Kausfiles Special

Series-Skipper: Shaw Must Go On!

Series-Skipper™ is a new service from kausfiles that lets readers avoid award-winning newspaper series without fear of missing anything good. (For more on the rationale for Series-Skipper™, click here.) Today’s edition summarizes a characteristically bloated effort from the Los Angeles Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning media reporter, David Shaw. But because time is precious to our readers, and Shaw’s series is especially unrewarding, we are introducing an additional feature, Series-Skipper-Skipper™, which lets readers know if it’s worth reading even a summary of the series.

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Series: “Lights, Camera, Reaction–How the news media cover Hollywood,” by David Shaw, Los Angeles Times, four parts, Feb. 12-15.

Series-Skipper-Skipper™–Is it worth reading the following Series-Skipper™ summary of this series? No. Read something else. You won’t miss much.

What the series says:

Part 1: The press focuses too much on “box office grosses and budget overruns,” puff pieces and gossip tidbits, and spends too little time on “investigative reporting, insightful profiles, and provocative analyses.” Box office numbers are often manipulated by the studios; accurate budget figures are hard to get too.

Part 2:  People in Hollywood routinely lie to reporters. Sources often don’t like to be quoted by name. Former Disney studio chief Joe Roth gets good press because he’s relatively honest.

Part 3: Variety and the Hollywood Reporter have an intense rivalry. They too often allow themselves to be spun, and “seem more interested in being first than in being right.” Anita Busch, editor of Hollywood Reporter, “has never married.” That’s because she’s “married to her job”!

Part 4:  The L.A.Times used to be soft on Hollywood. Now it’s getting better, but it’s still not as good as the Wall Street Journal. Detractors of the LAT’s Claudia Eller say she “uses her stories to flatter her favorites and denigrate” those she doesn’t like. She denies it. Joe Roth gets good press because he’s relatively honest.

Does Shaw give an example of an actual box office figure that was actually manipulated? No. But he only has 16,000 words!

Does Shaw give an example of the “larger, more important pieces” the press is missing? One of his sources–the oft-quoted Lynda Obst–says “the media have been slow to recognize the impact of new digital technologies on movie making.” In Part 4, however, Shaw admits the New York Times’ Rick Lyman has written about this topic but nobody really cared.

Kalbian rant: “… in this era of O.J. Simpson begets Princess Di begets Monica Lewinsky. All personality, all scandal, all the time.”

Observations that seem fresh and subtle compared with the Kalbian rant: 1) Reporters have become so addicted to budget-overrun stories that simply having a big budget for your movie–once a source of pride–now, nonsensically, seems vaguely scandalous. 2) Reporters resent the movie moguls they cover because the reporters make much less but feel they could do the moguls’ job just as well; the moguls pick up on this. 3) “Reporters … repeatedly quote people whom they know have lied to them in the past, thereby implicitly giving them ‘a license to lie again.’ ” 4) Many people in Hollywood read only “the trades”–Variety and Hollywood Reporter–exacerbating their “insularity and sense of self-importance.”

Best believable anecdote: That “a Hollywood publicist–eager to find work for an actress … once manipulated the Hollywood Reporter into publishing four stories over 10 weeks on his client’s nonexistent role in a nonexistent movie for a nonexistent producer.”

How hard was it for Shaw to dig up that anecdote? It was the lead of a 1978 L.A. Times story on the same subject.

Best anecdote too good to check: “One publicist was so successful that when he realized he’d created so much buzz for his fictitious movie that he’d have to invite critics to its premiere, he planted one final story: the producer had been killed in a plane crash before filming had been completed.” I don’t think this actually happened. Do you?

Writing style: Mildly pompous, smug, occasionally huffy. Seemingly unaware of need for concrete examples. More than a few hearty-hack clichés.

Concrete examples of hearty-hack clichés: “The stories tumble across the front pages of Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter … like leaves on a windblown street.” … “When the media report [that] small movies aren’t doing so well, they’re yanked from the theaters faster than you can say ‘Miramax.’ ” … “year after star-studded year” …”the picture they present of Hollywood sometimes seems more like the distorted reflection in a fun-house mirror.” …

Hollowest holier-than thou boast: That no blind quotes from journalists–“or any other anonymous quotes–were used in these stories.” Shaw doesn’t need to use anonymous quotes since he repeatedly relies on the even lazier, less accountable (and duller) device of summarizing, without a quotation, the sentiments of “many in Hollywood” (three times), “motion picture executives,” “reporters,” “virtually everyone in Hollywood,” “veteran journalists and movie executives,” “other critics,” and “Eller’s detractors.”

Weirdest obsession: Five paragraphs devoted to fruitlessly discussing whether DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg had been “cozying up” to Vivendi executive Jean-Marie Messier at a party–as Shaw’s colleague Eller reported–or was simply helping “take care of Messier for a while.”

Hello! Editor! Example #1: After complaining about the lack of “larger, more important pieces,” Shaw says “some of the shift away from this kind of substantive reportage reflects larger changes in society–a tabloidization and trivialization of most mainstream media. …” But is there evidence the press ever wrote the kind of “more important” stories Shaw now says there’s been a “shift away” from? If so, he doesn’t give it.

Hello! Editor! #2: Shaw says the press’s obsession with opening weekend box office receipts leads studios to make movies that will “guarantee a big opening weekend,” and that means movies ” ‘for 15-year-old boys.’ ” But then he notes that the 12-24 age group “while accounting for less than 18% of the total population, represents almost 40% of total movie admissions.” So are the studios making movies for 15-year-old boys simply because 15-year-old boys are the people who go see movies? What businessman wouldn’t try to produce a product that appeals to his customers? How is that the media’s fault again?

Hello! Editor! #3: In the section on how “lying” is a “way of life” in Hollywood, Shaw says, “Sometimes movie people even ask reporters to lie for them.” His example? “Hollywood talent agencies have policies that only the name of the agency, not any individual agent, will be given to the press when a deal is announced.” But “it’s not uncommon for an agent to call and say ‘Please put my name in the story, and if anyone complains, could you just say it was a mistake or you forgot the policy.’ ” Wait a minute! That’s not a case of either agents lying to reporters or reporters lying to their readers. It’s a case of reporters printing more of the truth (i.e., which agent was involved) than an agency wants them to print. Isn’t this a pretty common source-reporter interaction? Should reporters really obey the “policies” of agencies not to name names?

Hello! Editor! #4: “Publicists and Hollywood executives often try to exploit the competition …by offering exclusives …and asking for a promise of prominent–preferably Page 1–display in exchange. Editors [at both trade papers] vigorously deny making such deals, but trade reporters and the people who deal with them say there are subtle code words and phrases–‘I’ll do my best,’ ‘I’ll take care of you,’ ‘I’ll try to get you good placement’–that both sides clearly understand.” Shaw doesn’t offer any evidence that “I’ll do my best” is film industry birdsong for “I guarantee Page 1” rather than an attempt to weasel out of just that sort of guarantee (which is what “I’ll do my best” means in every other field of human interaction). Variety reporter Paula Bernstein, in a letter to MediaNews.com, writes that “when I tell publicists and executives ‘I’ll try to get good placement’… what I mean is ‘I’ll try to get good placement.’”

Judgment most likely to cause hoots of derision at a party of Hollywood journalists: Shaw says that before going soft, the New York Times’ Bernard Weinraub redefined film industry coverage, “asking tough questions, breaking news, spotting trends, examining the culture of Hollywood and often writing stories that exposed Hollywood’s unattractive underbelly.” In fact, Weinraub covered Hollywood like a foreign country, reporting the most obvious stories the natives were thoroughly sick of, but that were news to his editors back East. (For kausfiles’ full anti-Weinraub rant, click here.)

Does kausfiles have some sort of beef with Shaw? I do! If I remember right, he wrote a long piece on the rivalry between Harper’s and the Atlantic when I was working at Harper’s. He interviewed me for a reasonably long time. I made what I thought were many fascinating and excessively candid observations. But it gradually became evident from his leading questions that he was only trolling for quotes that would confirm his pre-established thesis. He doesn’t seem to have changed his technique.

Estimated time saved by reading Series-Skipper™ instead of the series istelf: 1.7 hours.

Second of a series.

Special Bonus Robo-Skipper™: As a valuable check against human bias, kausfiles has also conducted a machine count. Microsoft Word 97’s “AutoSummarize” feature  gives the following 10-sentence synopsis of Shaw’s series; I think it captures it quite well:

Studios Criticize Media’s Obsession
Many in Hollywood agree. Movie premieres. Gossiping with studio executives. Lie.

Obstacles for Reporters
In Hollywood, everything is personal. Sometimes movie people even ask reporters to lie for them. Long Soft on Hollywood, Times Seen as Improving In 1990, the paper put only three movie stories on Page 1.

Many in Hollywood agree!