Rush Limbaugh hates the “lamestream media,” but at the turn of the millennium, his wife Marta Limbaugh launched her own national magazine in downtown West Palm Beach. I reported this story for the Palm Beach County Free Press, a magazine I started in my Florida room and later sold to a couple of millionaires. I’m proud of it not because it was all that great – like most above-average journalists, I realize the limitations of my talent – but because it got talked up around town.
I know I’ve written a good story when the executive director of the Chamber of Commerce and the owner of an alternative nightclub both like it. To me, this is local journalism – not another 8-incher about about a weekend festival or a profile on the new city manager or a brief about the opening of a new Chili’s. Marta’s magazine may have been national, but her office was local. So were the employees she screwed with.
Is this any way to run a magazine?
By Michael Koretzky, 1998
On June 23, 1997, Marta Limbaugh called a meeting of her brand-new magazine staff.
The 38-year-old wife of America’s most popular radio personality sat at the head of a brand-new conference table in her brand-new office in downtown West Palm Beach. Around her were five of her brand-new employees. She told them, “I have enough money to run this magazine for two years without making a dime.”
And that’s exactly what she’s been doing.
Marta Limbaugh has already published two issues of Vent, a vague but slick quarterly aimed at the nation’s Generation Xers. But the story about how Marta Limbaugh runs her magazine is infinitely more interesting than the stories she puts in the magazine.
The invention of Vent
Before Marta Fitzgerald became Marta Limbaugh, she was a journalism student at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. She was also an aerobics instructor.
“I remember being in my 20s with no direction whatsoever,” Limbaugh writes on her website (www.ventmag.com).”But I knew I had ‘IT’ – that unexplainable something special deep inside. I had the ability to do something great with my life, I just didn’t know what my particular ‘IT’ was.”
Her particular IT was a chance encounter with Rush Limbaugh in 1990. Rush’s own biography says Marta sent him an e-mail on CompuServe, seeking his advice on how to deal with a Reagan-bashing professor. Four years later, the 46-year-old Limbaugh married Marta at the Virginia home of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. It was his third marriage. She has a son and daughter by a previous marriage.
Rush Limbaugh is worth $25 million. In October 1997, Palm Beach Post columnist Thom Smith broke the story about the Limbaughs moving to a mansion on Palm Beach. Smith didn’t know, however, that Marta Limbaugh had opened an office in the Esperante Building back in June. She had leased Suite 310, overlooking the ornate atrium in one of downtown West Palm Beach’s largest and most expensive buildings.
There’s no way Smith could have known – Limbaugh never put the name of her magazine on her office door or in the lobby directory. To this day, no one would know from walking around the Esperante Building just where Vent is located. And the guard at the front desk won’t tell you.
While Vent has a listed phone number, Marta Limbaugh refuses all interviews about her magazine. She has rebuffed not only The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, and Sun-Sentinel, but also The New York Post and Los Angeles Times. The one paper that succeeded in reaching her was the tiny Stuart News. When reporter Will Greenlee asked for a brief interview, Limbaugh replied, “That ain’t gonna happen” and hung up on him.
“It’s a strange way to get publicity for your magazine,” says one former Vent writer who can’t give her name – because Limbaugh made her sign a confidentiality agreement. “It’s almost like she’s obsessed with secrecy. It’s really weird.”
The sound of silence
Anyone who works for Vent, even as an outside contractor, must sign a four-page, single-spaced contract that includes a ban on discussing any “proprietary information.” This includes anything “written or oral, including, without limitation, information about or relating to the Publisher, any principals of Publisher or any family members of such principals…or terms of Your engagement or any and all information obtained by you.”
The contract also prohibits giving out “any details or information regarding this Agreement.” Thus, a current or former Vent employee who even talks about the contract that prohibits them from talking about the magazine faces possible legal action.
While such agreements can be required for publicists and personal aides who attend to celebrities, they’re almost unheard of among journalists.
Well, not even almost.
“I never heard of such a thing,” says Julia Grimes, the communications director for the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest organization for journalists. She then deferred to Staci D. Kramer, an SPJ board member and a freelance writer in Missouri who interviewed Rush Limbaugh for the Chicago Tribune shortly after Bill Clinton was first elected.
“I can’t recall ever hearing about such a blanket non-disclosure agreement,” Kramer says. “I’ve never come across it, and I can’t think of a situation that warrants it.”
Kramer says she has heard about confidentiality agreements that prohibit former editors and writers from discussing certain stories that the publication hasn’t printed yet. And she can understand Marta Limbaugh drawing up a contract “in the beginning stages” of her magazine, so a former employee couldn’t steal Vent’s thunder before it actually hit the stands.
“But this is excessive,” she says. “It’s unnecessary. It’s also disquieting.”
But it’s not surprising, Kramer says.
“Having interviewed Rush and having dealt with his family members, I understand the milieu under which he’s operating,” she says. “They’re very much into control. It doesn’t surprise me that this sort of control has seeped into her.”
It seeped right through Steve Biller’s life. He was Vent’s second managing editor, but he resigned last September after less than four months on the job – and six months before the first issue hit the newsstands.
One week after he quit, Palm Beach Post reporter Kris Hudson called Biller for a story he was writing about Vent for the front page of the Business section. Under the headline “Mrs. Limbaugh refuses to ‘Vent’ about her magazine,” Hudson quoted Biller as saying, “It’s a general interest magazine.” He then wrote that Biller declined “to comment further, because of confidentiality agreements that he and another editor signed upon leaving the magazine a week ago. Both cited troubles with the magazine’s ‘environment.’ ”
Three days later, Biller received a letter from a New York City law firm. In the two-page letter, attorney Arthur Ginsburg informed him that Marta Limbaugh “is seriously considering taking legal action against you.” Among other things, Ginsburg cited this offense: “giving your personal opinion about the personal and professional conduct of … Ms.Fitzgerald [Marta’s maiden name].”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Biller said. But he won’t say much more, for fear of another letter and a possible lawsuit. But he’s willing to test the attorney’s claim that a “personal opinion” could land him in court. So, he says, “My only statement is this: Vent is the single most expensive act of masturbation in the history of South Florida publishing.”
Biller ought to watch his mailbox this month.
Despite publishing only two issues, Vent already has more former employees than current employees. Here’s what can be gleaned from confidential interviews with some of them…
Before Biller, there was a managing editor who Limbaugh fired before she even rented her office in the Esperante Building. No one remembers his name, but they recall Marta paid him half a year’s salary so he wouldn’t say anything about her new project.
“I wish I got that deal,” says one former employee.
Other employees were fired just as quickly, but without such a generous compensation package. One art director lasted eight days. She was fired because Limbaugh insisted an art director didn’t need to order so much computer equipment and office supplies. But Limbaugh ended up buying the equipment, anyway. It didn’t help the next art director – or even the next three, who Limbaugh hired from MacTemps in Miami. These “art temps” lasted just three months. The second full-time art director, Thomas Krupa, was fired after six months.
One writer survived 10 days and was fired when she called in from home. “She didn’t like my very first story,” the writer says. “She reassigned it, but I heard she still didn’t like it and rewrote it herself.”
Biller, the managing editor, was the first to outright quit. His successor, Rick Dandes, quit after less than a month. Assistant editor Wayne Lockwood held out for two months before resigning. He told Limbaugh, “I guess that’ll do it for me, too.” His successor, Maxime Hakimi, was fired right after the second issue was printed.
Among the reasons that employees quit was something that would seem quite trivial, but made working at the magazine difficult: Limbaugh required everyone to be at work exactly by 9 am, and to leave by exactly 5:30 pm.
“It was ridiculous to make writers follow that schedule,” says the writer who was fired after her very first story. “I mean, some of the stories required you to call out to the West Coast, and you had to sitting at your desk at 9 am, when it’s 5 am over there. And you were supposed to go home when it was 1:30 pm over there.”
Other employees worked in Broward or Dade counties and commuted to West Palm Beach, but even if an accident on I-95 made them late, “Marta would accuse you of ‘sealing time’ from her and threaten to fire you.”
“She definitely isn’t used to managing people who require some autonomy to get their jobs done,” one former staffer says.
While many of the firings and resignations happened before the first issue came out, there were several more between Issue No. 1 and No. 2. Both editorial assistants listed in the first issue are gone, replaced by a new one. All five regular contributors listed in Issue No. 1 are gone, replaced by one new contributor who didn’t even have a story in the issue. Krupa, the art director, was replaced by the former website designer, Brett Delagrange (now listed as “creative director”).
The revolving door certainly hasn’t helped the bottom line. The first issue of Vent was 90 pages, with 14 pages of ads. While the second issue increased to 106 pages, the ads plummeted to only six pages. By comparison, another new national magazine, Brill’s Content, debuted last month with 154 pages – 39 of them ads. (That magazine covers media issues. Will it eventually report on Vent?)
Predicts one former employee: “I think it’ll get to the end of two years, and Rush will have to decide if he wants to keep funding it.”
For someone in the media who avoids the media, Limbaugh has no qualms about using her magazine to attack the media when they still try to write about her.
Back in May, Palm Beach Post reporter Stephen Pounds wrote a 14-paragraph story about the first issue of Vent. By the time the second issue of Vent came out, Limbaugh had dedicated two full pages to ripping Pounds apart.
What did Pounds write? “This magazine is as unfocused as its target audience supposedly is. In 88 pages, it gives tax tips, following a debate over flat vs. sales taxes, and then offers a feature on an IRS agent. It ridicules articles on cooking, then explains how to cook.”
Pounds also detailed how Limbaugh refused to comment for his story.
Limbaugh’s response in Vent seemed self-defeating: “We called Mr. Pounds to discuss the article. ‘Why didn’t you call me yesterday?’ he sniffed. Simple. It wouldn’t have made any difference. Mr. Pounds wanted to get his opinion across, not his professionalism.”
Limbaugh then dissected Pounds’ story paragraph by paragraph. “The glaring inaccuracies and misstatements were enough to make us think he hadn’t even read the magazine.”
But many of those “inaccuracies” were actually true, say former employees. For instance, Limbaugh took offense at Pounds’ claim the magazine was supposed to be published monthly but couldn’t keep to that schedule: “The magazine didn’t ‘slip from its monthly publication schedule to quarterly.’ It’s pretty routine for new magazines to publish quarterly the first year.” But memos from Limbaugh’s office show schedules for monthly publication starting in March of this year.
For his part, Pounds says he was “surprised, to say the least” about Limbaugh’s two-page reply, which was four times longer than the original story. “I’ve never seen that before,” he says. “I probably shouldn’t say any more than that – I don’t really want to end up in the pages of her magazine again.”
“We were coming up on the Fourth of July,” one former Vent staffer recalls. “It was on a weekday, and Marta said we weren’t going to get it off.” The wife of super-patriot Rush Limbaugh doesn’t think the anniversary of the founding our nation is a holiday? “Yeah, it was funny.” Limbaugh eventually relented and granted the day off.
“She told me that she wasn’t going to accept ads for cigarettes, alcohol, or condoms because they promote immoral behavior,” another former Vent staffer says. “And I’m thinking, ‘You’re trying to attract 18- to 24-year-old readers?’ OK.” In addition, the staffer says, “I couldn’t help thinking that some of her readers are sure to be married, and you’d want to promote condom use for them.”
Another employee says Limbaugh called these “vice ads.” But her ban on cigarette ads apparently doesn’t extend to cigars, because the second issue shows Marta snuggling up to her husband, who’s smoking a stogie. The caption reads: “Rush Limbaugh with both lights of his life.”
That photo was part of a two-page spread in the second issue. Titled “Vent Magazine’s Launch Party,” it featured 11 photos from the March 24 event at New York City’s Supper Club. Pictured were not only the Limbaughs, but also Marta’s son Jeremy, the Vent staff, and Marta delivering a speech.
The irony isn’t lost on Staci Kramer, the SPJ board member who wonders: If Marta is so protective of her privacy, why does she splash two pages of herself, her husband – even her son – across her the opening spread of her magazine?
“It’s not a very coherent policy of privacy,” Kramer says.
But again, she’s not surprised.
“Rush presents a very conflicting image, too,” Kramer says. “He tells everyone who asks that he’s not a journalist, he’s just an entertainer. But then he does things that seem much more serious than entertainment.”
And that’s the biggest irony: Rush claims to be an entertainer but acts like a journalist, while Marta claims to be a journalist but acts like an entertainer.
Kramer’s advice to Marta? “Someone who doesn’t like the media shouldn’t become part of it.”