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Did the New York Times overreact to the Pellicano trial?

Brad Grey. Click image to expand.
Brad Grey

As of Tuesday, the New York Times has concluded that the investigation of disgraced Hollywood detective Anthony Pellicano is really about lawyers. This could represent a major turning point in one of the most breathlessly chronicled cases in the history of the industry. Lawyers may not be the most popular folks, but a scandal involving them hardly adds up to the moguls-in-shackles scenario that once seemed imminent.

For those who haven’t followed every beat, Pellicano sits in prison for possessing plastic explosives and grenades. He is also in the federal cross hairs for allegedly carrying out extensive illegal wiretapping. Famed attorney Bert Fields—whose clients include Tom Cruise, Warren Beatty, and many others—was especially active in deploying Pellicano. Fields has been a subject of the investigation but has denied knowledge of any illegal activity. More than a dozen others have been indicted, including some minor players as well as director John McTiernan and Kirk Kerkorian’s attorney, Terry Christensen. But so far the big “gets” have not been gotten.

The New York Times (a paper for which I have written some freelance articles on other subjects) has spilled a lot of ink on this story. More than once, the paper splashed coverage of Paramount Chief Executive Brad Grey’s links to Pellicano on Page One. But the paper never quite got that gun to smoke. Grey had been involved in two suits when he was running his management and television production firm, one with his former client Garry Shandling and another with a producer who alleged that Grey had cut him out of profits from a movie. Pellicano worked on both cases. Grey’s lawyer, Bert Fields, was the one to hire him; the big question was whether Grey could be proved to have knowledge of Pellicano’s methods.

The Times stories certainly did not tell us that, but they endeavored to show that Grey was far better acquainted with Pellicano than he acknowledged. And they created an intense pressure—the media repeatedly peppered Grey’s bosses at Viacom, Tom Freston and Sumner Redstone, with questions about their support for him. It became clear that whether Grey is guilty or not, the Pellicano affair was creating a serious problem for him.

In Hollywood, the Times coverage prompted a split response. Some concluded that the paper must have had Grey dead to rights, even if the stories didn’t quite get there. The surmise was that the Times, having been through some reporting problems in the not-distant past, would hardly put this stuff on the front page unless it knew more than it could reveal. Others had a different response. A top television executive (with no ties to Paramount) wondered whether the Times had been overreaching. Another executive, this one from the previous Paramount regime, thought the stories seemed like character assassination.

Meanwhile the Wall Street Journal kept its powder dry. Pellicano has scarcely been mentioned in its pages. The simple reason: The case had yet to rise to a level, in the Journal’s opinion, that would justify all the scrutiny. Taking that position was a gamble, but it’s starting to look like a good one. “Nothing like this assault on lawyers and the famous people they represent has happened before in Movieland,” the Times tells us. But if the power brokers and stars are really, as the Times now concludes, just “collateral damage” in a hunt focusing on lawyers, is that nearly as sexy as studio chiefs and disgraced uber-agents doing a perp walk?