10 Profiles of Controversial Journalists


All week, the media world has been buzzing over a New Yorker profile of Gawker mogul Nick Denton packed with harsh quotes and anecdotes from his current and former employees, along with no small number of Denton’s own zingers. Strangely, his isn’t the only piece on a controversial journalist to appear this week. The Daily Beast has run a profile on Cathy Horyn, the Times writer it characterizes as “fashion’s most feared critic.”

It’s natural for media types to be fascinated with their own kind, and articles on those who have become especially divisive can generate juicy headlines. (Of course, sometimes they also say more about the personality writing the piece than the one being profiled.) After the jump, we take a look at the Denton and Horyn clips, plus eight more profiles of controversial journalists.

1. Nick Denton

Image via

How do you criticize the Malcolm McLaren of journalism, a man who already promotes himself a pornographer and gossip merchant? A blog mogul whose former employees note, “He has fun when people say horrible things about him”? We imagine he doesn’t mind being described as mean or unfeeling, but what about the New Yorker writer Ben McGrath’s revelation that people early in his career found him annoying socially, due to his “aggressive networking”? McGrath also mentions that Denton’s friends claim he only cooperated with the profile “in the interest of project emotional availability.” The overall impression the piece creates is less of an evil person than of someone with little to no self or core at all.

Money quote: “The first time [former Gawker blogger Sheila] McClear had lunch with Denton, she returned to the office afterward and threw up. She attributed this to food poisoning, but it happened again the second time they had lunch.”

2. Cathy Horyn

In the week’s second scathing journalist profile, Jacob Bernstein takes on New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn. While he does let the famously scathing writer her defend herself against detractors, he also takes some shots of his own, interviewing fashion industry types who dismiss her as unimportant, reminding us about some of her nastiest swipes (remember when she included an anonymous quote referring to Christina Hendricks as a “big girl in a big dress”?), and calling some of her opinions completely incomprehensible. Bernstein closes by accusing Horyn of hypocrisy in calling Vogue out of touch while she continues to ignore the cultural importance celebrity fashion icons from Lady Gaga to Sarah Palin.

Money quote: “Not that her criticisms are always easy to make sense of. One of the favorite pastimes of fashionistas is reading aloud from Cathy Horyn and asking ‘what does this even mean?’ Take a review from the current fashion season: ‘If irony is the thread that runs through modern fashion, then the Chanel cardigan jacket is the eye of the needle.'”

3. Anna Wintour

Another fashion-world dragon lady, Anna Wintour was profiled in New York magazine even before The Devil Wears Prada and The September Issue hit the big screen. Writer Kevin Gray argues that the famously icy Vogue editor was humanized in the eyes of the public after a major editor left for another magazine and some tabloid-worthy infidelity ended her first marriage. (Wintour remains married to Shelby Bryan, the investor with whom she was conducting the affair.)

Money quote: “Throughout her tenure, Wintour has governed Vogue with an unspoken set of rules. Food on the premises is discouraged. Junior staffers are not to speak unless spoken to. One young editor who made the mistake of greeting Wintour in an elevator was upbraided by one of Wintour’s two personal assistants. Another, agonized over how to react when she saw the boss trip in a hallway, decided to walk past Wintour. When she told a senior editor what had happened, she was told ‘You did absolutely the right thing.'”

4. Keith Olbermann

The right hates him, and even those on the left who share many of his views can find him abrasive. He’s got a reputation as a megalomaniac. A few years ago, The New Yorker published a profile of Olbermann that discussed, among other things, his restless legs syndrome, his feud with Bill O’Reilly, and the controversy his heavily opinionated reporting style has caused. Writer Peter J. Boyer describes him as “the Edward R. Murrow of the Angry Left.”

Money quote: Asked about the prospect of an Olbermann reign at ‘CBS Evening News,’ Sandy Socolow, Walter Cronkite’s final executive producer, responded emphatically. ‘Oh, no, no, no, he’s not a newsman,’ Socolow said. ‘He’s not a reporter. I’ve never seen anything that he’s done that was original, in terms of the information. It’s all derivative. I like him, I agree with his perspective, and I think he’s very, very good on television. But he’s not a newsman.’Socolow added, ‘Ten years ago, if he had done at CBS what he does every day on the air at MSNBC, he would have been fired by the end of the day.'”

5. Christopher Hitchens

He took down Mother Teresa, thinks women aren’t funny, and got himself waterboarded in the name of research. He’s neither right nor left, and both sides have hated him at one moment or another. A Guardian profile published earlier this year to coincide with the publication of his memoir, Hitch-22, tackles his early bisexuality, obsession with courage, and fondness for childish word games. Writer Decca Aikenhead refers to a number of his opinions as “lame” and points out that he is more interesting drunk than sober.

Money quote: “It seems to me so evidently the case that Hitchens is an alcoholic that to say much more feels unnecessary. But for the record, he trots out all the usual self-serving, defensive evasions: ‘For me, an alcoholic is someone who can’t hold his drink’ or, ‘I’m not dependent, but I’d prefer not to be without it.’ The longest he has ever been was a dry weekend ‘in fucking Libya’, and he claims he drinks only to make other people less boring. So, presumably, he doesn’t drink when he’s with Amis? ‘Er, yuh, I do.'”

6. Camille Paglia

She may have been an academic first, but considering that she regularly spouts off everywhere from Salon to the UK Sunday Times , where she recently attacked Lady Gaga’s lack of sex appeal, she certainly also qualifies as a journalist. A 1992 Time profile appeared only a few years after her controversial book, Sexual Personae, was published. The piece centers around the mutual enmity between Paglia and mainstream feminists, despite the fact that she considers herself a feminist and admires Simone de Beauvoir.

Money quote: “[T]o her, rape is a dreadful crime, but women who make their accusations years later — not to mention those who complain of date rape and sexual harassment — are deluded. Anita Hill should have stepped forward at once when Clarence Thomas was offensive to her, she argues. ‘My feminism is, like, deal with it!’ says Paglia. ‘Not ten years later.'”

7. Tom Wolfe

Is he a New Journalism maverick or a hack novelist? Is his signature writing style exciting or grating? In a 2004 profile pegged to the release of Wolfe’s widely panned book, I Am Charlotte Simmons covers everything from the writer’s famous fashion sense to his bout with and treatment for depression — and writer Charles McGrath does it all in what is either of a mockery of or tribute to Wolfe’s exclamation point-laden prose.

Money quote: “Tom Wolfe could almost be a character in a Tom Wolfe novel. He has the clothes — the most foppish wardrobe, surely, of any writer since Oscar Wilde — and the apartment, a large, beautifully appointed spread on the Upper East Side… But in a Wolfe book the white-suited owner of such a pad would doubtless be a charlatan or a huckster of some sort, and that’s a role for which the real Wolfe, though he might like to fantasize about a streak of villainy in himself, is in fact woefully unprepared. He’s too decent and, in a way, too dull.”

8. Andrew Sullivan

Image via The Atlantic

The writer who just celebrated the 10th anniversary of his bafflingly prolific Atlantic blog, The Daily Dish, is a gay, Christian whose views can’t be neatly classified along party lines. He’s a workaholic who’s won respect from both sides of the aisle… and he’s not above posting cute viral videos, either. In a profile for the Spring 2009 edition of Intelligent Life magazine, he discusses his early confusion about his sexuality, the basis of his political philosophy, and his HIV diagnosis.

Money quote: “He left the New Republic, in a scenario he summarises as ‘I said “I quit” and they said “No, you’re fired.”‘ Humiliated, reviled, and still carrying a deadly virus, Sullivan’s story could easily have ended here. But he was intrigued by the internet, and was one of the first dozen people to stumble across the fact that you could publish his own articles online and update whenever you wanted to. He was the first well-known writer to become a blogger—and played a key role in smelting the form.”

9. Maureen Dowd

Whether you love her for portraying American politics as the absurdist celebrity drama it is or despise her for her cutesy politician nicknames and cloying style of argument, chances are you know Dowd’s name. The Times columnist wrote a book with the provocative title Are Men Necessary? and, the same year, was profiled by fellow feminist Ariel Levy in New York magazine. Levy reveals that Dowd is afraid of being characterized as castrating, discusses her detractors, and describes the writer’s clique of newsroom gal pals, which includes book critic Michiko Kakutani and TV critic Alessandra Stanley.

Money quote: “[A] common newsroom perception is that Dowd’s clique gets special treatment because its members use their charm instrumentally—an occupational hazard for successful women that runs roughly proportional to their level of physical attractiveness. And then there is their extremely close proximity to Jill Abramson. ‘When I became managing editor, I gave a short speech: My mother told me when I was going off to summer camp, “You just need one friend and you’ll be okay,”‘ says Abramson. ‘At work, Maureen is that one friend.'”

10. Malcolm Gladwell

He may be one of the bestselling writers of the past decade, responsible for books that take study pop culture from unexpected angles, but not everyone loves the New Yorker staffer. Critics have argued that his books oversimplify complicated theories. Many even claim to have debunked him. In a 2006 New York Times profile, Rachel Donadio argues that Gladwell’s books a prescriptive rather than descriptive, analyzes his effect on the business world, and discusses the right-wing views he held as a child in Canada.

Money quote: “For all their resonance and success, Gladwell’s books have also been criticized, most often for demonstrating, or encouraging, lazy thinking. In a scathing review in The New Republic, the judge and author Richard Posner found ‘Blink’ full of banalities and contradictions, ‘written like a book intended for people who do not read books.’ Some social scientists have also been unimpressed. ‘I think what he leaves people with is not that scientists are doing some interesting work, but that Malcolm Gladwell has a couple of good ideas,’ said Thomas Schelling, who shared last year’s Nobel in economic science and did pioneering research on the ‘tipping point,’ a formulation that originally referred to the point at which white families would leave a neighborhood after black families began moving in.”