By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Peter Bart is back at Variety, his transgressions forgiven -- or at least unproven -- and his mantle as the Conscience of Hollywood restored. But Bart‘s reprieve doesn’t close out the Year of Living Scrupulously for scribes toiling at the entertainment industry‘s other daily publication.
Compared to Christy’s continuing tribulations, Bart‘s ordeal was short and relatively painless. Bart was suspended by his bosses at Cahners Business Information, the publishers of Variety, three weeks ago when Los Angeles magazine published allegations that Bart made up quotes, made racially charged statements, and sold a script in violation of company policy. An ”investigation“ by Cahners cleared Bart of wrongdoing.
While Bart’s suspension prompted a lively debate over journalistic principles, Christy‘s case may be more instructive on the role of ethics in the entertainment press. As in, there is none.
Christy’s troubles began closer to home when a reporter at his own paper decided to dig into his extracurricular activities. Reporter staffer David Robb found numerous instances of ethical transgressions like soliciting gifts from sources, along with the more serious charge of getting movie pals to help Christy earn Screen Actors Guild pension credits. Robb named five films on which Christy claimed to have worked, but in which he never appeared.
When Reporter publisher Robert J. Dowling rejected the story, Robb quit the paper and published his article on the Internet. Reporter editor Anita Busch and executive film editor Beth Laski resigned soon after, protesting that Dowling had breached journalistic ethics by siding with Christy.
Dowling then suspended Christy, but the issue was never closed out. Christy‘s been collecting a Reporter check ever since, and in the meantime has assembled a team of attorneys to make sure he goes out -- and it still looks like that’s where he‘s headed -- in style.
Christy’s lawyers assert that Robb‘s accusations are at least partially false. Defense Exhibit Number One is the photo reproduced here, which shows Christy flanked by the Farrelly brothers on the set of the 1996 Woody Harrelson movie Kingpin -- one of the films that Robb alleged was part of the Christy SAG benefit-plan fraud. Christy -- he’s the one in the hat -- played a master of ceremonies at a strip club in a scene that was later cut from the finished film.
Aside from the challenges to his film work, Christy attorneys John Gatti and Brian Lane say the columnist operated under guidelines laid down by Tichi Wilkerson, the widow of Reporter founder Billy Wilkerson, who ran the paper herself until stepping down in 1988. It was no secret that Christy had accepted gifts from sources, says Lane. ”There‘s nothing illegal about swag,“ says Lane.
And that may be the crux of the matter. The question is: Who ever said anything about ethics in the Hollywood press corps?
When you’re a publisher like Dowling and you‘ve turned an aging hooker like the Reporter into a cash locomotive that grosses $45 million a year in ad sales and circulation and clears a profit of $17 million annually, you leave the worries about journalistic principle to Brill’s Content.
Even now, four months after l‘affaire Christy became grist for the national media, Dowling has yet to replace Christy, his top columnist, or Busch, his top editor. And yet, early in August, Dowling hopped on a plane for New York. He was on his way to meet with his bosses at VNU USA, the American subsidiary of the Dutch-based media conglomerate that owns the Reporter.
The purpose of Dowling’s trip? He was being interviewed for a promotion.
Dowling is the eminence grise of Los Angeles publishing, one who has used his acute survival skills to stay atop the masthead longer than his counterparts at Daily Variety, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine or the Weekly.
After his graduation from Villanova in 1964, Dowling established himself as an ace ad salesman in the trade-publishing field. Just four years later, he moved into management, becoming publisher of Health Care Product News. That post was followed by stints with such titles as American Druggist and Sportswear International before he replaced Wilkerson in the top slot at the Reporter.
Along the way, Dowling learned that his primary job is to mind the bottom line. And when it came to the bottom line at the Reporter, Christy was the jackpot. For years around the industry, the drill went like this: Read Daily Variety for the news, then turn to the Reporter, and Christy‘s back-page ”Great Life“ column, for scoops from the party circuit.
Dowling sought to break out of that pattern when he hired Busch as editor in January of 1999. Busch had earned respect in prior stints at both the Reporter and Variety, and believed Dowling when he said he wanted to raise the level of journalism at the paper. But Dowling never intended those new standards to end the journalistic back scratching that was the paper’s bread and butter.