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It starts off sounding pretty juicy: Tom Peters, coauthor of the influential '80s management manual "In Search of Excellence," writes in the December Fast Company that "we faked the data" used for selecting the 43 "excellent" companies cited in the book.

Juicy enough that on the same day Fast Company arrived in the mail this week, so did the Dec. 3 Business Week with single-page coverage of the Fast Company article, which makes Business Week a fast company indeed.

But the juice seems pretty strained on closer look, as made clear, albeit obliquely, by the weekly: "The explanation the authors gave in the book of how they picked their role-model companies is almost exactly the same as the version Peters gave in the magazine."

Readers, and Peters, could be asking, "So what's the big deal?"

In the Fast Company article, Peters anticipates the question by defending the book's process - he and coauthor Robert Waterman asked around for suggestions of interesting companies, then thinned the list using 20-year financial numbers - as "fundamentally sound."

But even closer to the issue of whether anyone should care is this: Peters never said the words! Even though the Fast Company story is framed in the first person and carries Peters's byline, Business Week's account says the story resulted from a six-hour interview with Alan M. Webber, a Fast Company founding editor.

Peters is quoted saying that Webber put in the line about faking the data, and that Peters didn't object when he saw the edited version. Webber is quoted saying, "Tom is being too generous in giving me the credit. . . . Anyone who takes this seriously should be tested for the disappearance of their sense of humor."

Generous? Credit? We were just kidding?

On how many levels is this objectionable? Why does it say "By Tom Peters" when it's not? Was there any faked data? Would it matter if there was, in a book whose foremost feature was eight observations, not calculations, on the workplace?

Business Week adds useful detail to the story, but it doesn't come out shining either: Writer John Byrne asks, "Why the confession" if the book's methodology isn't being challenged, and then never answers the question. Similarly, he writes, "This confession is a doozy," but then never backs it up. Nonetheless, the story succeeds solidly in saying "we told you so": Three times it invokes the "oops" that headlined the magazine's 1984 cover story about the companies cited for excellence that quickly went downhill.

The never-ending story

It no doubt will grow tired soon enough, but for now, it's still interesting to watch how coverage of Sept. 11 continues to play out in magazines, almost as monthly snapshots of people's recovery. Its qualities, and quality, are all over the rack; some is valuable, but too much of it is maudlin, misguided, and idiotic.

Take, for example, the astonishingly weak letter to readers from George Gendron, editor-in-chief of Inc magazine, in the Nov. 30 issue, 80 days after impact. Not only is it out of date ("At the moment the world was turned upside down on September 11, we at Inc were in the process . . ."), but it is hackneyed ("There's no doubt that tough times lie ahead for many companies") and inappropriate (one firm began "to feel the shock waves of the tragedy as customers canceled appointments").

The words are only slightly better in the same space in the December Esquire. Editor David Granger requests extra helpings of sympathy - and charity - for loved ones of the 79 employees of the restaurants at the top of Trade Center Tower No. 1 who perished. These people are every bit as deserving of aid and comfort as all the other thousands affected directly, but Granger singles them out because one of the restaurants was really good, and "it was the place we'd go to celebrate accomplishments." Well, OK then.

Essence and Boston, both for December, fare somewhat better, largely because they both look ahead. Essence plumbed its constituency of African-American women for lessons that can be taken from the attacks. What's striking about the commonality of response is the lack of jingoism or bloodlust; almost universally, these women endorse introspection and respect for others as antidotes to the predicament.

Boston's discussion, chaired by political reporter and analyst Jon Keller, could not be more directly focused on the future: It appears under the headline "What Happens Next." The magazine drew together eight community members, appropriately, if also self-consciously, including two Muslims. The respondents offer plenty to hail - Walid Fataihi, a Harvard med school instructor, said, "Boston has been very positive" in its reaction to Muslims in the aftermath - and to fear: Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans says that unlike in previous wars, he foresees no closure. "I see incredible anxiety and uncertainty that's just going to continue."

Worth your time

JD Jungle for November has a broad, entertaining section on the Supreme Court, a feat worth noting in itself. There's a lightly informative interview with Justice John Paul Stevens, conducted by a former clerk of his, Marblehead-raised Susan Estrich, also known for helming Michael Dukakis's presidential bid; a look at the worst court decisions ever, leading with that most obvious candidate, Bush v. Gore; glimpses of some of the best gaffes by lawyers before the court; a survey of likely nominees; and more. The magazine's intended audience is law students and young lawyers, but it is not unlike Jane in how it can be fun beyond its demographic.

W does a couple of pages on Arianna Huffington, who proclaims herself, as Kimberly Cutter captures her in her lead paragraph, "a front-liner in the war on poverty from the backseat of a chauffeur- driven Lexus."

Most "collector's editions" on the magazine rack ("The Best of Maxim"?) are no more than needless tree killers. But National Geographic has a stunt issue on the stands now of its 100 best pictures, and it is sublime. Geographic has always been the magazine where it was honorable to look only at the pictures, and with this issue leaves that as the sole option.