use Chalabi’s information to take the American people into an unwanted and unnecessary invasion of Iraq.” And in a partisan conclusion in this longer than usual dispatch, Carter wrote, “How did George W. Bush get us into this war without end in the first place? How did he, in just a few short years, tarnish America’s great and good name, which stood for liberty and leadership … [F]or solutions to both, be sure to vote on November 2.” Even in the March 2004 issue, the blatantly commercial Hollywood edition, Carter used his editor’s letter to publish a three-page list of the names, ages, and home towns of the American soldiers who had died in Iraq.

In 2005, Vanity Fair broke the Deep Throat story and ran notable coverage of Hurricane Katrina with another essay by David Halberstam and a photo portfolio of the hurricane’s victims and heroes in New Orleans. In general, though, the magazine’s focus on national and international affairs dropped off a bit. But that was only temporary, as Carter was in the midst of making some significant additions to his stable of journalists. In December 2005, Todd Purdum, a star reporter for the Washington bureau of The New York Times, announced he was leaving the newspaper to become Vanity Fair’s first national editor. Several months later, William Langewiesche, an award-winning writer for The Atlantic Monthly, and Cullen Murphy, the Atlantic’s managing editor for twenty years, announced they were joining Vanity Fair as the international correspondent (a new title) and editor-at-large, respectively. The whirlwind of hires continued when, in August 2006, Donald Barlett and James Steele, the Pulitzer-prize-winning investigative team of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Time, signed a multiyear contract to contribute two articles to Vanity Fair annually.

Barlett and Steele, who had been let go from Time that spring, met Carter and Murphy this summer and the four men hit it off instantly. “The more we talked, I think the more the four of us realized we were all on exactly the same page on a lot of issues,” Steele says. “There are going to be so many stories on the national level, everything from corruption to political influence-peddling in Washington to the government askew.” The conversation went so well that Murphy called Steele’s cell phone that night and said, “We really, really want to work this out.” They signed the contract shortly thereafter. Barlett and Steele are already at work on two investigative articles to be edited by Murphy, with the first piece slated for publication in early 2007.

The effect that these hires will have on the content of the magazine is only just emerging. In his tenure as national affairs editor, Purdum, who refused to speak with cjr, has written three 9,000-word political profiles of Dick Cheney, the Bushes, and Karl Rove. Langewiesche’s first piece, a short but critical commentary on the war, which was based on an e-mail he sent to Murphy from Iraq, was published in September 2006. That same month, Carter reached a new level of ire in his editor’s letter: “And on this, the fifth anniversary of 9/11, perhaps it’s time to review the administration’s assertion that that was the day the world changed. It really wasn’t; 9/12 was. That was the day the neocons in the White House began using this devastating attack on American soil to further their own dreams of taking over Iraq … . That was the day the administration began plotting to remove a dictator over there and to create one here.”

This was evidently not the same man who, several years earlier in an effort to justify his Hollywood ties, had explained away his satiric days at Spy as the result of youthful indignation: “I think that it was good to be young and angry at Spy back then,” Carter told The New York Times in 2002. “But if at 52 you’re still angry, you don’t need a magazine, you need therapy.” Two years later, Carter had changed his tune, telling The Guardian that he hadn’t felt the same “sense of outrage” since he was in his thirties.

Jim Kelly, the managing editor of Time Inc. and a longtime friend of Carter’s — the two met as reporters for Time magazine in 1978 — says Carter has always had strong political opinions, but had never before voiced them publicly. “I vividly remember in January 1991, dinner with Graydon and Cynthia at Le Madri restaurant, “ Kelly says. “The gulf war hadn’t started yet but the grumblings were there … and Graydon was lethal in his criticism of President Bush. He said it was all about oil and it was a mistake. And here I am — I’m the world editor of Time magazine — and I start arguing all the complexities, and somewhere in the middle of the entree I decided, you know what? I think I’m going to stop arguing with Graydon because he was just — he had a very strong, strong, strong point of view.”

When Kelly first met Carter he was instantly struck by “his extraordinarily appealing enthusiasm,” which, he says, still defines Carter today. “He can be enthusiastic about a meal. He can be enthusiastic about his family. He can be enthusiastic about a lamp that he saw in a window,” says Kelly. Kurt Andersen, who cofounded Spy with Carter and now hosts the public radio show Studio 360, describes him as someone who “always thinks whatever he is doing at the moment is the greatest, most fantastic thing.” According to Andersen, Carter’s anger at the Bush administration comes from “the same slice of his brain” responsible for all his passions. “When he decides something he goes for it,” says Andersen. “He doesn’t do things in halfway measures.” I asked Andersen if he read Carter’s letters and he responded in his characteristically emphatic manner: “I do. I love ’em. I love ’em … . I love reading them because they’re so clearly him. The fact that the editor of this big magazine is gratuitously doing this rather than saying, ‘and we have a wonderful piece this month by this wonderful writer.’ … The fact that he has actually busted out of that form and does this amusing rant, or whatever, is fantastic … . It’s confidence. It’s like, fuck it, I’m gonna do what I want.”

Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review and a former writer for Vanity Fair, agrees. “If you’re putting out a magazine and you can’t state your point of view, something’s wrong,” he said. “It’s really heartening to see at a time when magazines are struggling a little bit and are so cautious that Graydon is not.”

In the first half of 2006, Vanity Fair saw steady increases in circulation, with a particularly impressive 17 percent jump in newsstand sales. Ad pages slipped by 5.6 percent in the first eight months of the year, but Carter didn’t suffer as a result. Si Newhouse replaced Vanity Fair’s publisher in August, a move that Scott Donaton, the editor of Advertising Age, says is a clear indication that Newhouse plans to keep Carter around for a while. “A lot of what Condé Nast does is symbolic as well as real,” Donaton explains. “I think they make statements with a lot of the personnel moves they do make and this one would seem to be a statement that … Vanity Fair is very much [Carter’s] domain.” And certainly now that Carter has become politically outspoken, he is unlikely to leave a position many observers say has significant influence in Washington.

But it remains to be seen whether Vanity Fair’s shift toward serious journalism is permanent. Will his new recruits amount to more than, as David Carr, The New York Times media critic, asks, “journalistic jewelry”? Ann Louise Bardach is somewhat skeptical, especially after flipping through the October issue, which contained a twenty-two-page photographic portfolio and fawning profile of Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, and their new baby. “I think he does publish some really terrific stories,” she told me. “He has good taste, but when he’s worried about newsstands, like everyone else, he can panic. And that’s when you get twenty-two pages of photographs of a boring little baby.” When I asked Steele how he felt about his investigative pieces running alongside a celebrity profile or squeezed between pages of luxury advertising, he said, “Well, those glossy ads do pay the freight.” As Jack Shafer points out, “There’s practically no magazine or newspaper that does not trade in celebrity coverage. Rather than downplaying its celebrity coverage, which you’ll find in the Times Magazine, and you’ll find in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair puts a great big bow on its celebrity coverage and puts it on the cover. So there’s kind of a double standard when people criticize the magazine.”

As far as Shafer’s concerned, readers shouldn’t be bothered by Vanity Fair’s celebrity coverage because they don’t have to read it. Though many do. In November, the magazine ran Langewiesche’s elegant 14,000-word piece on the massacre of Iraqi civilians in Haditha and the pressures and nuances of warfare. “It’s a piece that I can’t imagine any magazine wouldn’t be proud to run,” Jim Kelly told me. But he cautioned that “no one buys Vanity Fair for their Haditha coverage … . If I thought you could get a monthly magazine with a million readers based on Haditha stories I would try and persuade Time Inc. to start up that magazine.” In 2004, Carter acknowledged the dilemma when he publicly lamented the fact that he had to rely on celebrity covers to sell hundreds of thousands of magazines at the newsstand. “Unfortunately,” he told The (London) Observer Magazine, “attractive people sell better than unattractive people.”

Indeed, Vanity Fair, celebrities and all, is what those in the industry refer to as a “franchise” publication; in other words, it is crucial to maintaining Condé Nast’s bottom line. Thus, Carter’s emphasis on politics must fit within the bounds of the magazine’s existing formula, though, as Andersen points out, Vanity Fair’s success gives it an “orbital velocity” that would be difficult to disrupt. The premiere of the Green Issue in May, for example, was a significant departure from the typical Vanity Fair special issue — it contained lengthy articles on topics such as the politics of global warming and mountaintop mining in Appalachia and a photographic portfolio of environmental leaders (not all of whom were celebrities); it also lacked the huge number of advertising pages that thicken the annual Hollywood and Music issues. Still, its newsstand sales were on par with many other issues that year, perhaps because Carter relied on celebrities to sell the magazine. As Jim Kelly observed, “Time puts a polar bear on our cover about climate change. They put Julia Roberts and George Clooney and Al Gore and Robert F. Kennedy Junior. I think you could argue that those four people capture very well what the mix is in the magazine.”

Vanity Fair’s mix works, according to some, because Carter has an intuitive sense of what readers want. “He’s got, like Gatsby, that delicate seismography,” says Tanenhaus. “He knows what’s going on in the culture so if he feels a shift in the culture and where he thinks there’s work to be done, he’ll do that.” Shoumatoff, who has witnessed the evolution of both The New Yorker and Vanity Fair over the years, says, “The best magazines are slightly ahead of the zeitgeist. They not only catch a cresting wave of cultural change, a shift in public perception, they help make it happen. No one does this better than Vanity Fair.” For Shoumatoff, nothing better confirms Carter’s mastery of the zeitgeist than the outcome of the midterm elections. And with the coming presidential election, which occurs in the same year as the magazine’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Vanity Fair’s political coverage (and Carter’s letters) will undoubtedly continue. In his editor’s letter in July, Carter promised readers that he would produce another Green Issue, citing the findings of a Pentagon report that “said abrupt climate change could be a serious threat to national security.” His political passion combined with Newhouse’s support mean Carter will be pushing the high limit of Vanity Fair’s signature high-low mix. As Andersen says, Carter could just “put his feet up and say, ‘Okay I’ve got the formula, we’re selling a jillion copies, we’re making a ton of money. This is it.’” Instead, he has exploited his newest enthusiasm (and one that reflects the cultural zeitgeist) — politics — to recast Vanity Fair as a medium dedicated to serious national and international issues.

In early November, Carter, Kurt Andersen, and George Kalogerakis gathered onstage for a panel discussion about Spy magazine moderated by David Carr. Slouching slightly in a heavy, oak chair, Carter sat stage right dressed in a navy, double-breasted suit jacket and casual brown pants. His graying hair was styled in its signature dramatic flip. Throughout the evening, he exuded a mix of bemusement and indifference, speaking often but in a careful, self-assured manner. Toward the end of the discussion, Carr turned to Carter and declared, “In the [Spy] book, Graydon, you’re the mercurial young man moving from thing to thing and yet now you seem to have found a job where you’re not tiltin’ towards the next thing, where you’ve found a way to reinvent where you are, maybe making movies while you do it, maybe bringin’ in new people. Is that just the fact that you’ve grown up or that you’ve finally found a megaphone that sort of suits you?” Carter looked at Carr blankly as he spoke and stuttered for a minute before settling on an answer. “Vanity Fair is whatever you want to make it and I’ve made it into something that I feel comfortable with and it’s a job that I absolutely adore and has great influence,” he said, in his faint Anglo-Canadian accent, then added with a hint of triumph in his voice, “You know, I got more war reporters than society reporters at the magazine now.”

Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.