An Odd Spot for Story on Meryl Streep

Times Staff Writer

Did Premiere profile her? No. Interview? No. Did People put Oscar-nominated actress Meryl Streep on its cover at Academy Awards time?

Nope. But film fans can find a full profile of the actress, wedged between pieces on "Pruning Clematis" and a lawnmower review in the April Organic Gardening.

Anyone who hasn't lapsed into a pesticide-induced coma knows that Streep has suddenly assumed the role of concerned parent and community activist, and it's that side of her persona she reveals in the magazine.

As might be expected, the story reads more like an anti-poison alarm than a profile. But it does offer insight into aspects of Streep's life that might otherwise remain hidden. Who knew, for instance, that the star of "A Cry in the Dark" is "a weekend vegetable gardener whose real passion is wildflowers and reading seed catalogues"?

Putting Streep on the cover of Organic Gardening instead of the usual "vegetable ornamentals" was a "radical break from anything we've done," said publishing director James C. McCullagh, who wrote the profile. But then the magazine, which is approaching its 50th anniversary, has been feeling its organic oats since Rodale Press gave it a complete overhaul a year ago.

About the only thing that hasn't changed, McCullagh said, is the magazine's philosophy of "using our understanding of nature as a guide for gardening and living."

Around the magazine, people are starting to think their philosophy's time has come.

"We're trying not to revel in self-righteousness," McCullagh said. "But there's been an element of serendipity to all this. I think we felt in our guts that the time was right to invest heavily in our magazine."

The April issue is packed with information on alternatives to the use of pesticides on food grown in back yards and by agribusiness--among them a suggestion that Americans abandon their infatuation with cosmetic perfection in produce. Also included is a toxicology glossary and a color-coded "Garden Pesticide Fact Sheet."

Besides advising the converted, though, the magazine--with a circulation of about 1 million--hopes also "to persuade nonorganic gardeners that organic gardening is mainstream," McCullagh said. "We want to raise a little hell, and we can't do it by putting tomatoes on the cover every month."

That, naturally, is where Streep fits in.

'What Any Mother Would Do'

As the article reports, Streep was jolted into environmental activism by her perception that the predicted "greenhouse effect," in which the temperature of the Earth is gradually increasing, was already heating up her beloved Connecticut.

"So she did what any other red-blooded American mother who happens to be the country's best actress would do," McCullagh writes. "She called Robert Redford."

The article, written with the help of the Natural Resources Defense Council, is thin on direct quotes, as if Streep's voice has abruptly fused with the chorus of the environmentally correct.

But when the mother of three children does speak--of her distrust of currently approved pesticide levels and her reasons for helping create the organization Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits--she delivers her lines passionately.

"Food is a religious, sacred thing," she said. "To think that food could hurt a child. It's weird. It upsets every corner of my existence. I went sort of wild. . . . It's bizarre that the produce manager is more important to my child's health than the pediatrician."

Spy vs. Harper's vs. Spy

Readers who make it through the April Spy--resisting the urge to run off to the nearest mirror and admire the self-applicable forehead decal of Gorbachev's birthmark included in the issue--may find themselves momentarily disoriented by a page that looks as if it were lifted from another publication.

In a piece titled "Separating Factoid From Fiction," Spy does unto Harper's what Harper's does sporadically in its "Annotation"--a feature in which documents such as the Palestinian Declaration of Independence or a U.S. Arms Control Agency briefing paper are reproduced and dissected.

The document Spy annotates is the Harper's Index.

The Index is Harper's popular cluster of curious statistics, juxtaposed each month to accentuate the underlying ironies of our culture. Twenty-five newspapers reprint the Indexes, and past Indexes were compiled into a book last year. Which is why Spy decided that the feature "has, in short, itself become a document of national significance, worthy of an Annotation of its own."

In examining 11 of the 36 or so statistics or sets of statistics included in last October's Index, Spy extends to Harper's the kindness and courtesy it usually reserves for Donald Trump.

Author a Famous Son

The Spy exam was conducted by Eddie Stern, son of publishing mogul Leonard Stern, chairman of the companies that publish the Village Voice and the New York weekly 7 Days.

In his final annotation, Stern reports that Harper's asks applicants for internships at the magazine to submit Index statistics and sources with their job applications. He knows this, he writes, because he applied for an internship at Harper's in 1988. And while he didn't get the job, the Roper Poll statistics he supplied (Percentage of Americans earning less than $15,000 a year who say they have achieved the American Dream: 5; Percentage of Americans earning more than the $50,000 a year who say this: 6) wound up in the October Index.

"The Harper's Index appeals to me," Stern said. "But you wonder, how the hell did they get that number? So I decided to check, especially after I saw my numbers turn up in the October Index."

What he found were two figures that were more than 15 years old, and several sources who disputed the accuracy or validity of the more recent stats.

Folks at Harper's are not amused by Spy's attention. "On the one hand, we were flattered" that such a detailed investigation turned up "next to nothing," executive editor Michael Pollan said.

On the other hand, "We take our fact-checking very, very seriously--then this guy comes along and does what in some instances amounts to a smear."

Pollan admitted that the Index's 1973 figures on percentages of doctors favoring national health insurance are probably stale. But Stern's second accusation about outdated information is blatantly unfair, he said. The statistic--two-thirds of all land in downtown Los Angeles is used for driving, parking or servicing automobiles--did, as Spy points out, appear in a 1972 book. But Harper's researchers had contacted the book's author to verify that the figures still held, as is their standard policy, Pollan said.

Pollan also dismissed Stern's allegations of inaccuracy as "cheap shots."

The annotations, Pollan said, are the sort of internecine nit-picking for which statisticians of all stripes are famous. "Anytime you depend on somebody's estimate, there's going to be somebody else who disagrees.

"We try very hard to verify the numbers," Pollan continued. "When we have two estimates, we don't go with the one we like better, we go with the one that our sources suggest is more reliable, and we go with what is most conservative."

As for Stern's suggestion that he was ripped off, Pollan pointed out that the Roper Poll statistics the aspiring intern provided had been widely disseminated.

"Sure, a lot of these figures are interpretable. That's part of the fun of the whole thing," Stern said. "But that's also part of the meaninglessness of the Index. These numbers . . . they're sort of cheap ironies. Which is one of the reasons I find them so interesting."

"We here at Harper's have learned our lesson," Pollan concluded. "The next time the son of a wealthy and well-connected publisher applies for an internship, we will follow a more prudent course, and do what other magazines do--hire him."

"That's just another cheap shot," Stern said. "Given the fact that Harper's doesn't pay its interns anything, I don't see how anyone could work there without being wealthy."

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