Fear and trembling in the magazine big leagues

September 14, 2009

Publishers have been tailoring their products to suit particular enclaves of readers for decades.  Normally, the logic of zoning is that you create customized editions brimming with content that the people who live in a particular area are especially eager to see.

Normally, but not always. Now comes GQ (formerly Gentleman’s Quarterly), the gorgeous, beyond-cool fashion mag, which turns that logic on its head in its September issue by denying a sensational story to the very segment of its readership that would be most keenly interested in it. That’s not zoning anymore; it’s redlining.

The story, “None Dare Call It Conspiracy,” is by a veteran foreign correspondent named Scott Anderson. It examines allegations that a series of 1999 apartment bombings that killed hundreds of Russians was the work not of Chechnyan terrorists, but of elements within Russia’s own security service, who schemed to provoke a second war against the breakaway province and help one of their own, the then-obscure prime minister Vladimir Putin, rise to the presidency.

Apparently GQ’s owners—the giant Conde Nast, itself owned by even more giant Advance Publications—didn’t want to irritate the truculent Russian leader. So they didn’t ship the issue to Russia at all. Plus, they kept the story off GQ’s web site, instructed its employees to keep quiet about it, ordered that it not be reprinted in any of GQ’s sister periodicals. The article isn’t teased on the cover, and to find mention of it you have to journey deep into the table of contents on page 86 and thence to the article itself on page 246.

This all came to light only after David Folkenflik, the former Baltimore Sun reporter who covers the media for National Public Radio, broadcast a scathing report and posted a companion piece on NPR’s website.

Precisely why GQ went to such lengths to keep people from seeing a story it still regarded as worth 8,800 words in its flagship U.S. edition isn’t clear. Conde Nast isn’t talking.

Plainly, as Folkenflik reported, independent journalists have suffered appalling reprisals in the former Soviet Union, and it would be naïve to deny that a report that suggests Russia’s de facto ruler was complicit in a murderous sham that cost hundreds of innocent lives and triggered a needless war won’t annoy somebody.

But the author, Anderson, has gone public with his complaints, and his main informant, a former state security official whose name and photo appear in the magazine, was well known. This wasn’t about protecting journalists. It was about a huge and gutless institution committing an act of pre-emptive self-mutilation to appease people its duty is to expose.

Who, after all, is Conde Nast? It’s a division of a company called Advance Publications, which is privately held by Newhouse family interests (note, for those of you who think it’s public stockholders who corrupt the media.) Advance owns 28 daily newspapers, some of them major, including the Plain-Dealer (Cleveland), Star-Ledger (Newark), the Oregonian (Portland), the Times-Picayune (New Orleans). It owns the American City chain of 40 weekly Business Journals. It owns Fairchild Publications, with 17 periodicals, including Women’s Wear Daily—the bible of the apparel trade—the Golf Digest franchise, and a chunk of cable’s latest phenom, the Discovery Network.

And Advance owns Conde Nast, comprising some of the country’s most distinguished magazines—The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Wired,  Parade, Glamour, Conde Nast Traveler—19 titles in all, including GQ, the humble glossy whose Big Fall Style Issue weighed in at 318 pages.

Now, I’m a huge critic of media consolidation, but if there is an argument that having that much communicative power under a single corporate nameplate confers benefits beyond fattening the already fat, it’s that sometimes just such a concentration of privately constituted power is necessary to stand up to governmental bullying and blow whistles when they need blowing.

And this deplorable affair puts the lie to that fiction. GQ’s owners’ vast size didn’t ensure it a stronger voice, only a bigger muzzle.

Luckily, this being the Internet age, they didn’t have the last word. Gawker.com, a scrappy New York-based media website that relishes a good fight, stepped up and pulled down the embargoed GQ story, inviting help from the cybersphere in rendering it in Russian. Within 48 hours, with the help of some 18 citizen-linguists, Gawker had posted the expose in Cyrillic typeface to benefit the same public the mighty Conde Nast was busy selling out.

It was a proud moment. Gawker’s editor in chief, Gabriel Snyder, said last week some 51,000 people had gone to the translation, which by then was one of several available online, in Russian.

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