Testimony Describes Screaming Matches, Struggle Over Magazine Focus

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NEW YORK ( -- Acrimonious battles with her editors and a struggle to control the focus of Rosie magazine were the subjects of Friday's proceedings in the Gruner & Jahr vs. Rosie O'Donnell case.
Photo: AP
Rosie O'Donnell screaming matches were described in the second day of court testimony.
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Friday saw the second day of courtroom testimony in the $100 million lawsuit that pits the media company against its its former business partner in their co-venture, Rosie magazine. Rosie ceased publishing in December.

Star's temperament
A major tenet of the court case Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing seeks to build against Ms. O'Donnell revolves around the former talk-show host's temperament. Testimony included descriptions of Ms. O'Donnell's wrath and her moves to circumvent decisions made by the magazine's editor in chief.

Jane Farrell, formerly executive editor of Rosie, testified about an August 2002 meeting in which Ms. O'Donnell and her brother Ed were repeatedly "screaming" over new editor in chief Susan Toepfer's attempts to speak. Ms. Toepfer, who replaced the magazine's original editor, Cathy Cavender, frequently clashed with Ms. O'Donnell.

At that August meeting, Ms. Farrell testified, Ms. O'Donnell told Ms. Toepfer: "You know the staff doesn't like or trust you." Ms. Toepfer's response, Ms. Farrell said, was to ask Ms. Farrell and another editor present about Ms. O'Donnell's charge, which both denied.

When cross-examined, Ms. Farrell admitted to tearing up after the O'Donnells' "outbursts," a fact Ms. O'Donnell registered sufficiently to send a note to her saying "thank you for caring."

Ms. Farrell also spoke of another meeting Ms. O'Donnell conducted in late August, while Ms. Toepfer was vacationing in Paris, in which Ms. O'Donnell "called editors off stories" previously assigned by Ms. Toepfer and gave them different or reworked assignments.

Ms. O'Donnell's vocal dissatisfaction with Ms. Toepfer's July 2002 appointment was laid out once more in an e-mail she wrote to Ms. Cavender that was later admitted into evidence. "This chick is so far from Michael Jordan," Ms. O'Donnell wrote, referring to Ms. Toepfer. "At the meeting yesterday she rolled her eyes like 22 times."

Both of the meetings Ms. Farrell discussed came after G&J's president-CEO, Dan Brewster, told staffers they were to report to Ms. Toepfer. The issue of who had editorial control over the venture is one key area of the legal dispute, but thus far there's been no testimony concerning what was outlined in the contract between G&J and Ms. O'Donnell.

Visibly uncomfortable
Cross-examination of Ms. Farrell, who appeared visibly uncomfortable during some of her testimony, was not completed by the time Judge Ira Gammerman called proceedings to a close around 5 p.m.

Earlier in the day, excerpts from a deposition of Ms. Cavender was read by a G&J attorney, in which Ms. Cavender said, "As time went on, I saw ... [Ms. O'Donnell] was not open to discussion" on certain subjects. ... Some discussion of covers and celebrities I thought of as normal give and take obviously really rankled her."

However, Ms. Cavender's testimony -- a steely and composed witness in the courtroom -- appeared far from a slam-dunk for the plaintiff. During her cross-examination, for instance, she testified that she had enjoyed working with Ms. O'Donnell.

But she nonetheless expressed concerns over Ms. O'Donnell's judgment over what worked for magazines that sought a mass audience. Ms. O'Donnell, for instance, suggested as a cover subject heavyweight-champion-cum-convicted-rapist Mike Tyson. On the witness stand, Ms. Cavender wryly noted that maintaining the title's substantial 3.5 million (and overwhelmingly female) circulation would be "hard to do if you run photos of Mike Tyson and his baby."

Friction over controversy
Ms. Cavender's testimony also illuminated one major source of friction between G&J and Ms. O'Donnell -- Ms. O'Donnell wanted more controversy. As she put it in a June 2002 memo to Ms. Cavender, the magazine "needs not to give a [expletive] ... it needs to scream the truth."

Ms. Cavender did not wholly write off Ms. O'Donnell's desire for a more controversial approach, but she testified that at the time of Ms. O'Donnell's memo G&J was already worried over advertiser concerns "the magazine was already too edgy."

Instead, G&J sought a softer focus, as evidenced by an e-mail entered into evidence by Ms. O'Donnell's attorneys that suggested some ways to make Rosie into a monthly version of People magazine. On this notion, Ms. Cavender and Ms. O'Donnell eventually bonded.

"Later," Ms. Cavender said, she and Ms. O'Donnell discussed how "we both hated People magazine."

'Extraordinarily inappropriate'
Elsewhere on Friday there was back-and-forth concerning Ms. O'Donnell's proposed stories on convicted murderers such as Lyle Menendez and a female member of the Manson family, as well as one about accused murderer Robert Blake. In his opening statement, Martin Hyman, an attorney for G&J, echoed the concerns of executives within the company who suggested stories like those would be extraordinarily inappropriate for the delicate mix of a mass-circulation women's magazine. But in her testimony, Ms. Cavender shrugged "there could be ways to use some of them" in the magazine.

The origins of those stories illustrated Ms. O'Donnell's role as a sort of celebrity sister-confessor. Both Mr. Menendez and Mr. Blake were in touch with Ms. O'Donnell. Mr. Menendez had contacted her about child abuse, while Mr. Blake suggested a potential story on what Ms. O'Donnell's attorney said would delve into "the dichotomy" of being a gun control advocate and also accused of a "violent act with a gun, specifically the murder of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.

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