This time last year, it would have been difficult to fathom that as 2007 came to a rather inexorable end, there would be no new episodes of The Office or, hell, even Desperate Housewives to get us through what promises to be another long, cold, slushy New York winter; that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert would be doing their shows on their own; and that in a world when one man, Rupert Murdoch, owns a scarily increasing percentage of the world’s media, a one-woman Web site would show that feisty journalistic independence isn’t dead.
No one has ever accused Nikki Finke—the contentious journalist who has worked for the Associated Press, The Los Angeles Times, this newspaper and the New York Post, which fired her after she wrote negative stories about Disney (she sued and settled for an undisclosed amount)—of being a wallflower, and in her decades-long career, which started after her years as a debutante and Plaza habitué (followed by a 1980 marriage to, and soon afterward, divorce from, the millionaire businessman Jeffrey Greenberg), more people have probably been pissed off by her than have invited her to dinner.
But in her latest journalistic incarnation, the Web site Deadline Hollywood Daily, which she started in March 2006, she has taken on the notoriously cliquish, catty and backbiting world of Hollywood—alone. And when the Writers Guild of America called a strike on Nov. 5, her keyboard was ready.
The biggest entertainment story of the year has also turned into the biggest story of Ms. Finke’s career, and, possibly, the vehicle of her redemption for those who had written her off as merely a loudly buzzing fly in Hollywood’s ointment. She’s demonstrated that one determined reporter—with none of the support or backing of a media outfit, but also none of the entangling alliances—can, in fact, beat the big guys at their own game. She’s broken the news of almost all of the significant strike developments since the beginning and has offered insight into the inner workings of the negotiations that the more slow-footed publications on the strike beat—primarily, Variety, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times—simply can’t match. In hundreds of posts and thousands of contributors’ comments, she’s turned her site into not only a must-read, but a kind of online kaffe klatsch for information and discussion about the strike.
“I did not know I cared about Hollywood as much as I did,” Ms. Finke, who is 54, told The Observer the other day by telephone from her home in a Los Angeles suburb. “Everyone has always criticized me over the years—‘You hate Hollywood, you hate all the movies, you hate everybody.’ And I was O.K. being in that curmudgeon role!”
But with the strike, Ms. Finke said, everything changed.
“People came to me and said, ‘You have to bring you into this. You have to state your opinions.’ As a student of Hollywood, I don’t see the glamour. I don’t see any of that. That’s always been false to me. I understand the way Hollywood works. This is a town, the only place in the world, where conflicts of interest are not only allowed, but prized, at law firms. It’s a crazy system, but it works. There’s a lot that needs to be changed about it, but you don’t throw it all away. This is why the strike is so frightening.
“I didn’t know I cared.”
In some ways, Ms. Finke represents a new form of advocacy journalism. Though she says she just tries to “write the truth,” it’s not hard to pick up on a distinct effort to right what she sees as the wrongs visited upon the writers by mainstream news outlets and Hollywood’s trade papers, most egregiously, Variety. “There is not a Variety headline that doesn’t blame the writers for something. It’s just outrageous,” Ms. Finke said. “And the L.A. Times—everybody they interview, they only take the negative stuff and print that.”
“It’s definitely the kind of bible for writers,” said TV writer Tom Smuts, who sells strike-related T-shirts on his Web site, Writers Strike Swag. “I think people see her not as a partisan, but someone whose judgment is that the writers have a more legitimate argument than the producers, and she’s called bullshit on the producers.”
That’s not to say that Ms. Finke thinks that the writers can do no wrong. For one thing, she sees them, as a whole, to be somewhat deluded as to the intentions of the studios. “The writers don’t get that the studios don’t care,” she said. “They think that the shareholders would care or the bosses would care or Wall Street would care or the government or Congress or the viewers—they don’t care.”
But it all comes down, Ms. Finke argues, to the relentless march of media consolidation, a trend that only accelerated in 2007.
“Thanks to the F.C.C. and the Republican-controlled Congress never meeting a merger they didn’t like, these media companies have morphed into huge corporations which determine everything we see and hear in infotainment,” she said. “This is not really a Hollywood strike—this is a strike about megacorporations.
“We allowed this to happen over two decades,” she continued. “And now the writers think they’re going to control these guys? Big media own too much. They’re too powerful and too rich.”
“Nikki proves that [the studios’] attempts to very piggishly own everything are pointless,” said Laeta Kalogridis, a writer and executive producer of NBC’s Bionic Woman. Ms. Kalogridis contributes to a pro-writers’ blog called United Hollywood, which was founded a week before the strike. “The one news outlet they can’t exert influence on is her.”
Indeed, Ms. Finke is emphatic that at the heart of the missteps by other media outlets are ownership issues. “The worst at covering media consolidation are the papers owned by media conglomerates,” she said. “This has always been a big bête noire of mine. If you go to the Web site of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), it claims 350 production entities are members. But the moguls own almost all of them. It’s eight guys. This is it. This is beyond collusion. This is a country club. And it’s wrong that eight guys are controlling everything.”
Ms. Finke may see herself as a one-woman crusade, but hers is not a lonely voice echoing in the wilderness; her site, which she says got around 350,000 page views a week before the strike, now gets between 650,000 and 850,000 every couple of days. (It was briefly up to a million in the first weeks of the strike, but has since calmed down.) While her pay is not tied to page views, she says LA Weekly, which hosts Deadline Hollywood and sells advertising for it (Ms. Finke owns the Deadline Hollywood name), gave her “a little bonus money,” though it “wasn’t even enough money to let me shop at Target,” she says. (She is somewhat prickly about this because in the early days of the strike she was accused by commenters of cynically attempting to inflate her page views.)
“I’m not owned by anybody,” she said. “I’ll take on big media one minute and the next minute I’m praising the studios because they put out a movie that actually made money. I play it straight. I think people like that. I think people like that I’m not owned.”
The other day, The New York Times pointed out that many Hollywood writers and producers are inextricably connected, noting that “in a one-degree-of-separation town, a lot of Hatfields and McCoys are married, dating or related.” But Ms. Finke has very consciously extricated herself from this web, staying removed from the socializing and conflicts of interest that, in many ways, define Hollywood culture. “I don’t want to have dinner with these people,” she said. “I don’t want to be a part of their social life.” She’s the ultimate in uncompromised reporting; on her site, you never see the now journalistically ubiquitous, and always deflating, “full disclosure” clause, as in, “full disclosure: I play tennis with [so-and-so’s] husband in the Hamptons every summer.”
Writer John Aboud, who founded the Web site Modern Humorist and is now a panelist on Best Week Ever and various I Love the … shows on VH1, also blogs for United Hollywood. “It’s clear from reading Nikki Finke that she is appalled by hypocrisy,” Mr. Aboud told The Observer. “She is appalled by anyone’s hypocrisy. She’s appalled by people mindlessly parroting the party line. She calls people on it. She calls out bullshit. I think everyone respects that on both sides.”
Of course, this kind of lone wolfness can also breed a dangerous sense of infallibility or inflated sense of self. An AMPTP spokesman declined comment, but one studio executive told The Observer, “When an item comes up and she writes that it’s ‘more bullshit from the AMPTP’—well, at that point I kind of thought she lost her credibility.” This executive continued, “I think that she is helping to fuel an unhelpful rhetoric that has taken over this entire thing.”
Ms. Finke dismissed this executive’s criticism, telling The Observer, “I write things the writers hate me for. I write things the producers hate me for. They read it because they know they’re getting the truth. I’m not a propagandist.”
A marketing executive at a major studio, who did not wish to be named, told The Observer via e-mail that Deadline Hollywood had become an indispensable source of strike news—and implied that Ms. Finke’s power, already formidable in Hollywood, has only increased thanks to the strike.
“She is incredibly well sourced,” the marketing exec explained. “And she has no sacred cows—meaning she gives equal treatment (or mistreatment) to everyone from the owners to the lowly rank and file. She gets very little wrong. And if she is wrong, she will correct it immediately–good luck getting that from the New York Times. She is completely unafraid. Because the numbers at her blog have grown so much over the past six months, she is in a position to get anyone on the phone. She lives and breathes for her column and has managed to successfully create a one of a kind Web site that other media pick up.”
In the early days of the strike, when it seemed like a quick settlement was a distinct possibility, Ms. Finke published endless updates and inside information about the negotiations; as both sides have settled in for what everyone seems to think will be a long haul (“The moguls see this as a way to start fresh in terms of the way they develop entertainment product,” Ms. Finke said. “I reported this before the strike and nobody believed me. They couldn’t believe they would do this”), Ms. Finke has continued to publish the most comprehensive strike coverage of any media outlet. She’s long had high-level sources at all the major studios, but now she’s cultivated a willing stable of well-placed writers who are more than eager to tell her their side of things. (At the beginning of the strike, she was getting 4,000 e-mails a day; it’s now at around 2,000, she says.)
“This is a big deal. It’s the biggest story,” she said. “I’ve let a lot of other news stuff slide because it’s a huge story—everything else pales in comparison.”
On that note, congratulations, Nikki Finke! You are The New York Observer’s 2007 Media Mensch of the Year, for stubbornly refusing to let this story die and reminding us all that a world populated solely by American Gladiator Idol Big Brother Makeover would be a very sad one indeed, and we congratulate you! And we thank you for reminding us that all good journalism comes, first and foremost, from obsession.
Your prize? A DVD three-pack: All the Presidents’ Men, Norma Rae and Billy Wilder’s classic Ace in the Hole. Enjoy!