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.)