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
Among the many stupid things that Los Angeles Times editorial and opinion editor Michael Kinsley has done since his arrival there, the dumbest was writing (before, mercifully, spiking) an editorial finding amusement in the decapitation murder of a Hollywood screenwriter. Now Kinsley has managed to top even that episode of bad judgment with the hiring of Time magazine’s Joel Stein as entertainment columnist.
At issue is not even the 33-year-old writer’s talent, or lack thereof, though his résumé reads like a case study of someone failing upward. No, it’s that Stein, a scavenger of snark, may very well be the most conflict-riddled columnist working in show-biz journalism today, and that’s saying a lot. This guy makes former Hollywood Reporter columnist George ("a plug for every freebie, a gush for every gig") Christy look Pulitzer Prize worthy.
How in the world could LAT editor John Carroll, who constantly scolds about journalism ethics, make a deal with the devil in such a lame and likely futile attempt to attract a younger demo? Carroll has famously said, "Don’t be a piano player in a whorehouse." Yet, beginning in January, journalism’s equivalent of the Chopin of Show Biz will be working at his newspaper. "After he decided to hire me, Kinsley told me that John Carroll was excited," Stein told L.A. Weekly in an interview.
Asked for comment, a Times spokesperson told L.A. Weekly, "We often run opinion pieces by people who are involved in the subjects they are writing about. Joel Stein is not an employee. He's writing a column about Hollywood, but that is based on his being deeply involved in it. So there's no secret about that." Given that reasoning, what the Times should have done was hire someone really experienced in the entertainment business, not this unsuccessful wannabe.
Stein’s past and present forays into entertainment are not mentioned in either the New York Observerpuff piece announcing his LAT hiring or his official Time online biography. To be fair, Stein has not kept his Industry escapades secret; he’s used them as fodder for columns. But rarely do employers actually read all of an applicant’s clips.
If they had, they’d know that Stein came to Hollywood to do a story for Time about Comedy Central’s The Man Show and, "From my memory, or maybe it’s my ego, they were thinking of offering me a job," Stein himself recalls. "I was thinking of taking it, but I didn’t want to move to L.A. for it or quit my job for it." So Stein became a contributor to the series, "faxing them stuff" from his apartment. For those keeping score, Comedy Central is owned by Comedy Partners, a wholly owned division of MTV Networks, which in turn is owned by Viacom, one of the biggest of Big Media.
Stein also turned his life into 13 episodes of an animated show, this time for Viacom subsidiary VH1. Stein’s character was voiced by actor Jon Cryer. "They spent $4 million, and the shows never aired," Stein rues. Also for VH1, Stein became a regular commentator on those I Love the’70s and I Love the’80s specials. (He’s the wire-rim-wearing, flop-haired smirker who looks amused by what he’s telling the camera even if the rest of us aren’t.) For Time Warner’s HBO, Stein does the short-segment filler Phoning It In, during which he deadpans interviews with celebrities from a phone booth.
But last year, Stein got close to grabbing Hollywood’s gold ring: Warner Bros. television developed a series based on his life as a smart-aleck guy working for a national magazine. This time, Stein was played by Hanks. No, not AAA-list star Tom Hanks, but son, Colin. Stein, who had a lot of vacation time banked, spent weeks upon weeks in L.A. on the project. The idea made it into ABC’s development slate and then into a pilot, until it was ditched just three days before the network had to announce its fall schedule.
Now L.A. Weekly has learned that Stein just clinched a blind script deal with Fox Television Studios. Says Stein: "I’ll create something. They’ll make and sell it to the networks." Stein already has a favorite alphabet. "ABC, I like them."
So this means that, given his past TV sales, and Big Media’s consolidation, Stein is in some way compromised at every major Hollywood studio except Sony. And with ICM repping him for speeches and Endeavor making his TV deals, Stein is also compromised at two of the top five talent agencies.
Stein is unabashed about seeing his new column as a steppingstone to full-time employment by Hollywood. "I’m going to continue to try to get jobs in the entertainment business. Long term, yeah, I’d like to write for TV. It sounds like fun."
He even defends the obvious conflict of interest. "If you’re upfront and superhonest about it, it only makes things more interesting and true. I have much better contacts, and I know much more than before. People who write about the business should be in it for a week. I think I gain more than I lose." And about the argument that anybody who works for Hollywood gets owned by Hollywood, he acknowledges, "It’s weird to cover the Industry and get paid by them at the same time. But my love for Rupert Murdoch is deep and sincere, anyway. It has nothing to do with cash."