E. Jean Carroll, Taylor Swift, and the Establishment’s Art of Fiction

It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to notice recurring cliques of prominent media personalities.

Credit: Melissa Bender

One night in 2019, around the time she wrote an article in New York Magazine accusing President Donald Trump of rape, the writer E. Jean Carroll attended a party at an apartment in Uptown Manhattan. Fellow guests included the Princeton professor emeritus and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, comedian Kathy Griffin, the Republican legal operative George Conway, the TV journalist Soledad O’Brien, and the sexual assault activist Amanda Nguyen. Their host was the writer and society fixture Molly Jong-Fast. A photo of the gathering entered circulation four months later, when President Trump was impeached and Kathy Griffin posted it under the headline Never Trump, the cause uniting the people at the party.  

Four and a half years later, some of the same players aligned under the same banner gathered again—this time at The Flower Shop, a “hip” bar on the Lower East Side. Carroll, fresh from an $83 million defamation suit victory against Trump that flowed from her 2019 magazine article, celebrated with Molly Jong-Fast, New York Magazine’s ex-editor Kurt Andersen, the New York Times op-ed columnist Lydia Polgreen, and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. 

These two gatherings of Carroll and her media friends bookend her odd late career arc, in which she’s become a certified “icon” off cases that turned on two-decade-old allegations which, on the metrics of hard, verifiable news stories, don’t seem to merit the repeated, repetitive, marquee media attention they’ve received in the New York Times, MSNBC, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and elsewhere. In this, they’re like many other recent storylines championed by establishment media in the age of Trump—from decades-old allegations against Brett Kavanaugh unsupported by key witnesses, to a yearslong investigation into Russia “collusion” exposed as faulty to its core, to “investigations” into Supreme Court corruption that have failed to uncover a single tangible link between the justices’ rulings and their lives. 

Since 2017, these eccentric quests have been explained by critics as “Trump derangement syndrome”: the hyperbolic coverage that seems to infect major outlets and their upper-income Democrat readership over the former president and his appointees. But digging into the players and institutions who run the coverage suggests that it comes from something deeper, something built into how these institutions have operated for 30 years: an accelerating turn from reliable informing to the narrative sensationalizing of which Carroll and her friends are practitioners and symbols. Tracing how that turn happened, and how it created Carroll’s and the other “scandals” of our scandalized political age, means going back to when the trends began. 

The roots were in the 1980s, and the mostly silent driver was the government, which was gutting regulations in the name of free markets, free trade, and free movement of people. In practice, this allowed for mergers-and-acquisitions booms that pushed companies to be more responsive to shareholders while concentrating ownership: narrowing decision-making into fewer hands and making quick profits more important than steady growth. The marquee effects of this turn happened in the financial sector with Wall Street’s two-decade boom, but an equally influential shift occurred in media. “In 1983,” according to the legendary media analyst Ben Bagdikian, “the men and women who headed the 50 mass media corporations” could gather and discuss newspaper prices and postal rates. By 2003, “five men controlled all these media,” and their subjects when they gathered were the internecine backstabbing and takeover efforts of their subsidiaries. 

This shift dramatically changed the nature of information in America. In the 40 years between the end of the Second World War and the ’80s, practitioners of a centralizing, sometimes insiderist media developed it into a watchful hedge against arbitrary power: judiciously informing American citizens of what their government was doing in their name. Perhaps the preeminent example of this development was the New Yorker which, as its longtime staff writer Renata Adler put it, “used, from time to time, to publish the definitive piece on a subject,” whether Seymour Hersh’s breaking of the My Lai massacrre coverup or the works of Rachel Carson. In these pieces, “the facts had been checked; the prose was adequate” and “there was a firm sequence” that balanced information and commerce: “first, the creation of the work itself; then, the publication of the magazine, followed by the reaction of readers; finally, the enlistment of advertisers.”

Outlets like the New Yorker, the Times, and even Vogue practiced this approach under editors like William Shawn, A.M. Rosenthal, and Grace Mirabella, who saw their roles as practical, public trusts: informing people about society or politics or the art of civility while increasing circulation and ad revenue. But in the 1980s, Conde Nast, under S.I. Newhouse, rebooted Vogue, re-launched Vanity Fair, and bought the New Yorker, replacing editors like Mirabella and Shawn with Anna Wintour and Tina Brown: editorial “personas” geared towards the insider- and advertiser-heavy games of youth, “glamor,” “celebrity,” “trends,” and “buzz.” Eventually, across media, the Conde Nast trend prevailed: “buzz” and aggrandizement intensified in venerable outlets still benefiting from reputations they’d accrued over time. 

One was the Paris-based Elle, which began an American edition where Carroll was hired to write a confessional advice column. In 1997, the Times contrasted Carroll’s work there with the practical, civility-oriented problem-solving of earlier advice practitioners like “Dear Abby,” calling her new approach “a hybrid of the epistolary novel, the personal essay and improvisational theater” where, “with no particular claims to expertise, [writers] field questions and offer solutions to personal problems, but [where] problem solving isn’t really the point.” The point, rather, was “offer[ing] some of the pleasures of popular fiction but delivered in a sharper, post-modern flavor”—in Carroll’s words, “true tragedies, or dramas, with a narrative and a solution…the chewed slipper in the dog kennel of literature.”

Publishing houses like Random House also jumped on this trend of fiction blending with reality in pursuit of buzz, against a commercial backdrop of buyouts, mergers, and what seemed like a general decline in quality. In 2000, Penguin published the first book by Molly Jong-Fast, daughter of the famous feminist Erica Jong, which made a splash off what had become the decade’s literary trend: “serious” confessional memoirs or memoiristic fiction by the young and privileged that generated buzz off the titillations of high spending, heroin addiction, and self-harm. Up-and-coming scholar-critics gave this trend their blessing: e.g. Louis Menand of the New Yorker and Harvard arguing that literature and entertainment were, in practice, inseparable, and should be treated that way.

Entertainment infiltrated further afield. On television, longtime players like Barbara Walters made themselves ubiquitous with shows like ABC’s The View, where the talk was politics and the vibe entertainment. (This show, incidentally, gave Kathy Griffin one of her breaks.) Other players moved between worlds. Kurt Andersen, who had made his name satirizing the celebrities from whom Vanity Fair took cues, also edited New York magazine and covered politics in its pages, wrote for The New Yorker, and wrote satire for NBC. Lawrence O’Donnell advised New York’s senior senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan before writing for NBC’s The West Wing and appearing on NBC’s political spinoff MSNBC, hosting low-cost productions where journalists could achieve recognition by “speak[ing] to anything with a lot of authority.”

These trends also moved into newspapers and public affairs, with more immediate consequences. The Times, where Rosenthal’s one goal had been to “keep the paper straight,” changed under later editors and with the application of corporate management techniques which gave administrators and executives more power. By the time Paul Krugman began his columns there in 1999, several years of insinuation-heavy “scoops” over land deals in Arkansas had led to special prosecutions that paralyzed the Clinton presidency. Meanwhile, an anonymously-sourced “national security” series based on flawed leaks was in the process of sending an innocent man, the nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, into solitary confinement. Independent journalists like Adler who pointed to diminishing quality were hounded by the Times, in true corporate bureaucratic style, in witch-hunts across its pages. 

All the while, the political soap opera that eventually ensued off the Times’ Clinton investigations, with Monica Lewinsky in the starring role, owed its life to media players and redounded to their benefit. It was pushed by George Conway, a Republican operative and partner at the mergers-and-acquisition behemoth Wachtell Lipton, who collaborated with the journalist Bill Kristol as well as New York literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, her son Jonah, and the ex-White House staffer and would-be-author Linda Tripp to leak Lewinsky’s existence to an eager special prosecutor and press. It ended with Barbara Walters interviewing Lewinsky to sky-high ratings. Throughout its “run,” book deals were inked, gossip excerpted, bestseller lists bristled, Fox News made its name, and talk-show viewership soared off buzzy promos. Why wouldn’t they? Like E. Jean Carroll’s columns, the story was from the genre of “true tragedies, or dramas, with a narrative and a solution”: in this case, the familiar narrative arc of philandering, disclosure, comeuppance, punishment, penance, and redemption.

Then, only four years later, came another drama (or tragedy) with a clear narrative powered off anonymous leaks culled by “star” Times reporters: Iraq. In the course of this story, White House “sources’” fed journalists quotes about stopping a “mushroom cloud” that sold papers and boosted the Sunday shows’ viewership, eventually driving America into a “Shock and Awe” invasion and the president into an aircraft-carrier-landing-theatrical-tableaux, which gave CNN and Fox major market boosts. All the while, the institutions and their operators kept failing upwards, not through any particular accomplishment but by being, as one informed observer put it, “one of the at most twenty people who run any story…setting the terms, setting the pace, deciding the agenda, determining when and where the story exists, and shaping what the story will be.” As one of these shapers, the Times heir and owner A.G. Sulzberger, Jr., said about the paper as early reports flowed in that no WMD existed in Iraq, “There’s no complacency here. Never has been. Never will be.” His words were undercut by events.

Still, the institutional going wasn’t good for long. Shareholder pressures were minimizing the room for innovation, and the shock of the 9/11 attacks on markets exposed the frailty of ventures like Tina Brown’s Talk magazine, backed by Hearst and kicked off with millennial fanfare. Establishment Democratic and Republican investments hastened the reckoning: Al Gore’s mainstreaming of that obscure defense-funded project, “the internet,” and Lawrence Summers and Dick Cheney’s encouragement of obviously risky mortgage-based-investments-and-mergers. Thanks to these policies, an online meteor and a financial implosion hit America’s institutions—and revenue drops, layoffs, stagnation, and then white-collar unionizing became orders of the day. Tech-backed expansions sputtered, while writing and fact-checking were curtailed. Today, Conde Nast and most other media companies are “staring into the abyss,” while viewership at MSNBC and elsewhere has slumped. 

This had real effects on careers. Kurt Andersen moved to public radio and Lawrence O’Donnell struggled to get renewed at MSNBC. Kathy Griffin’s talk show was canceled, and, after 2011, Molly Jong-Fast didn’t write another book. E. Jean Carroll was laid off by Elle, now owned by Hearst. George Conway lost currency when his party made its populist turn after the 2008 financial bailouts. And Donald Trump, whom players in this circle had long both mocked and used, became the unexpected voice of the populists—paradoxically creating opportunities for institutions and institutionalists under the heading of once-muted identity politics, with benefits for buzz and the bottom line. 

The path was paved by the institutions. Outlets like the New Yorker, which as late as 2004 had been exposing the Iraq War boondoggle using the skills of Seymour Hersh, became power’s tools, sponsoring Lewinsky-like witch hunts against Trump nominees in the name of social justice. The Times, CNN, and MSNBC began trafficking in another information flow from the Lewinsky and Iraq eras: suspect leaks that secured eyeballs while costing them most of the non-partisan readership they’d retained. 

In this context, Carroll’s and her friends’ moves seem almost predictable.

Conway left Wachtell Lipton in 2020, became a Never Trumper, a regular fixture on MSNBC, and an inveterate tweeter whose background photo is a snapshot of E. Jean Carroll’s defamation verdict against Trump.  

Andersen wrote a book of American history, explaining America’s political turn as one in a series of crackpot conspiracy movements that have paralyzed the country throughout its lifespan, and then followed this book with another blaming Republican cronyism for the country’s current path. 

Krugman peddled his own political narrative in columns criticizing states like Florida for trending Republican, including a column about Miami in which he labeled possibly the most ethnically and culturally diverse city in America a place of “stucco” and retirees. 

Griffin got headlines with a photo holding the populist president’s bloodied “head,” which earned her a dismissal from New Year’s Eve hosting duties on CNN while pushing on a new tour and a documentary and the claim that “my little story is historic…whether you like it or not.”

Jong-Fast became a memoiristic channeler of “Trump-era angst.” She got a profile in the Times, bylines in the Atlantic and Vanity Fair, and a deal for a new memoir. She also showed up on MSNBC thanks to her friend Lawrence O’Donnell; one of her recent appearances on the network was with George Conway to discuss E. Jean Carroll’s second legal victory over Trump. O’Donnell, for his part, revitalized his career using his old Senate relationships with Biden politicos to smooth MSNBC’s post-Trump viewer downturn.  

They were joined by a new breed of institutionalist like Soledad O’Brien, a regular on CNN and then at Hearst, who increasingly focused on diversity issues; Amanda Nguyen, a non-profit leader and regular object of coverage in Elle as a crusader for sexual assault survivors; and the Times’ Lydia Polgreen, whose work focuses on “human rights” and “queer lives.” Their arrival gives validity to the institutions’ social justice claims, engineering the replacement of men who reportedly inflicted sexual predations with true believers who seemingly enforce ideological conformism—without altering the ways the institutions do business.  

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But it’s E. Jean Carroll who took on the existential threat to the institutions that is Donald Trump, becoming an “icon” and inadvertently showing that, inside those institutions that support her, compelling narrative has trumped inconvenient realities. Like most decades-old sexual assault allegations, Carroll’s claims were difficult to parse: The first jury verdict in her favor rejected her central claim of rape even on the less stringent preponderance-of-evidence standard. What’s more, some of the trial’s players had suggestive ties, namely Judge Lewis Kaplan, a Democratic appointee whose wife is a former vice president at Random House and former reporter at the New York Times, where Carroll has been featured and her supporters have had bylines and publications. Carroll’s specific claim, of rape in Bergdorf Goodman’s 23 years before, was a premise for a Law and Order: SVU episode. But these facts weren’t examined, turned over, highlighted, made to fill out or add nuance to a picture. Instead the move was toward at-face-value storytelling: In Carroll’s words from years before, “true tragedies, or dramas, with a narrative and a solution.”

Still, the stories the institutions create they also replace. Just as Carroll and her friends started celebrating at The Flower Bar, a new story arrived, pushed by the same players, generating hits and views: Taylor Swift’s and Travis Kelce’s “victimization” at the hands of “conspiracist” populists who were calling Swift and Kelce tools for the Biden re-election campaign. After the end of January, this essentially marginal subject generated an astonishing amount of commentary: from the Times, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, multiple Times columnists, O’Donnell, Jong-Fast, and a prominent administrator at Krugman’s Princeton who synthesized the receding and cresting storylines by tweeting that “E. Jean Carroll deserves a Taylor Swift song.” 

It’s perhaps beside the point to note that the Swift-as-victim-and-MAGA-as-conspiracy-narrative, like those that preceded it, is not only super-charged but incomplete. What, for example, to make of the yearlong raft of elaborate establishment praise for Swift—a mainstream, temperamentally conservative celebrity who supports the establishment—at the hands of sometimes-connected operators whose institutional interests align behind a Biden win? (These include the White House, the Times, Time magazine, several moderate conservative columnists, one of whom called her “the best thing happening in America,” and a New York Times opinion writer who claimed her for “queerness,” as well as Paul Krugman, twice.) Still, this evidence won’t be emphasized by the institutions because it runs counter to the simpler, starker terms of “the narrative”—and because, as the sagas of E. Jean Carroll and her friends who survive inside it show, our establishment has been captured by the stories it tells and sells.

Sourse: theamericanconservative.com

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