My journalistic hopes died a little the night I hugged RuPaul.
One evening in 2014, I found myself interviewing the namesake of RuPaul’s Drag Race for a Los Angeles Times video roundtable with Emmy hopefuls.
No slight against the hard-working stars of reality TV, but this sort of softball hosting duty was not one of the reasons I started in daily journalism 25 years earlier. The Times needed a staff moderator for its studio-friendly roundtable series, however, and my number had come up.
Over the course of 12 years as a reporter and columnist at the Times, I was swamped by a wave that has carried entertainment journalism far away from hard reporting on the industry, and toward such fripperies as snubs and surprises on awards shows, plot twists of dramatic series, and puff profiles. By the time I quit, in 2016, my colleagues and I were spending less and less time on the type of coverage that seriously examined the people who control Hollywood and how they make their money, and more on … something else.
How did this happen? Culprits are not hard to find. The past decade has seen a stunning circulation and ad crisis for the news industry, and the rapid rise of social media.
But it’s too facile to blame this shift entirely on Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk. In many ways, newsrooms, at least in Hollywood, are responsible for their own degraded state, rushing to fill as much as space as possible with award-show piffle and other nonsense because it brings in ads. Much is now being written about the new, hopeful future for the Los Angeles Times, in particular, as it sheds its sordid tronc past, begins to spend the many millions of dollars bestowed by its new surgeon-owner, and welcomes veteran journalist Norman Pearlstine as editor.
But you can count me as dubious. Movies like The Post and Spotlight may paint journalists as brave diggers for the truth. But for the journalists who actually write about the culture businesses? Too often, the truth doesn’t even enter into it.
SOME MIGHT SAY that entertainment journalism has never exactly been the go-to career destination for heavy hitters. And, for the most part, that’s right. At the Los Angeles Times, a veteran editor’s transfer from hard news to the Calendar section was usually a semaphore for put-to-pasture.
It’s a phenomenon with deep roots. During the studios’ Golden Age in the 1930s, MGM was well known for its masterful manipulation of the press. MGM’s top publicist and in-house “fixer,” Eddie Mannix, was famed for cajoling and bullying reporters into burying such scandals as Judy Garland’s drug addictions and the rape of a dancer named Patricia Douglas at a studio bacchanalia in 1937.
Then the tide turned. After Watergate brought investigative reporting into vogue, coverage of Hollywood grew more dogged as well. David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure, a page-turner about the embezzlement scandal behind producer David Begelman, launched a wave of exposes that peeled back the curtain at the studios. When I started covering Hollywood, McClintick’s book was a source of inspiration.
My early years at the Times were heady. I wrestled my sources to obtain documents showing how Mark Burnett’s boxing reality series The Contender skirted state regulations—and when that failed, the Times took the producers to court (unfortunately, the paper lost the case). I wrote about how the 2008 writers’ strike exposed the yawning income disparities in Hollywood. My coverage of NBC’s programming and ratings woes so angered then-network boss Jeff Zucker that he banned me from network press events and forbade his top executives from speaking with me. Tangling over one contentious story, I walked through a parking lot while conducting a cellphone screaming match with a CBS publicist so loud that a passersby stared.
I don’t rehash all this as a brag—the screaming match, in fact, I’m embarrassed by. My point is that independent journalism in Hollywood was still possible.
But as time went by, such opportunities for original reporting grew more and more scarce. And it was economic considerations that drove the decline. During my tenure at the Times, the editorial staff was slashed by nearly two-thirds, to approximately 400.
As traditional revenue sources dried up, news outlets searched frantically for a savior. And in Hollywood they found one: awards shows. Studios spend up to $10 million or more per movie for their Oscar marketing campaigns. A large chunk of that goes to the “for your consideration” ads targeted at industry professionals.
I walked through a parking lot while conducting a cellphone screaming match with a CBS publicist so loud that a passersby stared.
So in 2005, the Times created the envelope, a magazine for Oscar and Emmy coverage. The goal was to mop up as many awards ads as possible. In the meantime, an insatiable need for traffic led editors to focus more resources on “fan service” features, such as episode recaps and Q-and-A’s with showrunners and stars.
What resulted was a gradual, at-first-imperceptible erosion in coverage standards. I found myself, not by choice, increasingly covering news that had broken on a celebrity’s Twitter account. Or I helped “flood the zone” for an awards show. Or I wrote anodyne profiles.
Soon it became rare for a publicist to lob an email complaining about an “angle.” No need—the stories mostly aligned with the studio agenda.
From there, it was a short hop to: “RuPaul, tell me about your ‘ugly cry face.’”
Ultimately I departed too. At the start of 2016, I decided to quit the Times, and then journalism itself. The takeover of the paper’s parent, Tribune Company, by Michael Ferro, a buccaneer tech investor with sketchy journalism experience, had me fearing the worst. Newsroom managers were making changes I didn’t like, either. I hopped to an entertainment-news website for 10 unhappy months before exiting journalism entirely in mid-2017. I now work as a speechwriter for the University of Southern California.
THERE ARE SOME BRIGHT SPOTS for entertainment reporting. Janice Min, a former US Weekly editor, rescued The Hollywood Reporter from likely oblivion in 2010. (I worked at the Reporter years prior to her editorship, and she has since shed her day-to-day role.) Her recipe called for a Vanity Fair-like mix of substantive fare, puff pieces, and alluring photography. In 2012, my Times colleagues published an exhaustive year-long investigation into Oscar voters, concluding, to the surprise of few, that older white males dominated. The hacking of the Sony Studio emails led to fine work in the LA Times, New York Times, and elsewhere.
And then, of course, there’s the takedown of Harvey Weinstein and the birth of the #MeToo movement—which have reinvigorated journalism since last fall.
But the Weinstein story—almost certainly the biggest Hollywood story in many, many years—was broken by The New York Times and The New Yorker, by reporters who don’t toil on Hollywood beat day in and day out (both publications shared the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage). The former chief of The Weinstein Company terrorized women in entertainment for years with no consequence from beat reporters who covered him every day. (One of my former bosses at the Times, Sallie Hofmeister, quit journalism and served, of all things, as Weinstein’s chief spokesperson during #MeToo.)
And Weinstein was closely followed by a less encouraging story. The Times’ Daniel Miller scrutinized how the Walt Disney Co. wrested more than $1 billion in incentives from Anaheim, home of Disneyland. This was a rare recent example of a detailed investigative piece that took on a major studio.
Disney bosses, predictably, did not care for the story, and moved to ban Times reporters and critics from the company’s events, including movie screenings. That move prompted a furious backlash from other journalists. Disney reversed course after having what it called “productive discussions with the newly installed leadership” at the paper (including Lewis D’Vorkin, the controversial former editor who no longer works at the Times.)
But Disney had made its point. Editors and publishers can take steps to strengthen coverage of Hollywood.
One way is to capitalize on the passion shown for social change and justice, as evidenced by the #MeToo movement. Great reporting, from Ida Tarbell through the Civil Rights era and beyond, has come during times of upheaval. The current moment should be no different.