NEW YORK — Norman Pearlstine never seems to raise his voice. He rarely smiles or frowns, and if he is perturbed by anything, it does not show. Though he is a social guy who attends movie screenings put together by Peggy Siegal and dinners thrown by Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, guests who sit next to him often come away with little sense of who he really is. Don Logan, Pearlstine’s former boss at Time Inc., once compared his employee to a supercomputer, a compliment that captures both Pearlstine’s voracious appetite for knowledge and what might be described as a certain inscrutability.
Fittingly, Pearlstine now works as a senior adviser at the $54 billion private equity firm Carlyle Group, where his role is the subject of much speculation. Many believe he is looking to buy back his old company, Time Inc., and take it private, but he pooh-poohs the notion. “Everything I hear from Time Warner is that Time Inc. is not for sale,” he said. “I have not spent a minute thinking about Time Inc. since I’ve been here.”
For anyone wondering what he’s doing at Carlyle, Pearlstine is playing his cards close to the vest. “I work with the U.S. buyout fund evaluating potential transactions,” he said vaguely. “I spent several months looking at the Tribune Co., other things as well, some of which I obviously can’t talk about.”
Obviously he can’t talk about it. In fact, he seems to like the subject of himself so little it’s a wonder he recently completed his first book, “Off the Record: The Press, the Government, and the War Over Anonymous Sources” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which hits shelves June 26. The book grew out of the fact that two years ago, during the Valerie Plame investigation, Pearlstine agreed to turn over a Time magazine reporter’s notes to the special prosecutor’s office. What followed was the most withering personal attack he had experienced in his entire life, so he felt compelled to respond to his critics.
Using a series of First Amendment cases in which journalists fought subpoenas from the government, he argues that his decision in the Plame incident was not a break with the journalistic priesthood, but a response to a unique set of circumstances. Call it the Norman Pearlstine nonattack attack. Clinical and legalistic, endlessly complex yet logical, it’s a perfect extension of its author.
This story first appeared in the June 8, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“This was the hardest decision I ever made,” he said over the course of an hour interview at his office. “This case took over my life. I started out very rigid about what I thought our course of action was. And the level of introspection I ended up bringing to the subject led me to conclusions that were surprising to me and that I thought would be surprising to a broader audience, as well.”
Not everyone seems convinced there is a broader audience — Pearlstine broke with his first publisher, Nan Talese, at Doubleday, over what appeared to be concerns Doubleday had about the commercial viability of the book. But the size of the book’s readership seems less important to him than getting the opportunity to explain a deeply misunderstood choice.
His argument goes something like this: First, the reporter, Matt Cooper, sent out e-mails on the Time Inc. servers detailing his conversations with administration officials I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby and Karl Rove about CIA agent Valerie Plame, whose identity was leaked by Bush administration officials trying to discredit her husband, a critic of the invasion of Iraq. By sending out the e-mails, Pearlstine argued, Cooper turned his notes into company property and threatened dozens of employees who became potential persons of interest to Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor handling the case. “Putting the source’s name in an e-mail makes it almost impossible to protect,” said Pearlstine.
Second, Rove and Libby were not whistle-blowers, but instead were using the promise of confidentiality to smear a whistle-blower.
Third, while Cooper promised not to use administration officials’ names in a story, this was not the same as meeting them in an abandoned parking lot and making a promise to go to jail for them.
Fourth, many of the journalists who pilloried Time Inc. for folding its hand belonged to news organizations that sidestepped the whole problem by testifying early on and not making a big deal about it. Who were they to question Time Inc.’s journalistic integrity? (“In the end,” Pearlstine pointed out, “Tim Russert testified, Walter Pincus and Glenn Kessler [of the Washington Post] testified.”)
Fifth, there’s a difference between disagreeing with the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear Time Inc.’s case, and choosing to break the law after the court’s decision had been rendered. In other words, you fight the law in court, but if you lose, you abide by the ruling.
The last point may not convince all of his colleagues, but it’s a fairly understandable response given Pearlstine’s personal history. His father was a lawyer in Pennsylvania, and Pearlstine worked at the firm in high school, filing documents. “It was always assumed I would go work there,” recalled Pearlstine.
After his freshman year at Haverford College, Pearlstine went to work at the Evening Chronicle in Allentown, Pa., and got hooked on newspapers. “I got this charge,” he said. Though family pressure led him to law school, Pearlstine reversed course after graduation and took a job as a copyboy at The New York Times in 1967.
Four months later, he started in the Dallas Bureau of the Wall Street Journal. His work quickly got noticed, and he was transferred to Detroit in 1970 and Los Angeles in 1971, where he lived next door to the television producer James Brooks, who became one of his closest friends.
“He made the best four-alarm chili I’ve ever had,” Brooks recalled.
After that came stints in Tokyo and Hong Kong, where Pearlstine was tapped to be the number two on the launch of the Journal’s Asian addition. He left for Forbes in 1978, but returned to the Journal in 1980 as national editor. After launching the European edition, he was promoted to managing editor of the flagship and moved back to New York.
In the top job, Pearlstine presided over a remarkable group of young journalists, many of whom are leaders of the profession today. Almost unanimously, they praise Pearlstine as hands on, tough and supportive.
“He would tell you, ‘Great job,’ and then say, ‘But one person I would have called was…,'” recalled Jane Mayer, a current staff writer at The New Yorker.
“I think I owe my career to him,” said James B. Stewart, who won the Pulitzer in 1987 for his work under Pearlstine in the Michael Milken insider trading scandal.
Pearlstine also was known for being a bit wilder than most Journal executives. As a reporter, Pearlstine disappeared for a month and a half while doing a story on a hog-farm commune. He later admitted he’d been doing peyote and embracing free love. “I took some vacation, that’s all,” he said. “They didn’t know where I was.”
As national editor, he often went drinking with cub reporters at Sammy’s Romanian and One Fifth Avenue, where he often did tricks for the staff. “He was the only person I ever met who could peel a banana with his bare toes,” Mayer recalled.
“I gave up that trick in 1982,” Pearlstine retorted.
In 1988, Pearlstine married the sex columnist Nancy Friday, which burnished his nonconformist reputation. (The two divorced a couple of years ago, and he is now married to Jane Boon, an industrial engineer. He has never had children.)
Toward the end of his Journal tenure, a slightly more elusive Pearlstine began to emerge. “You had to learn to be more managerial,” said Pearlstine, who goes into the second person anytime he’s asked to reveal something personal about himself. “If you’re determining people’s pay, you can’t just go drinking with your friends.”
Perhaps adding to the idea that work and play ought to be conducted separately, the Journal’s top executive, Peter Kann, became involved with Karen Elliott House, a bulldozing reporter who moved over to the executive side and later went on to run the company.
Pearlstine and Kann had been best friends, but the relationship between Pearlstine and House was tempestuous and the friendship with Kann soon fizzled. In 1992, Pearlstine resigned from the Journal (though he helped start Smart Money for it) and set up a media consultancy business with Barry Diller and Marvin Davis. In 1994, he accepted an offer from Gerald Levin to come to Time Inc. as the company’s editor in chief.
In his first 18 months on the job, Pearlstine removed six out of eight managing editors at the company, many of whom later complained that Pearlstine was inscrutable.
“Some people say that and it’s strange because I think of myself as quite emotional,” Pearlstine said. “I guess I have to know people well to show that side. I think it’s possible to be emotional without displaying emotion. I think you can experience things wonderful or terrible at an emotional — as opposed to intellectual — level, but you might want to keep those experiences personal instead of displaying them. I think it’s fair to say I hide my emotions, but I don’t think of myself as unemotional.”
In any event, Pearlstine clearly made some smart moves at Time Inc. The installation of Walter Isaacson at Time magazine led to a revival that lasted until 2000, when he was promoted. Lesser known but equally significant is the role Pearlstine played for In Style and its first managing editor, Martha Nelson.
“After the first few issues, [future chief executive] Ann Moore wanted to fire her, and Norm put his foot down,” said one former Time Inc. editor.
Other successes included the installation of his former Journal colleague, John Huey, at Fortune, and later, moving Nelson over to People magazine. (“He’s not a gusher,” Nelson admitted. “But it never bothered me.”)
The last part of Pearlstine’s tenure is harder to assess. He retired from Time Inc. at the end of 2005, when he was succeeded by Huey as editor in chief. But some of the magazines were adrift even before Pearlstine’s exit. Fortune has been through three editors in the last three years, contributing to a sense that it lacks direction and goes too soft on the people it covers. Time magazine recently reduced its rate base, changed editors, and did a sweeping redesign, though the reaction in media circles has been lukewarm.
In fairness to Pearlstine, some of Time’s troubles are shared by competitors like Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, both of which are also struggling in the Internet age. Still, that hasn’t erased the notion held by the industry that the quality of the journalism at Time is partly to blame for its decline.
In fact, many people who held this opinion seized upon Pearlstine’s decision to turn over the notes, arguing it was proof Time Inc. was no longer serious about quality journalism. They included former Time magazine writer Robert Sam Anson, New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich and the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam.
Pearlstine, of course, disagrees with them. “Most of the people who came to that position were not careful readers of Jim Kelly’s Time or Walter Isaacson’s Time,” he said. “The fact that there were entertainment divisions at Time Warner had nothing to do with the journalism.”
But does he believe it?
Six months ago, Pearlstine moderated a panel on the future of news, at which he was quoted as saying that “the highest-quality publications are getting some kind of protection” from the problems of public ownership and short-term profit demands. (Many thought it was an indication he wanted to buy back Time Inc.)
And on the middle of Pearlstine’s desk sits a copy of Chris Anderson’s book, “The Long Tail.” The book has become something of a byword in business. In a nutshell, Anderson argues that the future of business is selling less of more. The argument applies to music (where there are more niche artists but fewer blockbuster successes) as well as things like independent film, HBO and the Robb Report. And, when asked what it says about a mass market company such as Time Inc., Pearlstine sounds again like a company spokesman.
“Look at the ratings of ‘American Idol,'” he said. “A large number of people still want to have a conversation about the same thing. I’m actually more sanguine about the future of magazines than I am about newspapers.”