The February issue of Portfolio, which just hit newsstands, has a superficially fascinating account of fugitive fraudster Robert Vesco, who ran Bernie Cornfeld's bogus mutual fund in the early 1970s, and then escaped to Cuba. Except the profile, based on a poorly-sourced book by a Fox News correspondent called James Rosen, is as hollow as the investment empire Vesco ran. For Conde Nast's embattled business magazine, which staffers jokingly call Fort Polio, the article is an embarrassment; for the title's wobbly editor, Joanne Lipman, who forced through the piece against the objections of her colleagues, the publication is an indictment. How flawed is the piece? Here's how.
First of all, we're used to magazines rehashing old stories, and presenting them as new. But this isn't just dusty, it's ancient. Here's Portfolio's intro: "The Watergate era's second-most memorable crook, Robert Vesco, started out with nothing, enjoyed his brief moment as a low-life financial genius, and ended up imprisoned at home. In Cuba. We think." Now here's another feature, in Fortune: "Stalking Robert Vesco: Once America's most famous rascal, the fugitive embezzler now lives in Havana in modest seclusion, surrounded by armed guards." Sound familiar? That profile, by Arthur Herzog, was from 1986, twenty years ago.
At least Herzog managed to track down Cornfeld's notorious henchman. Fox reporter James Rosen, who adds very little to the earlier story, had to rely on second-hand sources. At least Portfolio's head of research came from the prissy New Yorker, and the fact checkers must have checked out the notes and documentation. But we hear that the author said that he'd lost the material "in a flood". (I'll have to remember that excuse.)
So why would Joanne Lipman publish an old story which didn't even check out? Before being picked by S.I. Newhouse's Conde Nast to launch its $100m business magazine, ran the soft, weekend section of the Wall Street Journal. The brittle editrix is famously, almost proudly ignorant of business journalism, preferring fiction. The Vesco story was news to her. That's fine. Portfolio is lifestyle pap for rich men, not an investigations unit. Sure, Rosen's rehash gets no play on the front cover; and the intro is extremely tentative ("In Cuba. We think.") — as it should be. The magazine is a team: even if Lipman doesn't have much judgment when it comes to business journalism, her colleagues do. Too bad, then, that she went ahead against universal opposition. The result is a fiasco for a magazine that, with lagging newsstand sales and poor buzz, really can't really afford one — and one for which Portfolio's vulnerable editor carries sole responsibility.