That’s about all I can say right now, after dashing off an e-mail to a magazine in London that, appropriately enough, royally pissed me off earlier this year.
The e-mail from the editor of Uncut, a rock publication, bears some footnote about the contents being confidential, etc. etc., so I won’t quote from it. But I can still tell you what happened.
It began with Michael Jackson’s death. One of the many media outlets that contacted me –mainly because I’d interviewed Michael and his brothers in my time at Rolling Stone and beyond—was Uncut, a magazine specializing in classic rock and pop music. Think Mojo and Classic Rock, two other UK publications dedicated to flashbacks.
Anyway, Uncut asked for an article about Michael, offering a piddly fee and a difficult deadline. But we had just begun a courtship, instigated by a freelancer friend of mine, and I decided to go ahead and give them a piece. I’d draw not only from my sessions with the Jacksons—once for Rolling Stone; then for a television show—but also from Quincy Jones, the producer of Michael’s biggest albums: Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad. Q and I were working on a book project, and, of course, he’d spoken about Michael.
I wrote the article, met the severe deadline, and all seemed well. Until the magazine came out. On the cover, a headline read, “Michael Jackson By Quincy Jones.”
I had seen, in Newsweek, a piece about Jackson attributed to Q. I thought that Uncut had acquired permission to run his article, along with my article. Wrong. “Michael Jackson By Quincy Jones” was, in fact, by me. Certainly, I had quoted Quincy in the article, and, for Uncut, I’d reached him in Montreux, Switzerland, for his reaction to Michael’s death. He spoke, I reported what he said, and now, suddenly, he was the writer of my article.
Which, by the way, I did not know until I happened onto the magazine at a newsstand in my neighborhood. Uncut never thought to send a copy. (Freelance writers get such respect!) Now, I saw what they had done. My work was now Quincy’s. And in the contents page, a blurb read, “Quincy Jones and Ben Fong-Torres discuss the troubled life and majestic career” (of Jackson). We discussed neither. And, when I got to the article itself, the art direction featured Quincy’s name front, center, and big, over mine. This would have been fine, if it had been a piece about Mr. Jones. But it was not.
I wrote a letter of complaint to my editor, and then held it. I hadn’t been paid the ridiculous fee (the first offer was about somewhere between $300 and $350 for 2,500 words, and would you hurry it, please), and Dianne, my wife, suggested I wait until they’d wired my stack of pennies into my bank account before ripping them a new one.
So I did. A while later, the editor wrote, apologizing. I can’t quote from his e-mail, but, basically, he said that mainstream media is struggling, and magazines have to do what they have to do to get people to buy their title, especially for an article about a subject who’d been covered rather extensively. Sometimes, he said, publications had to get “ruthless.”
OK. I quoted one word. So sue me. And, since I can quote from what I wrote, I will:
“I understand how aggressive magazines--all mainstream media-- have to be these days to get attention and sell their wares. One has to be creative, and then some.
“But I would never do it at the expense of the person who wrote the article, or shot the photographs, or whatever. The pay and billing is minuscule enough. To get slapped down, further, by a magazine taking away the credit--on the cover--and billing an article as being "by" somebody else -- in this case, a big star -- is intolerable.
"’Ruthless’ is an accurate description of what you did. I will not allow myself to be placed in such a position again. And, if fellow writers ever inquire about my experience with Uncut, I will be -- well, not ruthless, but truthful.”
And, as Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann would say, "That’s the truth."
Causes Ben Fong-Torres Supports
Susan G. Komen For The Cure Rocket Dog Rescue