>> Ben Smith, The New York Times
Published: 2020-06-15 13:00:45 BdST
That’s not all. The parties and attendant deals are off, and executives face a summer without tiki-torch-lit pathways leading to raw bar spreads on the beach, catered for tens of thousands of dollars for a few dozen friends. Parents are growing desperate: “With no camps being open, they’re looking for things to do,” said Boomer Jousma, a yacht broker, who has met that need by selling twice as many yachts as usual, including four of the $1 million-plus Vanquish brand in the last two weeks.
There’s also not so much Instagram. Everyone saw what happened when their neighbour, David Geffen, who paid $70 million for his spread on Lily Pond Lane in 2016, posted a picture of a sunset over his $590 million superyacht in late March and shared that he was “isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus,” provoking a wave of public shaming. Out here, they’re being careful to avoid both the disease and the anger seething out of New York City, where much of the working media is both exhausted from covering the story of their lives and in open revolt.
“People’s antennae are up higher than they have been before to what they say and how it can be interpreted and recognising the unintended consequences of our actions,” said Discovery executive Henry Schleiff, a mainstay in the mansion-dotted hamlet of Water Mill, who said he thought the shift toward less-conspicuous consumption was for the better. “Not only are our actions and our worlds being filtered, but we’re listening more.”
(I spent a few days last week on the stretch between Sag Harbor and Montauk on assignment to see how the other media half was living and found most media executives extremely cautious once they learned what I was writing about. “Now, there’s an IQ test,” said another prominent Hamptons media figure. “I’d have to be insane to let you quote me.”)
New York’s media business appears to be in endless decline, but it is still one of America’s most visible stages for cultural conflict, drama and change. Top figures at Bon Appétit, Refinery 29, Variety, ABC News and The New York Times have been forced to resign or take leave this month, as were lower-profile executives like the editor of Indy Week in North Carolina.
The ousters were driven, in many cases, by employees who believe the companies’ internal cultures don’t mirror the progressive and anti-racist values they sell. And while the immediate spur is the wave of protests against anti-black racism and police violence set off by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, New York-based media had already been activated by something else: the clarity with which the onset of COVID-19 revealed who could afford to get out of town, who might be OK if they lost their job, who had money or family to fall back on. The backgrounds of Zoom calls, your colleagues’ Instagrams and casual Slack references revealed who was trying to get the air conditioner in their Crown Heights studio working and who was opening up the pool.
“People are scared, and they’re seeing other people’s safety nets at a time when everything is uncertainty, and they don’t have one, and everybody else’s safety nets are in their faces,” said Ashley Ford, 33, and living in Flatbush, who has written for outlets including Refinery29 and Marie Claire and has a memoir due out next spring. “Not only are people mad, but they have time to talk about it.”
The coronavirus crisis forced America to look directly at its deep inequalities, and the media industry’s are no different. And even as media power has shifted somewhat from New York to Los Angeles, East Hampton remains a hub for executives, dealmakers and stars. When the lockdown arrived, most who could get out of New York did so — to the Hamptons for the old elite, to the Hudson Valley for the second tier.
CNN President Jeff Zucker, who is also chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports, is in East Hampton, where he is among the caddyless golfers, as is Discovery CEO David Zaslav. The president of MSNBC, Phil Griffin, is in Hampton Bays. (Fox News’ chief executive, Suzanne Scott, is still going into the Sixth Avenue office.) At the embattled magazine company Conde Nast, Roger Lynch, the chief executive, has been in mountainous Lake Arrowhead, outside Los Angeles; artistic director Anna Wintour is weathering the crisis in Mastic, just west of the Hamptons. Troy Young, president of Hearst Magazines, is on Shelter Island. AG Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, is in the Hudson Valley; the executive editor, Dean Baquet, has remained in his Greenwich Village apartment.
It’s reasonable to wonder whether this has affected the tone of coverage of the crises in New York. Were media leaders in the right place to cover the horror of the early days of the outbreak, when they weren’t being kept awake by sirens? And did they overplay the violent fringes of protests, when they’ve been overwhelmingly peaceful and the city’s broader mood has been a kind of revolutionary good cheer? Walking with a television executive past boutiques on Newtown Lane in East Hampton last week, I tried to convince him that his teenage children would be fine walking around their native Upper East Side unaccompanied. During the protests, the city could look terrifying on television, and reporters on the scene faced violence, mostly from police; but the mood away from the police billy clubs was not exactly the Reign of Terror. (Although stay tuned: When The New York Times forced out opinion editor James Bennet over a controversial column a week ago, two employees reacted in Slack with a slackmoji of the word “guillotine,” prompting internal complaints, a Times reporter said. “We encourage constructive, honest dialogue among our colleagues, but there are lines that can be crossed, and this was one of them,” Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy said in response.)
It’s not clear, of course, that staying in their country houses influences executives’ approach to coverage. After all, we’re all remote now, and both Zucker and Griffin feel as present as anyone else to their employees. The big stories are being driven by front-line journalists who have been taking personal risks — and, sometimes, contracting the coronavirus — to cover the dual crises in US cities. So the clearest effect of the exodus has been to highlight internal class divisions, which are boiling over in private Slacks and Zoom chats largely invisible to executives. There, employees are sometimes organising to change their internal cultures and sometimes challenging rules that had previously seemed sacred.
Underlying much of this tension is a sense — in media as in the rest of American society — of just how deep the gaps can be. I felt that sting last week when I saw a tweet from Amber Jamieson raging about rich New Yorkers who fled the coronavirus, leaving behind spacious houses and apartments that would have made for a relatively easy quarantine. “Genuinely hope they feel deep shame their whole lives,” she wrote.
I was Jamieson’s editor at BuzzFeed News until earlier this year, and I couldn’t help thinking this was about me, since I headed up to Columbia County, New York, in early March; and so I called Jamieson, 34, an Australian native who lives in a studio in Bedford-Stuyvesant, to ask her what she meant.
“The biggest story in the world came to your front door, and you left; that to me is insane,” she said, adding that her experience — the woman who works the front desk of her gym died, and she wrote about a funeral procession for another neighbour — has been essential to her reporting. “You left for your own personal safety and because it made you stressed and anxious.”
Nothing personal, of course. Jamieson has reporter friends who left a small apartment for a place in Aspen, Colorado; she understands that people have children, parents, health conditions. “They wanted more space for their kids, or to care for an elderly relative; OK, everyone has a reason,” she said. But she thinks that the bosses and journalists have a special obligation to stay: “Being a leader means staying with your people and seeing what they see.”
But Jamieson said it had been an eye-opening experience.
“It revealed the money in journalism — who has cash and who doesn’t, and how much this industry is from people with trust funds or well-connected parents, and they could stay in the Hamptons or the Catskills,” she said. (On that note, I should disclose again that I don’t extensively cover BuzzFeed, which I left in February, in this column because I have yet to divest my stock options in the company, as required by the Times.)
Those of us who have left the city or (as in my case) have the luxury of coming back and forth, with a detour on assignment to Montauk, can take the heat. Here in the Hamptons, caddies aside, it’s really not so bad. Those who don’t have space to house a chef are relying on deliveries from the gourmet wholesaler Baldor, whose familiar white-and-black-logo trucks are circulating around the island. The private school Avenues is opening a Hamptons branch for those parents who do not wish to return to the city in the fall.
Some executives are beginning to commute again, so the helicopter company Blade has started its seven-day service earlier than usual. Without day-trippers or middle-class vacationers and their crowded sublets, it has been, for the lucky few, “the summer we had long wanted — busy, but not too much so, and quiet enough to hear the birdsong,” according to The East Hampton Star.
The golfers will be OK too. The East Hampton Golf Club, a member told me, has changed its rules to permit autonomous robot caddies, which follow you silently through the greens.
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