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ANALYSIS : Rivers' Suit Against GQ Raises Anonymity Issue

December 10, 1987|JACK MATHEWS

The story about Joan Rivers isn't mentioned on the cover of the December issue of GQ. Her name does not appear in the table of contents, either. In fact, the elongated gossip item is buried on pages 138 and 140 of the 360-page issue, tucked between Campari and Neiman-Marcus ads like a pearl in the bowels of an oyster, waiting to be discovered.

But with Rivers herself showing the way, the article has been discovered and GQ, an upscale men's magazine not known for spreading gossip, is suddenly one of the hottest items on December newsstands.

Rivers, outraged at her characterization in the article as an exploitive widow who had wished her husband dead days before his suicide, called GQ to account in a press conference last week, and has since filed a $50-million lawsuit accusing GQ owner Conde Nast Publications of conspiring to create a series of false and inflammatory articles about well-known people.

The lawsuit names former Richard Nixon speechwriter Benjamin Stein as the actual author of GQ articles published under the pseudonyms Bert Hacker and Mark Cooperman, and claims the magazine hired Stein specifically to create scandalous personality pieces to beef up circulation.

None of the principals in the lawsuit would discuss the case this week. Rivers is performing in Australia. Stein has had his home telephone number disconnected and has an assistant return his calls. Arthur Cooper, editor of GQ, says he would love to talk about it, but his lawyers have told him not to.

But the Rivers article and the lawsuit, coming near the end of what may be the watershed year in invasive personality reporting, have made media ethics as much the story as the subjects themselves.

"There has been a tendency to go for the jugular in recent months on moral issues," said Everette Dennis, head of the Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University. "The press is probing people's characters and personalities in a fairly raw fashion. I'm not sure that's a very good trend in American journalism."

In the Rivers article, published over the byline Bert Hacker, the author portrays himself as a close friend of Rivers who attempts to calm her during outbursts against her husband Edgar Rosenberg immediately before and after his suicide in August.

At her press conference last week, Rivers said she knew no one named Bert Hacker and offered a $5,000 reward to the person who revealed his true identity. Several people apparently came forward and Benjamin Stein's name was soon linked to Bert Hacker's, in news stories and Rivers' lawsuit.

Rivers' attorney, Robert Chapman, said Stein is not an acquaintance of Rivers and was not at her husband's shivah (the seven-day Jewish period of mourning). In a phone interview, Chapman acknowledged that the lawsuit's reference to a previous "defamatory" article was to one about Fox Television executive Garth Ancier that appeared in the November GQ. Chapman claimed that the Ancier article was also written pseudonymously by Stein.

That first-person story, under the byline of Mark Cooperman, described a scene at the Ivy restaurant in Beverly Hills where Ancier, after being loudly criticized by Fox Chairman Barry Diller, disappeared into the men's room and wouldn't come out.

According to the article, titled "Crazy Like a Fox Executive," Diller and Fox owner Rupert Murdoch supposedly coaxed Ancier out of the restroom, whereupon the TV executive fainted and had to be taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. The story quotes an unnamed former colleague of Ancier telling Diller that Ancier had been having "fainting fits for years."

Neither Diller nor Ancier would discuss the article in GQ, but a Fox executive acknowledged that the studio has demanded a formal retraction from the magazine. The source said Ancier was taken by ambulance from the Ivy during a dinner with Fox executives one evening, but it was not precipitated by a Diller scolding. In fact, he said, Diller was not even there.

Most of the journalists, media watchers and libel lawyers The Times talked with this week said they have no inherent ethical problem with magazines publishing articles under pseudonyms, but few were ready to rally to GQ's side.

"I'm against this whole idea of a national publication allowing these kinds of things to be said about a person and not having the guts to use the real writer's name," said Mitchell Fink, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner writer who first reported that Stein, a former Herald columnist, was the author of the Rivers article. "I am not anti-gossip. I write it for a living. . . . But if I am not right, I better be man enough to say I was wrong."

The Hollywood Reporter's Bob Osborne said that even if everything in the Rivers article were true, the author would have been at the mourning services as a friend, not as a journalist, and should not have reported it.

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