Failing Up at Vanity Fair

In 2001, a man named Jay Forman wrote a piece for the tiresome leftist website Slate called “Monkeyfishing.” The piece described a trip Forman said he took to Florida with a “monkeyfisherman.” The monkeyfisherman, wrote Foreman, casts a fruit-baited fish line onto the island where research monkeys were kept. A monkey takes the bait, and is then pulled into the water.

“Monkeyfishing” was exposed almost immediately as fake, although it took Slate several years, and an investigation by some journalism students at Columbia University, for them to admit as much. 

The editor of “Monkeyfishing,” Jack Shafer, failing upwards as all journalists do, went on to become the media critic for Politico.

In other words, Shafer made what should have been a career-ending screwup and got promoted for it. 

Still, “monkeyfishing” is for the ages. It will be on Shafer’s tombstone. It remains incredible all these years later,  after Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair and Russiagate and Michael Avenatti, that our Stasi media continue insisting on blowing up their honor and reputations, when simply integrating their ranks with street-smart and gun-collecting conservatives would help them prevent mistakes. They’re like suicide bombers who just won’t allow any level-headed person access to the cave. This, among other reasons, is why trust in the media is at an all-time low

As Ari Fleischer notes in the title of his forthcoming book, the media “just doesn’t care.” In terms of honor and reputation, they will blow themselves up if they think they are saving the world.

In his new book Dilettante: True Tales of Excess, Triumph, and Disaster, former Vanity Fair editor Dana Brown celebrates the “golden age” of magazine journalism in the 1980s and 1990s. “We didn’t just tell the story of our time,” Brown writes. “We played a part in driving the narrative for contemporary culture.” Journalism “was always considered a highly vaunted and respected industry, critical to democracy.” 

It’s easy for conservatives to jump on those words. Before the internet, the Left had almost total control of the press. Still, if the previous era did produce some good journalism—and it did—a lot of it had to do with keeping standards and letting outsiders in as editors. 

Dana Brown was a bartender before he joined Vanity Fair. Melody Maker, a great British music magazine from the time, hired Allan Jones as editor. Jones thought Melody Maker needed “a bullet up the arse” and transformed the magazine into something brilliant.

As revealed in his memoir Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, Jones actually stood up to egotistical rock stars, once walking out on Lou Reed before Reed, impressed with Jones’ courage, called him back. 

Vanity Fair featured the writing of William F. Buckley, Jr., and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens had enraged liberals by criticizing abortion. Rolling Stone came down hard on the Rolling Stones and the hippie culture in its coverage of Altamont.

In other words, back then there were still free-thinking people with professional standards in the press.

Under Dana Brown, as liberal as it was, there is no way Vanity Fair would have run some of the garbage that litters their pages today. Full disclosure: I once got slimed in Vanity Fair. As I have written for American Greatness, in the fall of 2018 Christine Blasey Ford, a psychologist in California, made allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh had been nominated for the Supreme Court and was about to be voted out of committee. Ford claimed that he had sexually assaulted her when the two were in high school in 1982. She also claimed that I was in the room when the assault allegedly took place and that I had witnessed everything before jumping in and breaking things up. The whole thing was a set up. Opposition researchers worked on it for weeks if not months, poring through my writing going back to high school. As I have recounted previously, the media reporting was not just wrong, but criminal.

I’ve written about the Washington Post’s part in the attack, which was intended to make me, a typical high school kid with the normal desires, loves, anxieties and insecurities, seem like a dangerous threat.

One of the wildest accusations came in the pages of Vanity Fair. Evgenia Peretz came up with this knockout to describe my high school heyday in the 1980s:

Judge took the cake. He was the loudest, edgiest, baddest ass. He was also the heartthrob. In Breakfast Club terms, you might say he had the dangerous allure of Judd Nelson’s Bender combined with the popularity of Emilio Estevez’s Andrew Clark. His body couldn’t contain his energy. He would leap onto people’s backs to start games of chicken. He could place his hands on a banister and jettison his body over an entire stairwell.

 The Vanity Fair piece also contains this astonishing passage: “To many Americans, Kavanaugh didn’t seem like a sexual predator—but that wasn’t the point. The point was that he couldn’t give an inch of possible culpability. He couldn’t say, ‘I’m sorry for what I might have done.’”

“I’m sorry for what I might have done.” This is right out of a Stalin show trial.

The Vanity Fair piece also quoted a woman named Evie Shapiro who claimed to have gone to college with me at Catholic University. Only one problem: Evie Shapiro went to the University of Maryland. The Daily Wire found many more mistakes.

The intent of the Vanity Fair piece was to make me sound dangerous. New York Times fabulists Kate Kelly and Robin Pogrebin used similar tactics. Their careers should have ended with their abysmal coverage, but they’re still at it.       

In their book The Education of Brett Kavanaugh, Pogrebin and Kelly describe me in the 1980s as “tall and lean, with floppy hair, an angular jaw, and often, an antsy, searching expression. Dressed in his regulation sports jacket and necktie, he looked every bit the smart but insouciant schoolboy.” Back in Black! The thing is, I’m not tall. I’m 5-foot-7, the height I’ve been since high school. That’s not “tall and lean,” but average height. I’ve also never had “floppy” hair and have always been athletic. Getting my height wrong was, like the Vanity Fair Hollywood fantasy, intended to make me seem threatening. For their story, I wasn’t a normal teenage kid with insecurities who was more often than not terrified of girls. I was a live grenade about to go off.

If you can’t find monkeys for the monkeyfishers, you just make it all up.

It was a sinister and ridiculous attempt to make me and my friends into monsters. It was what so much reporting is these days—the rage of the resentful, anger by the people who never lost their hatred of what Vanity Fair called “the kings of the school.” It makes no difference if some of those kings were just regular teens, like everyone else full of fear about life, love, and sex. It doesn’t matter if you had a tender side and liked art and poetry and even cried when you got your heart broken. You know, Hitler knew about high school football.

One more note. In another article about me that appeared at the time, Jack Shafer, Mr. Monkeyfishing himself, was quoted as saying that I had once written for him but “took my keyboard elsewhere” when I wasn’t happy. This, unsurprisingly, is a lie. I briefly wrote for the Washington City Paper, which Shafer edited, and then offered to write for Shafer when he was at Slate. He rejected my offer, sarcastically dismissing my “hot shit copy.” At the time, I thought Slate could use some common sense, a writer with, as Norman Mailer once put it, “a BS detector.” Comfy in the herd, Shafer said no.

Then Slate published “Monkeyfishing.” They probably still don’t understand that one commonsense conservative could have prevented the disaster. The media just doesn’t care.

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