Tight with titans
Nina Munk lives the business journalist's idea of an ideal life. We are at Canoe, atop the TD tower on Bay Street. She's wearing jeans and a designer-ragged sweater. "I used to wear a suit and stockings," she says. "The further along I get, the more I realize I don't need to dress like the people I'm writing about."
She munches a bowl of nuts and downs Perrier, aghast at the thought of a drink at 4:30 p.m. She is in hometown Toronto, having left New York to promote her well-received book, Fools Rush In, a deconstruction of the AOL-Time Warner merger (see review, page 83). She received a rumoured $500,000 (U.S.) advance for it and became name-drop-worthy in the New York Post.
Munk, 36, has her "little brother," Marc, 30, in tow for moral support. Marc is an emergency-room physician in Pittsburgh. Older brother Anthony works in New York for Onex Corp. All are the children of legendary Toronto businessman Peter Munk and his first wife, Linda, an academic. "Here in Toronto you are defined as Peter Munk's daughter or Peter Munk's son and you just can't escape that," she says.
The upside, of course, is that the Munk children do not have to worry about rent money. Despite that knowledge, they've all made their own way in the world. Nina has been a determined and undiva-like girl reporter during her stardust career. Starting at Toronto trade rag Drug Merchandising and moving on to Forbes in New York, she worked her way into a plum job at Fortune as the designated producer of the "fun cover stories," earning a top-drawer salary.
Then, in 1999, Munk "took a big risk" and launched into freelance writing. Luckily, she points out, her husband, Pablo Galarza, had a steady job with benefits. Her goal was to do businessy stories for a general audience ("the meeting point of business and pure human drama"), which she did for The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. Then she landed one of journalism's great gigs: a contract writing for the five million readers of Vanity Fair.
Fools Rush In is "really a psychological portrait of two monomaniacal CEOs who became ever more deluded and ended up throwing $200 billion worth of shareholder money out the window." Time Warner head Gerald Levin in particular is devastatingly depicted by Munk. His post-debacle lifestyle conversion--he is working on a book called Soul Communion--is mocked mercilessly.
Did Munk target the easy-to-ridicule? "Two other books preceded mine on the very same subject and they couldn't be more different. It's quite extraordinary: You have three people who had access to all the same material and came away with such different stories.
"Are any of the three of us being fraudulent? No, we're all good, responsible journalists. But you can't help but filter things through your own experience, your own biases. I've never believed that objective journalism really exists--you do your best to be fair. But that's not the same as being objective."
Munk says many readers come to see Levin as a terribly poignant character. "And he is. It's partly the delusion, the clear mental instability, the ruthless murder of his son [Jon Levin was shot to death in 1997]. But you can't forget he happens also to be a ruthless son of a bitch. What makes Jerry Levin so dangerous is that you feel sorry for him--he puts you off guard because he quotes the Bible and Greek philosophers. It's very hard to come to terms with a CEO who on the one hand cries and who on the other hand made his way to the top because he stabbed more people in the back than anyone else. Did I feel I was too hard on Jerry Levin? No."
Earlier this year, Vanity Fair published a preview excerpt of Munk's book, which included her harsh portrayal of Levin. "The older you get," she says, "the more you try to be straightforward and not to con the people you're interviewing." Nonetheless, Munk braced herself when she took Levin's call after the excerpt ran. "He said, 'You know, Nina, I think you've pretty well hit the nail on the head.' I was completely taken aback."