Variety Explodes Over The New York Times ‘ Coast Coverage

Early on in his May 3 piece about how The Hollywood Reporter is gaining on Variety in terms of movieland clout, New York Times reporter Bernard Weinraub quotes a talent agent saying, “You don’t read the trades for information as much as the spin.”

It was an interesting thing to say, considering that Mr. Weinraub may have been engaging in a little bit of spin himself. “For years, Variety dominated the daily agenda, with The Hollywood Reporter trying to catch up,” his lead went. “Not any more.”

It was enough to cause Gerry Byrne, Variety ‘s publisher, to write an e-mail to his staff that morning which began: “I’m writing this note stuck to the ceiling in my office because that’s what I hit when I read this morning’s Bernie Weinraub New York Times article about Variety vs. The Hollywood Reporter . It’s infuriating and an insult to every member of our team. It trivializes Variety ‘s dramatic accomplishments, your accomplishments, by suggesting that [editor] Anita Busch has brought The Reporter a new dawn when, in fact, there is nothing to substantiate, in the entire article, that she’s brought them anything but a solid hold on second place.”

So much for the pleasantries. Mr. Byrne then launched into his critique. “The article is one that was pre-written in the mind of the reporter,” he wrote, creating the illusion of a horse race where there wasn’t really one–a piece of spin that he quickly contorted into “where we win in this article. I fully believe the cognizenti [sic] in the entertainment space will look at this and say ‘What’s going on? Why is Weinraub writing such an imbalanced piece?’”

Mr. Byrne’s objections were many, and soon he was even annotating his annotations of Mr. Weinraub’s piece. The graphic accompanying the piece made The Reporter look slightly larger than Variety (“Credibility of article … immediately in question”). Ms. Busch’s quote, “We’re killing them with exclusives” (“no examples”). Mr. Weinraub allowed, “It is too early to assess the impact of Ms. Busch on circulation or advertising” at The Reporter (“That’s because there hasn’t been any. Except during the four months she’s been there when we’ve improved the competitive gap. But I guess that’s attributed to the previous editor”). Mr. Byrne even takes issue with some general praise for Ms. Busch by two executives at Miramax Films and International Creative Management: “Fans of Anita? Perhaps, but they were obviously asked the question ‘How is Anita doing?’ No one in the business is going to say anything to a Times reporter about a trade editor that is anything but benign or positive.” Ultimately, Mr. Byrne concludes: “The article is misleading, poorly edited and obviously from Weinraub’s preset agenda.”

When asked by Off the Record to expand on what he considers that agenda to be, Mr. Byrne said that “speculation is not even worth the time” and that his e-mail “speaks for itself.” But that didn’t stop some at Variety from insinuating that perhaps Mr. Weinraub’s spin, let alone his “agenda,” was the result of a Jan. 25 Variety piece which made reference to how “actor Billy Baldwin has jumped on the anti- New York Times , anti-Bernard Weinraub bandwagon” after his friend Sean Penn was made “gentle fun” of by Mr. Weinraub in The Times . One editor at Variety said that Mr. Weinraub’s piece had caused such a furor that people were whispering in the newsroom about it having an adverse effect on his wife, Columbia Pictures president Amy Pascal’s relationship with the paper.

Mr. Weinraub, who will soon turn over the film studio beat to Rick Lyman, thought that the reaction, and the insinuation regarding his “agenda,” was absurd. Reached on his cell phone at the Jeffrey Katzenberg-Michael Eisner trial on May 4, Mr. Weinraub said, “I haven’t seen the memo or heard about it.”

Ms. Busch had little to say about the article. “I was surprised it focused so much on my arrival,” she said. Variety editor Peter Bart did not return calls for comment.

Can Women’s Wear Daily editors survive on just $75 a year in free fashion from each advertiser? Writing about fashion can be, and often is, an invitation to the land of free stuff–great piles of cashmere, shoes du moment , Prada skis. And that which doesn’t get dumped in your lap you get a discount on; indeed, some fancy stores give out “media courtesy cards” entitling the reporters to get, say, 20 percent off at Henri Bendel.

Beyond the rationalization that most fashion journalists don’t get paid enough to buy what they cover, the excuse that editors and reporters usually make is that they have to “road test” the equipment to provide their expert opinions. Now, however, the Walt Disney Company, corporate parent of Fairchild Publications Inc., which puts out the fashion periodicals W , DNR and WWD , is trying to bring all the well-dressed journalists into line with Disney’s anti-bribery policies.

In a March 31 memo, Sanford M. Litvack, Disney’s senior executive vice president and chief of corporate operations, wanted to make sure that the free stuff Fairchild employees get is “in accordance with our company’s policy as it relates to gifts, favors, entertainment and payments to employees.” To wit: “With respect to tangible gifts, an employee may not accept more than one gift per year having a fare market value of not more than $75″ from any “person or business organization that does, or seeks to do business with, or is a competitor of, the company.” Employees also aren’t allowed to receive money, “services,” vacations or loans.

But $75 doesn’t go very far in a world where the latest handpainted python-skin Fendi handbag (with steel trim) costs $1,075. So, according to Fairchild employees, the mantra has long been “be discreet.” As for following the Disney policies, “no one does and everybody knows it,” said one reporter. “It’s a question of not exploiting it too much.”

“We had a kind of foggy policy before Disney,” said an editor. “For a while, when gifts would come in, they’d be opened and if they were very expensive, they’d be sent back.” One Fairchild source remembered how another employee used to “pack up her free stuff and send it back. Good for her. But most people thought she was stupid.”

“Remember, we are Disney,” said this source. “We get a lot of memos. Fairchild kind of does its own thing.”

Fairchild president Patrick McCarthy didn’t return calls for comment.

With magazines and publicists colluding to keep the celebrity profile machine well-oiled, it isn’t the words that matter anymore, it’s the photo shoot. As Pat Kingsley, founder of the Hollywood publicity firm PMK and den mother to many celebrities, recently stated in The New York Times : “Basically, a lot of people don’t read these articles, but they do see the covers. They see them on the newsstands. And when a person gets to a certain stage, they should have that.”

Cate Blanchett got her cover. It was on the May issue of Elle . It had nothing to do with Ms. Kingsley (Ms. Blanchett is represented by Wolf-Kasteler), but that’s not what this item’s about, anyway. This is about what happens when a magazine snags a celebrity, takes their picture and then decides he or she isn’t as … well, let’s just say photogenic as the editors originally thought.

The glowing, somewhat kooky cover story about Ms. Blanchett in Elle is filled out with details about her up-to-the-minute consumption habits (eats: edamame, fried broad beans; wears: Gucci, “light brown snakeskin” coat), her personality (“the kind of person you could go out and make mud pies with”), her soul (“mutable on the outside, but has a palpable core”) and her body (“alabaster stomach,” with a nose that’s “small, but slightly broad at the bridge”). You also find out that at photo shoots she “always [wears] the most embarrassing underwear.”

Which brings us to page 269, where a close look at Ms. Blanchett, squatting in $485 “off-white lacquered pants” by Helmut Lang, does not reveal her “embarrassing underwear.” According to an Elle insider, the magazine used the magic of computer photo manipulation to smooth out–that is, erase–what was described as the actress’s “camel toe” from the shots taken by creative director Gilles Bensimon. Apparently, as the Elle source delicately put it, “her vulva was clearly visible.” If Ms. Blanchett’s right hand also seems strangely positioned, with her index and middle fingers oddly stiff, its because Elle erased her cigarette, too. All of which puts another observation made by the writer–about how Ms. Blanchett “can look, on screen and in person, slightly fuzzy”–in a different light.

It should be noted that there is a precedent, no matter how perverse the attack of taste, for magazines using computer trickery to get rid of details that may seem unflattering to the subject. In 1992, when Vanity Fair ran its infamous profile of Courtney Love, in which writer Lynn Hirschberg quoted Ms. Love talking about using heroin and inferred that Ms. Love had used it while pregnant, the magazine erased a cigarette she was holding from the full-page Michel Comte photo that had her posing in a slinky negligee, pantyless and eight months pregnant.

Through a spokesman, Elle editor Elaina Richardson admitted that alterations had been made to the Blanchett photos. She said the magazine took the cigarette out to be “responsible to our young readers,” though it’s not company policy to do so. “And there was a visible pantyline,” the spokesman added, “but our aim is to show people in their best light and not embarrass them.”