By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
It may well be the most high-profile job in Hollywood, certainly the most influential, but no moguls need apply. And even though the position is soon to be vacant, the last place you’ll read about editors from The New York Times traveling here in the coming weeks to begin the process of interviewing candidates would be in that very newspaper (or even in the Los Angeles Times, for that matter). And if you haven’t been contacted by e-mail yet, then it’s too late to make the short list, which already includes Los Angeles Times editor-writer Michael Cieply, Los Angeles magazine writer Amy Wallace, Washington PostStyle correspondent Sharon Waxman and Wall Street Journal staff reporter Bruce Orwall.
How bizarrely coincidental that the death of The Wall Street Journal’s Tom King this month came just as The New York Times is once again looking for a new Hollywood reporter. The Journal’s show-biz columnist was not just Times executiveeditor Howell Raines’ first choice but really only choice to fill the job. The current occupant, Rick Lyman, is after more than a year of not necessarily flattering speculation transferring to the paper’s headquarters this summer to be a New York–based national cultural reporter, whatever that means. (Someone should have warned him to beware of jobs with nice titles but vague turf. They’re the kiss of death.) “I always planned to just do this for four or five years,” Lyman told the Weekly. “Now they want to seize the opportunity to hire outside.”
The newly appointed Times Cultural News Editor Steven Erlanger has nothing but praise for Lyman. “I’m looking for a good reporter to fill the job of a very good reporter,” he tells the Weekly. But Erlanger won’t say who’s being considered when he and the way more famous Frank Rich, newly named associate editor, arrive in L.A. As to when the job will be filled, Erlanger said, “I’ll decide before or after Saddam Hussein is found.” Told that that sounded like a long time, Erlanger amended his statement. “Before or after they make the movie about the discovery or not of Saddam Hussein’s body.”
But the Weekly has learned that, virtually from the moment that Raines was named the new Times boss in May 2001, the issue of the Times’ Hollywood coverage moved front and center.
For instance, sources say the order came down from on high that Lyman was to stop writing those articles headlined “Watching Movies With . . .” this director or that actor. Granted, Harvey Weinstein was such a fan he told people he wanted to collect them into a book. (Publisher Henry Holt did just that recently with no fanfare.) But the hard truth at the Times was that the only other person thought likely to plow through those 4,000-plus words of lackluster prose would be Lyman’s mother or the talent’s flack.
Speaking of publicists, Lyman was thought to be way too close to them, even acting on tips from them and, even harder to believe, actually quoting them in print.
And then there was the Harvey imbroglio. It did not go unnoticed at the Times that seemingly every other Lyman byline headed an article that weirdly placed Weinstein or his company in the best light possible — unless, of course, every other media outlet was dissing Miramax, in which case Lyman would jump into his other role as official Harvey apologist.
A nice guy nevertheless with a perfectly good track record at the Times before arriving in Los Angeles in 1999, Lyman was probably too nice a guy to do the job’s heavy lifting, which in most cases involves glad-handing moguls in public while manhandling them in print. In the end, this will not be a blot on Lyman’s career because the paper has long understood that not every journalist can cut it here, not because the job is so difficult but because the skills required to do a good job at it are quite specific.
Case in point: In 1990, apparent lifer Aljean Harmetz was succeeded by Larry Rohter, who left the beat a mere year later. As one pal put it, “Larry was a hell of a reporter before and after he covered Hollywood. Just not during.” By all accounts, the duplicity of Hollywood didn’t engage Rohter as much as it disgusted him. He kept at it until the day he was having breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel and found he was more interested in overhearing what the busboys were saying in Spanish than trying to read the lips of Barry Diller across the room. “It just dawned on him this wasn’t the place for him,” says a friend.
The problem isn’t just the cobras who fill the suits, it’s the cunning necessary to keep up with them. “In show business, where gossip is currency, the correct response to being told anything in person or in print is ‘I already knew that,’” quips journalist and screenwriter Bruce Feirstein. At the same time, it’s hard to publish the “real inside story” since participants always lie about their roles and assume reporters won’t dig deeply enough to get the truth. For those who do, the rewards are threats, intimidation, blacklisting.
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