A .wav file from Dec. 12's (2006) Zocalo discussion between Sharon Waxman and Laura Holson of The New York Times and John Horn and Patrick Goldstein from The Los Angeles Times. It was moderated by Variety's Dana Harris.
Goldstein looks like he's dying of AIDS. By the way he spoke of the Hollywood billionaire, you'd fear he would transmit it to David Geffen.
Patrick says: "It is almost impossible to beat the internet at the straightforward news game. We have to add analysis."
John Horn: "The New York Times kicked our ass on the Anthony Pellicano story."
John and Patrick say The L.A. Times has had trouble taking advantage of the internet.
John: Putting Calendarlive.com behind a paywall was a disaster.
About a third of the crowd (over 100) raises their hand to indicate that they listen to podcasts but none indicate they have heard the one of Goldstein and Horn.
John: "The Tribune believes you can cut your way to excellence."
"The L.A. Times has the best film coverage."
Forty two minutes in.
Dana: "Is David Geffen the ideal buyer?"
John: "He says all the right things. As long as he doesn't make all of us write terrific things about Dreamgirls. If you look at what he says, it's all very appealing. He says that he wants a cultural and philanthropic legacy. He wants to do something that has some value for the company, I mean the city."
Patrick: "If you are so lucky as to free the newspaper from the obsession with quarterly earnings and predictions of future profits...and give the ownership to someone like David Geffen who clearly has made all the money he needs to make in this life and is clearly looking for a legacy and for a contribution to the city. In theory, that is a great way to go. I've written about David Geffen for as long as I've written about entertainment. We've definitely had our ups and downs over the years. But you'd have to say when you look at his history..., this is a man who is always associated with quality."
I ask the first question of the night. "What makes you think Geffen is a fan of free inquiry? The guy's a bully,. The guy is a blackmail artist. The guy's a thug. The guy is a lowlife."
Patrick: "He's a thug? I have a list on my wall of people I think of as thugs and David Geffen wouldn't come close to being on that list."
Sharon: "Patrick, come on. David Geffen is the one man...who you ask around town, people are afraid of him. They do not pick fights with him because David Geffen has nothing to do... He has a very long memory. He bears a grudge. He will mount a campaign against someone to get back..."
I chatted with a reporter after the event and we agreed that LA Times staffers are like a battered wife who dreams about being rescued.
Times staffers are so desperate that they'll imagine good things about a vindictive man such as Geffen.
The Tribune is a professional newspaper operation and the LA Times has been vastly improved by the Tribune's weeding out of hundreds of staffers and installing some pros in key positions. The Times is a more interesting paper to read today than it has ever been.
The evening surpassed my expectations. I found the discussion frank. Dana was a superb moderator. Sharon Waxman looked gorgeous. The room was largely full.
Journalists Who've Crossed Over To Production
Michael Cieply - Moved from LA Times to Ray Stark Productions to New York Times.
David Friendly - spent six years at Newsweek, three years at LA Times, left in 1987 to work for Brian Grazer and Ron Howard at Imagine Entertainment.
Morgan Gendel - moved from LA Times to the TV show Law & Order.
Dale Pollock - Started at Variety in 1979. Moved to LA Times. In 1985 went to work for David Geffen and then became an independent producer.
Peter McAlevey - wrote for Newsweek before producing movies.
Sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, the discussion was moderated by Cal State Fullerton Journalism Professor Tom Clanin (he's the advisor to the Cal State Northridge student paper) who said he rarely read celebrity journalism. During the program, he didn't exhibit much knowledge of entertainment journalism (though he was up on what The NYT was doing in 1910).
He did the dull, plodding, predictable job you'd expect from a journalism prof. He wasn't content to go around the group and ask just once about their organization's policies on gift bags (about the most covered topic in journalism on entertainment journalism). No, he insisted on bringing up the matter several times. I think Tom spent close to an hour on this one topic of accepting gifts (travel, hotels, massages, swag) from the people you cover.
I was about ready to start singing, "Let me Abos loose, Lou."
At 8:45pm, almost two hours into the program, I had enough and rudely yelled out from the audience (Tom rarely looked at the audience and didn't seem to give a damn about us) that they should open up to questions.
Tom kindly allowed me the first one. Eager to break up the circle jerk, I asked LAT reporter John Horn why the Times wasn't more aggressive in its entertainment coverage. Judith Regan moves her publishing division to LA and the Times has not one news story (while The NYT, NY Daily News were all over the story).
John said that The LAT had the best Hollywood journalism of any outlet and that he reacted to criticism of his paper in the same way he'd react to someone telling him he had ugly children.
The other panelists (from the SPJ website):
* Peggy Jo Abraham, news director, E! Entertainment Television
* Tina Dirmann, former staff reporter for US Weekly
* Heidi Parker, West Coast editor, Playboy (former editorial director for Hollywood Life)
* Cynthia Wang, associate bureau chief of the LA office, People magazine
Peggy opened the discussion with a pious explication of E!'s lofty ethics. She said they never ran stories (particularly not unsourced stories from the internet) without first checking with the subject's publicist. Peggy indicated that if the publicist said the story was not true, E! accepted that unless the evidence to the contrary was overwhelming.
E! is a whole cable channel about celebrities and relies heavily upon celebrity cooperation. So they're not going to run news stories that ruffle celebrity feathers.
Save us the lectures about your organization's high ethics, Peggy, E! "journalism" means selling your journalistic soul in exchange for the privilege of becoming part of celebrities "publicity machine."
"Publicity machine" was Peggy's exact quote near the end of the evening and she'd come down from the Mount Olympus of E!'s purported ethics and admitted reality. "We tell you what movie to see and what's new on TV," she said.
From her remarks Monday evening, Peggy's chief concerns were with the placement of her camera crew at a premiere. It really ticked her off when the print reporters got better access because they don't need the moving pictures as much as she does.
Heidi Parker's chief job as the West Coast editor of Playboy is arranging for celebrities to disrobe in her publication. "Playboy builds careers," she said.
Dirmann was the most honest and self-deprecating of all the panelists (the rest of them spent the night patting themselves on the back).
Tina has had daily access to Paris Hilton. Tina says Paris pushed her porn video. That she reveled in its fame. That Paris calls Page Six (New York Post) to tell them she was drunk at parties.
That Tom Hanks is a rare actor who's built his career on his work rather than through personal scandal. That Jennifer Lopez built her career through getting divorced.
Cynthia Wang seems like a square. "Nobody ducks a camera faster," she claims.
I've seen her at least twice on these panels.
She seems totally grounded and with a strong knowledge of right and wrong. She'd be the last person I'd expect to be caught up in a scandal. I think she's been People's West Coast editor for a decade. She's fiercely proud of her work and gave no sign of experiencing much doubt over her ethical decisions.
She said that People spent $3 million on fact-checking.
In a revealing moment, Tom "I don't follow celebrity journalism" Clanin asked a panelist, "Without naming names... Or you can name names." A good moderator would've pushed harder for names and would've known the evening's topic better so he could push for names.
Peggy JO: "I want to get out of celebrity journalism" and do something worthwhile. "If people [read publicists] tell me something is not true, I try not to report is. Ours is not gossip. We're harmless. I don't feel like I'm ruining people's lives."
The crowd numbered about 20 (most of them were hot young women).
The program ran from 7 - 9:15pm and would never have taken questions from the audience if I had not rudely interrupted.
Afterwards, John Horn came over and named some recent story about producer Scott Rudin as an example of an LAT scoop. John said he read daily such as Internet sites as Defamer, FishbowlLa, Movie City News and a bunch of that ilk.
John didn't know why The LAT hadn't covered Judith Regan's move to LA. He said its Scott Rudin scoop was more important.
A day after The NYT, The LAT finally covers Arianna Huffington's new blog. The LAT article (by the mediocre James Rainey), as usual, fails to advance the story. Yawn.
The panel alternately bored and intrigued me. Prosaic questions and answers about journalism equals boring. Anecdotes and unexpected insights equals interesting.
Tom Clanin: "One of the tenets of the SPJ is that you do not allow your sources or your employers or anyone influence you on how you shape the story."
That's a delusion. Every writer has to take into account the wishes of his employer and of his key sources.
Tom: "Another [tenet] is avoiding conflicts of interest and don't have any stake in the outcome. Don't accept gifts from sources."
Heidi: "I arrange for celebrities to pose for our magazine without their clothes. We pay them a modeling fee. The terms and conditions are completely different. I don't deal with a publicist. I deal with agents and managers. These people expect a softball story. It's become a problem. A lot of the time the actresses want copy approval and photo approval. I always have to tell them that it is not ethical [to give copy approval] and we would be laughed out of town if we let them... It's a big struggle because Playboy is so nice and accommodating to celebrities. They expect a lot more. They've asked us not to bring up relationships. There was a singing duo from Russia [Tatu] who is known for French kissing on stage at the MTV awards. I was doing a deal with them to do a shoot for us during the summer. Their lawyer said, 'We don't want you to bring up their homosexual relationship.' I laughed at him. I said this is ridiculous. He said no. You can't even write about it in a caption to accompany a photo from the MTV awards. If you do, we're going to pull out of the deal."
Tina: "Being a weekly entertainment magazine [US], the competition has become intense. US, Star, People, and In Touch are slugging it out for every bit of information."
Well, In Touch doesn't run negative stories.
Tina: "Ethics tend to be an afterthought in getting these kinds of stories. When you're trying to find something out that they might not want you to know, such as that they're in rehab, or divorcing or having an affair, then you don't go through the normal channels you use for a lot of other stories such as a publicist, who is going to deny, deny, deny. Reporters have made deliveries on set or cold-calling to say that you're trying to deliver flowers as congratulations for having a baby to confirm it... There's a lot of tricky stuff that if you're talking ethically, obviously that's questionable.
"Usually, once it is printed, I find it is true. It is the method that gets to be below the belt especially when the story is incredibly hot. I know one reporter who volunteered to get a candystriper uniform so they could roam the halls of a hospital. If you're standing there in the newsroom and an editor is screaming at a green reporter who doesn't have the wherewithal to say no, it is just appalling.
"Much of the time, it is after the fact, when you are sitting in a room and you go, that was ridiculous. Let's not see that again.
"In the heat of the moment, ethics becomes an afterthought."
Cynthia Wang: "You have a lot of cover stories that begin with a question. You don't even have to have an answer. If you tease something and simply say, are they pregnant? Are they divorced? You can write a lot of things when you just throw that out there. By being flexible in your text, it allows editors to think that reporters can be flexible in their methods."
John Horn: "I'm inevitably going to sound elitist and a little bit appalled by some of the things I'm hearing. Fortunately, our paper does not have to write stories about whether or not Britney is pregnant, whether or not Brad and Jennifer are breaking up. We do those stories after they're announced."
So why is it so honorable to wait to take your cues from publicists?
John: "We have no competitive pressure [to publish those kinds of stories]. We face competitive issues about getting access to stories. We may be first in getting on the set of Peter Jackson's new movie. The discussion we have with studios and publicists is that we will agree to do this story, but you have to protect us and not give the story to The New York Times. That's the one publication that we worry about. Those discussions happen all the time, even though there are probably 50,000 who read both papers. But in the eyes of my editors and the editors of The New York Times, getting to a major story first is our competitive pressure.
"Our paper doesn't give photo or text approval. The shady area is placement."
John Horn: "The paparazzi as freelance journalist... If the paparazzi makes more money, the better story he has to tell which makes the story suspect... It creates a financial incentive [to make stuff up]."
Not at all. The National Enquirer and the like who pay for stories only pay after publication and after the story has been fact-checked. Publications are not going to pay for stories that get them sued. John Horn makes money from writing his stories. Why should his sources not get paid if they give him accurate information? There's nothing inherently suspect about paying sources.
US and People will pay six figures for an important picture such as the first ones showing Jennifer Lopez and Mark Anthony holding hands.
Peggy JO on studios and publicists: "The higher your ratings are, the more they will put up with." Entertainment Tonight has more pull than E! news (which is prerecorded at least two hours ahead of airing).
Tina: "If you have a salacious story on their client, they will make your client available to you [for an interview and possibly a photoshoot], if you will water it down. There were a series of covers that were just relentless on Jessica [Simpson] and Nick until her dad called the magazine and said, 'What will it take to stop that?' And they said, 'An interview with her.' And we got. And US magazine just had a party a couple of months ago and guess who were the official host? Jessica and Nick."
Tom: "Do you feel this violates your ethics?"
Tina: "I used to work for The Los Angeles Times. I used to cover hard news. It was very difficult for me to step into [celebrity journalism]. I was just appalled half the time. I walked around with my jaw open. Then you have to realize that I'm not covering anything earthshattering. I'm covering -- is Britney Spears pregnant or not? If you look at it from that perspective, the term 'Hollywood Journalism' becomes an oxymoron and that's the way you justify it to yourself. It's entertainment. It's not real journalism."
Tom: "Cynthia, is what you do real journalism?"
Cynthia: "It is real journalism. It's fact-checked. It's solid. I'm confident that every story I have ever reported has been done ethically. I could stand up in front of everyone and give details. I am not friends with these people, which is my ethical line. You will see a lot of celebrity journalists, particularly bylined writers for monthly magazines, who pride themselves on relationships [with celebrities]. You will see covers in Esquire where you read, 'When I was ordering lattes with [a certain A-list celebrity]...' I'm thinking, who's this story about? For those kind of writers, you walk an ethical line.
"If I write a story, let's say a happy profile, and that person thinks it is fair, maybe later when that person gets divorced or gets in trouble, when I make a queery, they'll know where I'm coming from. But I'm not one who wants to go out and have coffee with someone or attend a bridal shower unless I'm reporting it. You have to know your own ethical line. All the reporters I work with have a solid line about these things."
Tina says that green on-the-ground reporters face more difficult ethical challenges than editors. "When you are 22 and this is your first job and you are working for US and People and your editor says, go get me that story. You do whatever it takes."
All publications say they don't take junkets.
Tina: "Unfortunately, you have to have friends in this town. As often as you'd like to say, fine, I'm not working with that publicist. You accommodate them. I had this happen to me. I interviewed Paris Hilton after her infamous sex tape came out. The publicists at The Simple Life were furious. Reality TV was my beat at the time and they barred me from the set. We had to have another reporter cover The Simple Life, which was ridiculous because behind the scenes, I'm going to lunch with Paris. She's calling me every day. She's telling me this development and that development. I had a great rapport with her and her family.
"Paris said, it's funny but FOX executives are out there passing out copies [of the sex tape], they are so excited about this publicity. But we let another reporter cover the story [for US], something that would've never happened at The LA Times."
Tom: "Cynthia, have you been fired by a publicist?"
Cynthia: "No. I've been yelled at, but it doesn't stop the story from running. A lot of what they say is a knee-jerk reaction to the moment. I was so welcomed by the PR people when Drew Berrymore got married to Tom Green. After they got divorced, the lovely British tabs report that the reason for the divorce was that she was back to drinking, which I don't believe... I remember calling Pat Kingsley's cell phone over the weekend and saying, I have to follow-up on this. This was in the Sun. She said, 'What? Are you out to ruin this young girl's career?'
"I'm thinking, wait, young girl's career? She's been acting since she was prenatal. She's been in rehab and she wrote a book about it.
"[Pat Kingsley said,] 'You practice yellow journalism? Are you proud of yourself? Are you proud of what you do?' And they throw it back at you. And you just have to weather it and say you are doing fact-checking. They'll blow over it. I don't think Pat would recognize me in a crowd.
"They might say, I don't want you calling so-and-so, but they can't control that."
Luke yells out from the audience to John Horn: "How come you guys aren't more aggressive and get off your bums? Powderpuffs."
John: "I think we cover Hollywood better than any newspaper in the country. I don't know who you would say does a better job."
Luke: "Wall Street Journal."
John: "The Journal on a story-by-story basis does a very good job. It's like you're telling me my children are ugly. I'm very proud of my newspaper. We work hard. If the Journal or The New York Times beats us on a story, I don't think we take it professionally. We take it personally. We are highly competitive with them."
Luke: "When was the last time you guys broke a big story?"
John: "I don't have a list. Tell me what you think is a big story."
Luke: "The Judith Regan story was a good story and you guys didn't have anything on it except her Op/Ed in Sunday's paper. When did you guys move something forward?"
Tom interrupts and goes to another question.