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“Ka-ching, Ka-ching?” 

Discovering Jayson Blair

Thursday, May 15 2003
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The New York Times is asking, “Why?” Hollywood is asking, “Why not?”

 

As is usual with this kind of in-the-news scandal, you can bet that the Hollywood suits are collectively scratching their hair plugs as they stand on their office porches overlooking the tobacco fields and cattle pastures and wonder what to make of Jayson Blair. Or, rather, how to make money on The Blair Switch Project. [Full disclosure: This bon mot was ripped off from a recent Newsweek column, thus saving me from having to think of an original play-on-words based on a very obvious movie title].

Clearly this is going to be another ka-ching, ka-ching. Before we ponder what is sure to happen to Blair’s story, let’s examine how Hollywood has treated journalism’s other fab fabricators.

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Right now, big fat liar Stephen Glass has a work of fiction in stores called The Fabulist courtesy of Simon & Schuster, which is run by Jonathan Dolgen, Viacom's Hollywood executive in charge of Paramount. Glass actually had the chutzpah this week to send out an e-mail to pals plugging his year and a half of work. “I know it’s really crass to ask you to buy the book, but I would love it if you would.” [Lifted from a memo on the Poynter Institute’s Media News Web site, which I check an average of 70 times a day hoping to suss out job openings amid all the comings and goings of journalists I don’t know.]

In the book, the protagonist’s former editor says, “In all of my years of journalism I’ve never known someone as greedy as Stephen Glass. You watch, somehow he’ll turn his disgrace into a windfall.” [Plucked from Glass’ roman à clef by The Philadelphia Inquirer, thus ensuring I didn’t have to actually buy and then consume his piece of crap.]

But it doesn’t stop there. Glass is soon to be the subject of a major motion picture from Paramount-based C/W Productions, which is Tom Cruise’s company, and Baumgarten Merims Productions, whose principal, Craig Baumgarten, knows a lot about personal scandal since, years ago, he was a fast-rising studio executive when word slipped out that he had appeared in a porn movie.

Baumgarten got the Glass project off the ground the usual way: by sitting on his blue-jeaned ass and reading Buzz Bissinger’s article in the September 1998 Vanity Fair. [This nugget unearthed from the Yahoo! Movies Web site, which saves me from having to take Scientology courses before I dare talk to Cruise’s production office.] The project was originally intended for HBO, but Cruise’s company picked it up.

Shattered Glass will be platformed by distributor Lions Gate Films starting October 24 in Los Angeles and New York.

Only in Hollywood can Jewish nebbishes get played by WASP hotties: Star Wars hunk Hayden Christensen has been cast as Glass and dishy Chloë Sevigny as Glass’ New Republic colleague Hanna Rosin. Even so, Glass refused to cooperate with the film, which is based instead on published reports and interviews with the people involved. Charles Lane, then The New Republic editor who fired Glass for fabrications in what was ultimately 27 of 41 stories for the magazine, helped vet the script. [That’s from the Washington Post’s Howie Kurtz, thus ensuring that I didn’t have to take time out from my romance-novel proposal-writing to file an expense report for a D.C. phone call.]

Still, New York Daily News film critic Jack Mathews recently accused filmmakers of glossing over Glass’ lies as “harmless romanticism.”

In fact, Hollywood has never been too sure how to treat journalists, portraying them as either heroic or contemptible, either utterly decent and selfless or recklessly ambitious and backstabbing. But one movie project, a drama about disgraced Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke, who had to give back her 1981 Pulitzer Prize, was seeking to redefine the worlds of journalists as more ambiguous and morally complex. [Such highfalutin descriptions and deal details come word for word from The New York Times, thus making me look as if I’m a deep thinker about my profession, instead of a pop-culture addict who on weekend mornings watches 90210 reruns.]

Hollywood studios fell all over themselves trying to buy the rights to the 12,000-word article about Cooke written by Mike Sager, a former boyfriend and Post colleague, for the June 1996 issue of GQ magazine. Cooke openly discussed her past in the article, which dealt with Cooke’s humiliation after the hoax, as well as her exile to Paris for a decade, and her later attempt to live on minimum wage in flyover country (sob, sob).

Eventually a deal was made by TriStar Pictures to buy the 30,000-word draft of Sager’s article for $750,000 and pay another $850,000 if the movie is made. Sager was to receive 45 percent of the sale, Cooke 55 percent as well as serve as a consultant. Cooke said the money from Hollywood would allow her to start writing magazine articles about U.S. social conditions — even though that’s exactly what got her in trouble in the first place.

The only reason the studio committed so much dough to what was obviously a dicey project — a movie with no one to root for, except perhaps the heroin-addicted boy composite — was because of the interest of director James L. Brooks, who lambasted the TV news business in Broadcast News. But the Cooke movie isn’t being made and may never be, unless Sony’s powers that be resurrect it now as The Blair Bitch Project.

Then there’s ousted Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, who’s not the subject of a movie since he’s not black or Jewish, but is now making a nice chunk of change as the monotonic fill-in on MSNBC thanks to Chris Matthews’ Irish-Catholic cronyism.

Which brings us to Blair.

First, Blair could hire bicoastal attorney Johnnie Cochran either to defend him against any possible fraud charges or to sue the proverbial Paul Stuart–pants off “Pinch” Sulzberger for invasion of privacy and defamation.

Cochran could file in New York, where he maintains both an office and residence, but he surely can find defamation grounds to bring the lawsuit here in Los Angeles, where California law acknowledges a person’s specific right to privacy. Then, Cochran could agree to settle, but only if the Times, together with executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd, were to hand over their rights to Blair for any book or movie. Cochran has formed an agency and marketing group to provide representation for sports and entertainment figures, so he could represent Blair on any deals.

One obstacle may be Hollywood’s unwillingness to piss off the Times since the newspaper’s show-biz coverage and reviews are so influential. But Roger Ailes, the Fox News chieftain who’s a god right now within News Corp., could convince boss Rupert Murdoch to let him thrash the liberal newspaper of record by producing the Blair project for Fox.

After no doubt considering American Idol’s Ruben Studdard as the lead, Ailes could announce that in keeping with Republican policies no blacks should be given preferential hiring treatment over whites, even if this is about an African-American journalist. So it’s conceivable that Ailes could cast his high-rated anchor Shepard Smith, who showed he had the drama chops during an argument over a parking space with a female reporter while covering the presidential election re-count story in November 2000.

Smith was arrested for felony aggravated battery, and reportedly the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor and dropped after the woman agreed to an undisclosed settlement. Smith’s agent by now must be asking for a version of the “Julianna Margulies–ER” deal whereby Warner Bros. sweetened the TV show’s re-signings by offering key actors certain film commitments in addition to cash.

If Ailes still gets pressured by Pinch, he need only take a page from Ray Stark, who produced the HBO movie of Barbarians at the Gate. When one of the book’s chief characters, Wall Street tycoon Henry Kravis, cautioned the producers not to portray him pejoratively, Stark warned the dwarfish billionaire: “Give me trouble, and I’ll get Danny DeVito to play you.”

I’ve now reached the 1,200-word limit on my column. Thanks to Nexis and Internet searches, I’ve managed to write it without having done any original reporting. What an easy way to earn a living, ka-ching, ka-ching!

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