• How the Nineties keep coming back to haunt us
• E. Jean Carroll’s fling with Gonzo Journalism . . . not with me
• Roger Ailes explained his idea for a 24-hour news network to me
Let me make this clear at the outset: I am not a character witness for E. Jean Carroll. Nor for Roger Ailes.
But, as these two figures from the 20th century are back in our faces today, I’m reminded of my encounters with them. Not that I can shed much light on what they “meant” at the time – or now, for that matter; the duration of my interaction with them was only under an hour, each.
Carroll is in the news for claiming in a new book that she is one of what scorekeepers now estimate as 22 women who have been sexually assaulted or abused by Donald Trump. The writer and columnist says it happened in a fitting room at Bergdorf Goodman around 1995 or 1996. In denying he ever even knew her, the president said, “She’s not my type.”
In 1993, Carroll came to the CNN NY bureau at 34th and 8th for an interview with me. She had written one of three biographies of Hunter S. Thompson that had come out around the same time. Since an axiom at Showbiz Today had it that three of anything was a trend, I jumped at the chance to do a story on the notoriety of the “gonzo journalist,” the inspiration for the Uncle Duke character in Doonesbury and something of a role model for my youthful journalist self.
In her book, “Hunter – The strange and savage life of Hunter S. Thompson,” Carroll emulated the immersive “gonzo” style of reporting, by detailing wild nights spent in the company of her subject, but adopting an alter ego, Laetitia Snap, to create a remove. Who knows why – maybe her lawyer. A book reviewer at the time said she “apparently debauched with” Thompson. A close read of her book brings one undeniably to that conclusion. So what? As I said, I am not trying to be a character witness nor should this be construed as weighing in on her credibility as an accuser. As a gonzo journalist, though, she had the métier down, it seems.
She was also flirtatious. Again, so what? I might have been, too. She was smart, attractive and single. I was in a bad marriage. However, I was well aware that she was “out of my league” in at least this sense: she regularly appeared in Elaine’s, Odeon, Page Six and all of the bright lights big city places inhabited by the likes of Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis. I went home to New Jersey most nights to try to be a married suburbanite.
When this rape allegation story broke, Fox News was criticized for downplaying it (as were other news outlets across the political spectrum, in this benumbed news environment we live in).
The story of Fox News itself is in the news, as Showtime debuts “The Loudest Voice,” a prestige mini-series dramatizing the creation of the right-wing news channel by the late Roger Ailes. Russell Crow slaps on layers of prosthetics and hair gel to portray Ailes, who was ousted in a hurricane of sexual abuse accusations in 2016, less than a year before he died.
In 1996 (around the time Trump and Carroll were allegedly wrestling in the Bergdorf Goodman dressing room) I was assigned to interview Ailes as he was launching his cable news creation. It was an interesting choice for CNN to have Showbiz Today do it. We did cover issues and trends in media, as a rule. But, in television, the network way is to avoid mentioning competitors as much as possible. I suspect our Business News unit probably reported on it as well. In any event, like everyone else, CNN didn’t know what was in store.
I remember sitting opposite this media giant-to-be, Ailes, who was already gigantic in physical stature, and thinking, okay, it’s probably a smart move to stake out a position to the right of the existing mainstream media . . . but there’s no guarantee it’s going to catch on. I don’t remember how I wrapped up the package I produced, but no doubt it ended with the classic, overused, clichéd conclusion, “….it remains to be seen.”
Had I known what Fox News would become, I might have told my boss, “I’m sorry. In good conscience, I am morally unable to do this interview — and probably physically unable to stomach spending 20 minutes sitting opposite this man.” On the other hand, I might have said, “Awesome! I’m going to ‘Mike Wallace’ this guy! Call him out and roast him alive!” I hope the latter.
I remember in 2001, after Showbiz Today was a casualty of the Time Warner AOL merger and I was searching for work, I had to confront myself with this question: what if a job is within my reach at Fox News or Fox News Radio, or the local Fox affiliate? Would I take it? Could I work at a place so antithetical to my view of the world? Wouldn’t be my first choice, that I can tell you. Fortunately — or unfortunately for my job hunting prospects – the dilemma never materialized.