Showcase of Dreams

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

In the top tier of glossy magazines, none covers celebrity, politics, culture and scandal with quite the panache of Vanity Fair.

Its pages offer a slick, impenetrable view of a world of wealth and status, a vicarious thrill for the lowly aspirants of the nether classes.

And yet its editor, Graydon Carter, in a bluntly honest interview in yesterday's London Guardian, tells us that despite the magazine's upscale glow, putting it out every month is a tenuous art, subject to all the fears and failings of imperfect human beings.

Some issues, he says, simply bomb.

"I know once I get it in my hands," Carter says. "Things that look great on my desk, that look great in the planning room, that look great on the computer screen, by the time you get it in your hand you think, '… what was I thinking?'"

Carter, who took over the magazine 15 years ago from Tina Brown, tells The Guardian's Janine Gibson that if he puts out a great issue, he gets depressed because he thinks he'll never be able to do it that well again. A crummy issue is just as bad because he thinks he's forgotten how to do it and it'll be around for 30 long days. Either way, he says, he's miserable.

Gibson writes in her story that, in the age of the Internet, expensive, long-form print journalism based on conspicuous consumption ought to be a precarious endeavor. But Carter has no fear of the 'net, which is where most people seem to do their reading these days, primarily because the Internet is no place for a 30,000-word article with full-page photographs.

Carter has been criticized for not having an objective distance from his Hollywood subjects, but he doesn't mind. The essence of Vanity Fair is what he calls the "great yarn-spinners."

Its January issue juxtaposes a beguiling Katherine Heigl, from Grey's Anatomy, on the cover with an account by Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, of his time in Afghanistan with the men of Second Platoon, whose "humor, courage, and camaraderie" come under daily fire.

There's also a piece about Rudy Giuliani's "dubious partnerships and conflicts of interest" in his consulting firm, as well as a story by British writer and pundit Christopher Hitchens about England's proud tradition of eccentricity, its "oddball innkeepers, crocodile-riding crackpots, and other Python-esque characters."

But beyond the entertainment value of such pieces, Carter is "a radical journalist who loves nothing more than to kick off each issue with a rabble-rousing denunciation of the war in Iraq and the Bush administration," as's Jack Shafer wrote in a column.

In the December issue, the one with Julia Roberts on the cover, Carter wrote in his editor's note that "almost every manner of humiliation and punishment short of major-organ failure or death was declared permissible under the administration's definition of torture… Remember those balmy days of our youth when we got in a snit over a president who was parsing what was or was not sex?"

Publicly railing against George Bush doesn't seem that radical a position from London or New York, Gibson writes, but Carter's mail was three-to-one against him in 2002.

Now, Carter says, it's basically 2-to-1 in his favor.

In a New York magazine profile in 2000, Jennifer Senior wrote that Carter is a "king-size personality controlling the world's glossiest showcase for the formerly, currently, and would-be famous."

Jim Kelly, who was then managing editor of Time magazine, told Senior that Carter is "a man who has decided to create the world he dreams of… and he has been more successful at it than anyone I've ever met."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan