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Pick of the day: The ballad of Jay and Conan

By Paul Schwartzman

Even if you didn't have a dog in the epic Jay vs. Conan fight, Bill Carter's reconstruction of their late-night showdown in this month's Vanity Fair is a great read and an example of narrative journalism's power when practiced by a reporter steeped in his subject matter..

Carter has long covered TV for the New York Times, including the operatic highs and lows of David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. His years of experience as the beat reporter no doubt got him access to the main players in the Leno-O'Brien fight and helped him reconstruct scenes such as when an NBC exec told Leno the network was canceling his 10 p.m. show.

"Very quietly, Leno said, 'Ok,'" Carter writes, before describing the thought running at that moment through the mind of Leno's producer: "We've just been fired."

The narrative, part of an excerpt from Carter's new book, "The War for Late Night" (Viking), takes the reader inside Hollywood offices and re-enacts the highly charged scenes as they unfold.

"What does Jay have on you?" Conan asked an NBC executive as he tried to understand why the network would carve out a new time for Leno at 11:35 p.m., pushing O'Brien's "Tonight Show" back half an hour. O'Brien's voice, writes Carter, was "low," his tone "even." The question "was all but burning a hole in his chest." Later, Carter describes O'Brien as appearing "so drawn," and "so stony-blank" that NBC pooh-bah Jeff Zucker "thought he looked catatonic."

You can get that kind of detail parachuting into a story -- maybe. But it's a lot easier when you've been covering the stories -- big and small -- so that the players know and trust that you'll get it right.

Check out Carter's excerpt here.

By Paul Schwartzman  | November 2, 2010; 8:03 AM ET
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