That's Why They Called It XS
It's been more than six years, yet Ronnie Greenspan still can't talk about the staff party without feeling a rise of queasiness in the pit of her stomach.
The shame she felt that night, though diminished by time, has never quite disappeared. Rather, it has spiraled down through the years to color the canvases she paints in somber
tones and may have contributed to her need for the pills she takes to control her recurrent depression.
"It's still very upsetting and confusing to me," she says. "Sometimes I think it was all my fault."
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In the summer of 1991, Greenspan was a 26-year-old writer struggling to launch a career the hard way, selling articles and features at low-ball prices just to get some bylines. Still, for an aspiring journalist just starting out, she could count herself lucky; she'd managed to carve out a small but welcome niche as a freelance writer with a new Broward County weekly called XS magazine. A painter herself, she was getting into the paper with some regularity covering exhibits and trends as well as profiling artists and gallery owners. Exhilarated by the work and the exposure it brought, she nevertheless found it all somewhat intimidating. "I was very nervous about the whole thing," she remembers.
Although her 1500-or-so-word stories usually brought in less than $250 apiece, she was hoping they would lead to bigger and better-paying assignments. "What I really wanted was a cover story," she says.
But as the year progressed, it was slowly dawning on Greenspan that those goals were being jeopardized by her increasingly bizarre relationship with the paper's publisher and editor, Stephen Wissink -- a relationship in which the professional and the personal were becoming dangerously entwined.
This was an important partnership for Greenspan in several respects. For one thing, Wissink had direct control over much of her career; not only did he edit her work, he approved her assignments and set her pay. Plus, she was infatuated with him.
Within days of editing her first article, Wissink had left a "very sweet" birthday message on her answering machine. Soon he asked her out. On their first date, the editor and the writer went to the movies and kissed in the parking lot afterward. On their second date, they walked on the beach and shared secrets under the stars. "I felt like we were a couple of kids," she recalls. She was flattered by Wissink's attention, awed by the power of his media position, overwhelmed by his manic energy, and totally, thoroughly smitten.
"I thought he was brilliant," she says wistfully. "He did all the right things. He said things a girl wants to hear, things about the future, about us. For a while I thought maybe we were going to have a life together."
Those hopes diminished when the courtship ended. Although the calls continued, there was nothing tender about their content anymore. "He'd call at three in the morning and say come on over, the door's open," she says. "It was kind of like I was a groupie. He even gave me an XS T-shirt." Sometimes she hung up on him; other times she answered the summons. "I was lonely," she admits. "And infatuated, I guess."
At the staff party, a nadir of sorts was reached. It wasn't a swank affair -- "just a summertime barbecue by the pool with a bunch of staffers," says Michael Farver, then an assistant editor on the paper and the party's host. People brought their kids. They drank some beer and had fun.
Despite feeling a little apprehensive about how Wissink would treat her with staffers around, Greenspan decided to attend. And at first she was glad she did. He flirted and bantered with her, and that fed into her need to feel wanted.
Later, Wissink went outside, gesturing for her to follow. She did. Leading her into the bushes, he kissed her. She responded. They made out. Then she says he started pressuring her to have sex right there on the lawn. She refused. He insisted. They compromised. "We had oral sex," she says. They also had an audience. While they'd been groping, a couple of XS staffers had climbed onto the roof and were taking photographs.
Thus was the tone of the Wissink era set from the beginning -- with the spectacle of the new paper's editor/publisher having sex in the bushes with a freelancer while members of his staff captured the scene on film.
"When I came back inside, someone told me I had grass stains on my face," Greenspan says. "They were laughing."
Eventually Greenspan stopped coming in to the XS office. She had the feeling that people were talking about her, and she thought she detected a condescending attitude and tone of voice in some employees. That perception, coupled with her own shame, led her to tell Wissink that she thought it was time to quit writing for the paper. "I couldn't sleep, I was anxious all the time -- I just couldn't take it psychologically," she contends. Wissink's response? "'Good, there are twelve other women I can get to replace you,'" she recalls him saying.
Call it an era of excess.
That era came crashing to a close five weeks ago, as Stephen Wissink unexpectedly and abruptly resigned.
When the news was announced to a stunned roomful of Wissink's former staffers -- not by Wissink himself but by Mark Jones, the Sun-Sentinel's new human resources director -- late in the afternoon of Friday, October 17, the reigning mood was one of bewilderment. "There was a lot of confusion, a lot of questions," according to Colleen Dougher-Telcik, a staff writer who has worked for the magazine since its inception.
There weren't, however, a lot of answers. The assembled staff was told that Wissink had left for "personal reasons," she recalls. Later Jones, speaking to a reporter from another paper, added some detail. "Among other reasons, he wants to spend more time with his family."
That's true, Wissink says, but it's also misleading. Yes, he would like to involve himself more closely in the life of his eleven-year-old daughter, Erin, who moved to North Carolina in February to live with her mother, Wissink's ex-wife.
But the implication that he was so overwhelmed with parental guilt that it caused him to abandon the paper he'd helped found is simply not the case, he says. It was a deception by omission.
Wissink claims he didn't want to leave -- at least not yet. The paper had just changed its name a month before his departure and was in the middle of trying to redefine its goals and content. "In my heart I know that I was forced out," he says. "I had no choice."
The pressure came in the form an "intense" interrogation conducted earlier that week by Jones. Wissink says he'd been forced to endure questioning regarding his relationships with two women: Sandra Schulman, a current Sun-Sentinel arts columnist and former XS freelance writer, and Somer Simpson, the weekly's current online editor. (Ronnie Greenspan's name did not come up.)
Jones gave him the strong impression of being dissatisfied with Wissink's descriptions of those relationships -- relationships Wissink felt were legitimate and proper. Although neither Jones nor Wissink will detail exactly what was said in that meeting, Wissink says "it gradually became clear to me that they would rather not have me around." He obliged them.
So despite the words coming from behind the smiling mask of the corporate spokesmen, it seems clear that Wissink was forced out in a cloud of suspicion regarding sexual improprieties. But other factors also played a large part. One of these was alcoholism. Another was greed. The most important, however, was revenge.
For a man only recently given the Jonah's heave over the side of the corporate yacht, Wissink seems in a remarkably sweet mood as he sits down to breakfast in a diner near Young Circle in Hollywood.
"Bitterness will eat you up if you let it," he says. "It will devour you." The redemptive quality of forgiveness is a relatively new theme for Wissink, who once defaced a competitor's photograph with hair spray and nail polish because the man had criticized him in print. Inner peace, he explains, came in 1994 following the realization that he was an alcoholic. Under pressure from friends who could see he was losing control, he checked into Community Psychiatric Centers (which has since changed its name to Fort Lauderdale Hospital) and fought his addiction for six weeks as an inpatient. He beat it, finally, and has managed to stay clean ever since.
He asserts that his battle with alcoholism taught him the danger of destructive and negative thinking. Even so, the name of Sandra Schulman still manages to dredge up a sudden surge of malevolence. "I've heard Sandra Schulman was trying to shake down the Sun-Sentinel for money she could use to move to Nashville," he says.
He's right. "I was hoping to get some money from the Sun-Sentinel so that I could move," she says. How was she hoping to accomplish this? By making allegations of sexual harassment against Wissink. But greed wasn't her only motivation. It was actually "revenge and greed," she says. Her secondary goal was to accomplish an act of vengeance against Wissink. In this she was successful.
Schulman is a regular contributor to the Sun-Sentinel whose columns on the South Florida music scene appear once a week. She also writes the occasional music or cultural piece for Billboard and the New York Daily News.
An acerbic New York City transplant whose Northern roots are still evident in a leftover Bed-Stuy nasal whine in her voice and a Village hipster's penchant for wearing black, Schulman apparently also knows how to nurse a grudge. Last year, when Michael Koretzky, the former XS arts and entertainment editor, was tweaking her in his column regularly, she not only responded in an immediate spasm of anger, she also clipped every mention of her name in XS and saved them in a scrapbook for future reference.
Those column items were only the latest in a list of complaints Schulman had about Koretzky. She also blamed him for forcing her out of XS in 1994. In the early Nineties, she had been a regular music and arts writer for the magazine, and she says when Koretzky was hired in 1994, he started making her life miserable in order to get rid of her.
"He would make me rewrite simple things, little things, three, four, even five times," she says. "It was obvious what he was trying to do. So I left -- I didn't have a choice."
As much as she blamed Koretzky for what she believes was her forced departure from XS, she faulted Wissink even more, because he hadn't stood up for her when she complained about Koretzky. And as time passed, she neither forgave nor forgot.
Rather, she says, her anger only grew as Koretzky started a column feature he titled the "Sandra Schulman Alert." Usually only a sentence or two in length, it was devoted to the gleeful exposure of any mistake or misspelling that made it past Schulman's keyboard and the Sun-Sentinel editors.
A typical example, from May 1996:
In last week's column, the Sun-Sentinel's local music writer wrote about Dade blues duo Piano Bob & The Snowman, but she called them Piano Bob and the Snowmen, which would make them more than a duo. Schulman has now misspelled or misnamed at least one musical act (and usually more) in four of her last six columns.
As regular Koretzky readers and acquaintances know, that's his style. "He likes to pull people's chains just to see how they react," says former girlfriend and former XS associate editor Janine Sieja Hagerman. And he does it all the time -- both in his column and out of it.
For example, local poet and spoken-word artist Adam Matza has been subjected to several blasts of Koretzky-style abuse. First, Koretzky wrote a piece implying that a poem Matza had published in a compilation book had been accepted only because of a friendship between Matza's mother and the book's publisher. Then last summer Koretzky stood up at an open-mic spoken-word concert and read a poem called "I Am Adam Matza" in which he accused Matza of walking out on a personal debt. "He really ripped me," says Matza, who has never lost an opportunity to rip Koretzky back. "He's a weasel," Matza adds. Koretzky says Matza is "disgruntled" because Koretzky stopped buying his freelance articles.
So when Koretzky goaded Schulman with the Alert, he was only being Koretzky-like. In fact you might say he was engaging in just the style of media commentary that's squarely in the tradition of the independent alternative newsweekly -- except for the fact that he wasn't working for an independent paper.
His paychecks were coming from Gold Coast Publications, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Sun-Sentinel, itself a link in the massive Tribune Co. chain of papers and television stations. After Schulman complained about the Alert to Sun-Sentinel Arts and Entertainment Editor John Dolen, he in turn complained to Wissink, and in June 1996 Koretzky's leash was yanked and his nose swatted with a folded-up Sun-Sentinel, Schulman says. In his column Koretzky wrote, "My boss has asked me not to pick on Sun-Sentinel local music writer Sandra Schulman any more. He thinks it's becoming redundant to repeatedly point out her mistakes." Koretzky and Wissink now deny pressure from above had anything to do with the demise of the Schulman Alert. "It was becoming too easy," Koretzky says, laughing.
Still, Koretzky wouldn't remain unresponsive. In a freelance piece he wrote last summer for Better Days, a 'zine put out on the side by XS designer W. Kelly Lucas, Koretzky quoted a local musician as saying, jokingly, that "Sandra Schulman should be shot." When Schulman read that, she decided it was high time to bypass official channels.
On August 27 she delivered a letter directly to Wissink:
I was hoping the harassment against me by Michael Koretzky, that you allowed, had run its course.... I worked pretty darn hard for your publication for three years and this is the thanks I get -- a bunch of cheap shots in print, including the recent article where Koretzky quotes a band as saying I should be shot.... Sorry Steve, but it's not funny, or fair, anymore.
She also included a little jab at Wissink directly, reminding him that when she had written for XS, "harassment also came in other forms from you...." The allusion was to a 1991 incident in which Wissink admits to coming on to her.
After reading the letter, Wissink called Schulman the next day, and she informed him of her plans to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against him regarding the 1991 incident. "He was begging," she says. "Groveling. Absolutely groveling. He wanted to know what it would take to satisfy me. I said, 'There's nothing you can do to satisfy me. I want you and Koretzky fired.'"
Wissink admits calling Schulman, but he says there was no pleading involved: "I tried to give her a call, but she didn't want to talk about anything." About the threat of the lawsuit, he says, "It was just another routine thing. The nature of the beast is that you get complaints."
In the next week's paper, Koretzky'sname and title of Arts and Entertainment Editor were missing from their usual place on the masthead. Wissink won't say on the record whether he out-and-out fired him, but he does say that "Koretzky went around telling people in the newsroom he got fired." And Adam Matza says Koretzky's answering machine had a message that week telling callers, "I've been fired." In any case, the former "Arts and Entertainment Editor" was suddenly just a "Contributing Writer."
Wissink denies dumping Koretzky in an attempt to appease Schulman. "Koretzky's departure had nothing to do with Sandra Schulman," he says. But Schulman doesn't buy it. "I talked to Stephen on the phone one day, and the next day he fired Koretzky. You figure it out," she says.
Whatever the truth may be, Koretzky didn't fall too far. When the following week's issue came out on September 4, his column was still there in its usual place. The only thing different was his lack of a management position.
In the Sun-Sentinel newsroom, meanwhile, the rumor mill was cranking up. One story making the rounds, according to a Sun-Sentinel staffer, was that Wissink had paid off Koretzky with a new contract in return for keeping his mouth shut about things that had happened back in Wissink's drinking days. Bob Pignone, owner of the Poor House nightclub, says a friend who works for the daily paper "told me the word going around the Sun-Sentinel was that Koretzky had incriminating photographs of Wissink with some girl."
No one seems to know the exact fate of those vintage shots of Wissink rolling on the grass with Ronnie Greenspan; Greenspan says Wissink told her afterward that he was trying to get hold of the film, but she doesn't know whether he was ever able to or not. Nevertheless one thing is certain: If Wissink thought that by giving Koretzky a contract he was buying his former subordinate's silence, he was mistaken.
Shortly after his exit as arts and entertainment editor, Koretzky called Schulman, she says, with an offer to feed her information that she could use against Wissink. "He said, 'I know there were other girls,' and 'I know there were pictures taken at a party.'" she claims. Koretzky refuses to comment on the record about her allegations.
Meanwhile Schulman was having a hard time getting traction on her plan for a lawsuit. She talked to four different attorneys -- three in West Palm Beach and one in Miami -- but none would take her case. According to the attorneys, the fact that she'd waited six years to pursue any action reflected poorly on her credibility, and the statute of limitations had run out.
So instead of taking her complaint to court, Schulman took it to the Sun-Sentinel human resources department. On Monday, October 13, she sent Mark Jones a memo detailing the harassment she says she'd suffered at Wissink's hands:
I began freelance writing for XS magazine, a Tribune publication, in 1991.... Almost from the first month Wissink made constant suggestive comments about my clothing, body, etc. He asked me 'over to his place for a beer' using the interoffice Atex message system... I repeatedly told him no, I will not date an editor, especially one living with someone else. The requests continued, one time he said, "Let's have sex in the elevator," another time after a staff meeting at a local restaurant, he leaned over, grabbed my face and tried to kiss me.
Two days later, on Wednesday, October 15, Schulman says she sat down with Jones to talk matters over. She told him that all she wanted at this point was an apology from Wissink. Jones's attitude, she claims, was blase to begin with. "He sort of blew me off," she recalls. "He told me it was a long time ago, and people can remember things differently." (Jones refuses to discuss specifics about his meetings with Schulman or Wissink.)
Then Schulman made her next move by handing Jones the name of a woman -- a current employee of City Link, the new incarnation of XS -- who she claimed could corroborate Wissink's pattern of alleged unprofessional and sexually harassing behavior. Jones said he'd get back to her. On Friday Jones called Schulman back and told her Wissink had resigned. "I asked him why, and he didn't say anything," she says. "But he said I probably shouldn't expect an apology from Wissink."
The name that Schulman gave Jones was Somer Simpson.
Hearing the name, Wissink leans forward, shuts his eyes, and begins to knead his face and temples with slow, deep, rhythmic strokes. As the tape recorder silently chronicles the muted clatter of a waitress busing a table across the room, the former editor works out what he wants to say on this still-delicate subject. It takes him about half a minute.
Finally, he looks up. "Somer and I were buddies," he says.
Wissink is at a loss to understand how and why Simpson's name came up in his meeting with Mark Jones. "He asked me to describe my relationship with Somer Simpson. I told him the truth -- we were friends."
If so, they were an unlikely pair of chums. When they met Wissink was in his late thirties with a fiancee, an ex-wife, a child, and a magazine to manage. Somer Simpson was in her early twenties with a whimsical penchant for dyeing her hair in offbeat colors.
Still, he says, they hit it off from the start. "She has a ribald sense of humor, and so do I," he says. "When she was having problems, she would come talk to me."
At one point, when Simpson was having trouble in a relationship, Wissink says she called his home and left a message asking whether she could come over and spend the night. (She ended up not coming over because Wissink and his wife were away and didn't get the message until they got back.)
The friendship, it seems, has now been put on hold following the grilling Wissink endured. "To this day she hasn't contacted me. And I haven't contacted her. She has my phone number," he says.
Simpson, for her part, won't say anything about her relationship with Wissink: "I've been advised not to talk about it." By an attorney? "No comment."
Schulman says she called Simpson after hearing from XS film critic Barbara Lester that Simpson wanted to talk to her. (Lester refuses to comment.) Schulman says, "Simpson told me she was glad to hear what I was doing -- that it was about time somebody put a stop to what was going on."
Simpson also told Schulman that Wissink had been sending her suggestive e-mails and making off-color comments. For example, Simpson told her that Wissink had joked that maybe he should bring her home to pleasure his wife (whom he had married four months earlier).
Schulman also says Simpson told her that after Simpson had started avoiding Wissink, her position with the paper had been threatened. "There was a meeting with her and Scott Anderson where she was left with two choices: take a lesser job at a lower salary, or freelance for less than half the salary she had been making." Anderson, who is technically Simpson's employer, is an executive producer for Digital City South Florida, which produces Websites in partnership with the Sun-Sentinel. He refuses to comment.
Schulman had some advice for Simpson: "I told her to hire an attorney."
Some co-workers say Wissink gives the impression of being placidly unaware of the minefield surrounding the issue of dating women who work for him.
If so, he's not the only one in media who gives that impression. In August Staci Bonner, an ex-research editor for Spin magazine, was awarded $100,000 for herself and $750,000 for her attorney's fees in a sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit against Bob Guccione, Jr., the magazine's former publisher. In an opinion upholding the jury's verdict, Judge Denise Cote of U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York wrote that Guccione "consistently made sexual advances to young women at Spin without any regard to whether they reciprocated his interest or whether they considered his advances unwelcome."
Though not a new problem, it's one that is increasingly being recognized in media circles. In the November 1992 issue of Editor & Publisher magazine, Lawrence R. Levin wrote, "As a result of ignoring sexual harassment, magazines and newspapers are at great risk of becoming the story rather than the storyteller."
Two years later a survey of women journalists by the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication found that 60 percent of respondents said they personally had experienced sexual harassment in their careers, most commonly in the form of "inappropriate comments, touching, and propositioning."
Lou Vendittelli, a Miami civil-rights lawyer and discrimination expert, says, "Clearly a man is always taking a risk when he decides to pursue a relationship with an employee." However, he asserts that consensual activity is not normally considered illegal harassment unless it involves a clear quid pro quo -- the trading of a sexual favor for a professional one.
So far no woman has come forward to publicly accuse Wissink of trying either to threaten or to reward her professionally in return for sex. Sandra Schulman alleges that he made advances to her when she was working for him. And Schulman characterizes Simpson's alleged complaint as one in which he made her feel uncomfortable with his unwelcome bantering. In Ronnie Greenspan's case, the relationship was consensual.
Wissink defends himself, in part, by making a distinction between his conduct before he quit drinking in 1994 and his conduct afterward. Back in the boozing days, when he was putting away all the Canadian Club he could handle and more, Wissink says he was often out of control. "I could be rude," he says. "I would try to be charming and end up being obnoxious."
He blames his "one encounter" with Sandra Schulman, during which "I probably made a pass at her," partly on the fact that he'd had "too much to drink" that day. And he maintains that his relationship with Ronnie Greenspan has to be understood in the context of the near-daily plunges into drunkenness that characterized his life then. His memory of those days consists of "varying shades of gray."
About the time Wissink went into rehab, he says, he started having qualms about dating women who worked for the paper. Since then, Wissink claims, he hasn't done or said anything to any co-worker that could be construed as crossing the line.
However, if he didn't cross the line, he sure drifted close to it, according to a woman who worked for the Sun-Sentinel two years ago. The woman, who didn't want her name used in this article, says she was interested in writing for XS and so began to cultivate a friendship with Wissink. At first he was encouraging and professional. "He said, 'Write something freelance, and I'll pay you for it,'" she recalls.
Before she got a chance to do that, though, the woman says the relationship turned uncomfortable. "He used to meander over, pop his head in, say he'd just dropped in to see what I was doing," she says. Then came the computer messages. "He'd send me e-mails seeing if I wanted to have dinner with him, asking me out to lunch," she says. She remembers one two-week stretch in particular when "he invited me out to lunch every day," she claims. "And I turned him down every time. And I just thought to myself, 'This guy's either very persistent or very stupid.'"
His intense pursuit killed any interest she'd had in working for XS. "I thought, 'Thank God I didn't take a job there.'" She has since left the Tribune Co. altogether.
After a while, the attempt to construct a coherent portrait of Stephen Wissink begins to seem a fool's errand. Successive glimpses of the man through the eyes of those who know him serve only to inflate the confusion, not to dispel it. "He was a charmer," says one friend. "A bitter man," says another. "Brilliant." "Vapid." "Nurturing." "Cutting." Each new source describes Wissink in terms nearly contradicting the one before. "He was always very truthful, even if it hurt," says Colleen Dougher-Telcik. "He was always full of little white lies," says Ronnie Greenspan.
Nowhere do the various perceptions of this complex man differ so greatly as in the minds of the women he worked with. According to one commonly held view, Wissink was a man constantly on the make. A former Sun-Sentinel employee says Wissink's behavior was always a fertile source of gossip among her and her women friends on staff: "We'd go, 'Did you hear the latest about Wissink? Did you hear what he did this time?'" Ronnie Greenspan says he was still calling her even after he'd moved in with another woman. He allegedly made suggestive remarks to Somer Simpson before, during, and after his most recent marriage. "I think the man had a problem," says Schulman. "There's no way he could have actually been attracted to all the women he hit on."
Nevertheless, two women -- both of whom worked for Wissink for years -- say they saw none of this side of him and doubt it existed. "I don't always get to select my bosses, but I do select my friends," says Dougher-Telcik. "And I never could be friends with someone I didn't respect. Steve Wissink is my friend." Janine Sieja Hagerman, who was hired by Wissink to be associate editor when the paper first started up, echoes that assessment. "I can't say I ever saw anything untoward in the newsroom. The atmosphere was very collegial, relaxed, and comfortable."
And what of the number-one source? What is Wissink's opinion of himself?
The single most telling adjective according to the former editor -- the one that ties all the other loose scraps into a single understandable whole -- is "insecure." If his story has a single theme, it should be this: "A very insecure guy who was trying to cover his insecurities by being a man about town."
But the last word of this story should not be edited in by Wissink. It should be Ronnie Greenspan's. She was the one, after all, who bore the brunt of this "man about town's" attempts to work out his insecurities by dumping on someone even more vulnerable than himself.
Telling her story, however, Greenspan has almost nothing critical to say about Wissink. In fact she frequently pauses to point out the good she sees in him: his love for his daughter, his charisma.
The loyalty of some of his staff was especially impressive to her -- particularly at the time he was hospitalized for his alcoholism. "Everybody was so kind and understanding," she recalls. So was the paper, which was paying for his treatments.
These days Greenspan, too, is being treated. Her treatments are for depression. Describing them she finally displays a touch of bitterness. "Of course nobody is paying for my treatments," she says. "I've got to pay for them myself, because I don't have a job at the moment."
And now neither does Wissink.
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