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King of Hollywood

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 Post Style 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 Timesexecutiveeditor 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 thatthat 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.

 

Little wonder, then, that the best Hollywood re.porters over time become the crankiest.

It’s ridiculous, really, this Times folly that a lone correspondent based in the Los Angeles bureau can possibly compete with the hordes who cover show biz not just down on Spring Street but also AP, Reuters, Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly, Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, Esquire and so on. “The beat has never been more competitive,” admits John Horn, formerly of AP, Premiere, Newsweek and who has recently jumped to the Los Angeles Times. “And that includes us. It’s become a much more fearless paper since the days of Shelby Coffey. I don’t feel there are any stories we can’t cover.”

But that doesn’t mean the coverage is more independent. Today, most of the major outlets on the serious Hollywood beat are owned by Big Media conglomerates, which means in many cases they’re covering themselves. This includes the Los Angeles Times, part of the Tribune empire. Yet even though the parent company of The New York Times is a hulk, the strange thing is that its independence is rarely suspect.

Then there’s its reach. Whether out of an inferiority complex or just familiarity breeding contempt, given the choice between the two newspapers, most L.A. folk would gladly give their first-born for prominent placement in The-New-York-fucking-Times. Little wonder the Los Angeles bureau has an angst-producing atmosphere that’s half pressure cooker, half goldfish bowl. How bad does it get? Ex-N.Y. Times L.A. bureau chief Todd Purdum used to regularly be heard wailing like a cat being strangled within his office whenever he was under stress.

Lyman’s misfortune was that his tenure followed the superstardom of Bernie Weinraub. There was a reason that, over the years, publications like Time, Talk and even 60 Minutes, tried to hire him.

Controversial though he may have been, Weinraub used to give as good as he got: He’d scream back at the moguls who called to scream at him. To the Times’ credit, the more editors heard complaints from the Industry’s dyspeptic despots about their coverage by Weinraub (Michael Ovitz in person and Variety editor Peter Bart by phone, to name just two), the more they salivated for his prolific output. The main criticism of Weinraub was that he played favorites, but that’s a charge made against many entertainment reporters. And this was even before Weinraub’s marriage to Amy Pascal (then Columbia Pictures chieftain, now Sony Pictures Entertainment vice chairman) which forced him off the movie beat.

When Weinraub moved to television, he would joke to friends, “I’m still big. It’s just the screen that got small.” Currently in Kuwait, he’ll return to continuing his major music series after taking some time off. What is inarguable is that Weinraub had a great nose for news. And that, in the end, is exactly what HowellRaines wants from his Hollywood scribe: breaking news stories that set the Industry agenda and don’t just follow it, and writing them with a deft touch that’s devastating on impact.

 

TomKing was recommended to Raines as the right candidate to replace RickLyman since the Journal columnist already lived in L.A., maintained a network of deep sources and knew what a grind it was to work for a daily. Even better, King had written a well-reviewed book (about David Geffen, The Operator), and that appealed to the Times’ snobbery.

But, best of all, King possessed a calm temperament, which is something of a rarity among entertainment journalists who can be as high maintenance as the miscreants they cover. Yet editors expect these same reporters to act like toy poodles, not pit bulls, at the office when among colleagues. (For example, former Time top editor Walter Isaacson once complained that, immediately after hiring Kim Masters just because of her take-no-prisoners style, she had the gumption to phone him at home and rant about her company computer not working. Masters tells the Weekly: “I do remember making a fuss about it, but I don’t remember that. [Vanity Fair’s] Graydon Carter once said to me I was one of the lowest-maintenance reporters on his masthead.”)

After flying King to New York and taking him out for a meal, Raines made him an offer. But the negotiating minuet lasted nearly two weeks until King sent word that he was really happy at the Journal, where he’d started his career and didn’t want to leave. After a short while, Raines came back to King a second time, but, again, with no success.

 

Then, last summer, Raines threw a fit when he saw his paper trailed every major outlet on the Ovitz–Vanity Fair “gay mafia” story. It was a test of sorts determining which journalists were in the loop and which weren’t. The most knowing had the article faxed to them that Friday, June 28. The lesser mortals by Monday, July 1. But Lyman didn’t publish until Wednesday, July 3.

The Times thought the next tack to take was to pair Lyman with a veteran Hollywood reporter. Lyman was even asked to meet with a few selected candidates. In November, Times editors took a crack at veteran Hollywood reporter Michael Cieply, whose résumé includes successful stints at Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.

Back in the early ’90s, after one too many run-ins with then-in-charge Shelby Coffey, known for his Industry cronyism, Cieply left journalism to try a career in movie production. At the time, Cieply told friends that he’d rather work for whores who at least knew they were whores, or words to that effect. Based at then-embattled Sony, in the offices of first Steve Roth and then Ray Stark, Cieply eventually found the taste of Hollywood failure to befar worse than any frustration journalism could dish up. He was coaxed into overseeing the L.A. office of Inside.com. When the start-up flopped, he wrote freelance articles for Esquire, The New Yorker and the business section of The New York Times.

Sources say the Times planned to keep Lyman in place and hire Cieply in a separate-but-equal position in L.A. Then, because of immediate budget pressures and imminent management changes, the new slot was put on hold. Instead, just recently, Cieply decided to rejoin the Los Angeles Times, nowunder new ownership and administration, as an entertainment editor-writer in the business section.

Cieply acknowledges receiving a recent New York Times overture about the Hollywood job, even though, he told the Weekly by e-mail, “I’m having an awfully good time here.”

Though Cieply’s long been in contention, Los Angeles magazine star writer AmyWallace told the Weekly it was only April 14 that she received her first e-mail from Steven Erlanger.

But, in fact, Wallace has long been scouted by the Times, and even met with Lyman about working tandem with him. With years of solid work at the Los Angeles Times behind her, Wallace is best-known for that warts-and-all Peter Bart profile which resulted in his brief suspension from Variety and her winning a national magazine award for Los Angeles. Few know that Wallace got her start at The New York Times by working as one of James Reston’s celebrated interns, or that HowellRaines has reportedly kept his eye on her progress. About two months ago, Times’ Sunday Style editor Trip Gabriel reached out to Wallace to write for him. When her byline appeared on a Times freelance article, Wallace suddenly was rumored to have bagged the Hollywood job. The New York Observer even called to check it out. Just one problem; it was news to Wallace, who at that point hadn’t even heard word one from Erlanger.

The Washington Post’s Sharon Waxman made the short list when her name was put forward by both Lyman and Weinraub. “I have no comment,” she told the Weekly. Because the Post tends to be ignored in Hollywood, L.A.-based Waxman isn’t as high profile as some. But her Style section writing has won several awards, and her tough reporting doesn’t play favorites. Right now she’s working on a Hollywood book about directors. But the fact that this speaker of French, Arabic and Hebrew is an ex–foreign correspondent will resonate with Erlanger, who left Berlin to take the culture gig only recently.

That Bruce Orwall is under consideration comes as no surprise. His name pops up for every job, not just because he’s well-sourced but also because he’s well-known. The last time he had a serious job offer, he used it to propel himself into a near-independent gig on the media beat at the Journal. These days he spends most of his ink breaking stories about Disney, which is why it’s all the more surprising that, recently, both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have beaten him badly on boardroom-discord stories involving some directors and Michael Eisner. Orwall had no comment for the Weekly about the Times job, and Journal sources say he hasn’t said anything about it to them.

 

Like everything else in Hollywood, other candidacies may be real or only imagined, in part because of this New York Times gambit of trying out writers on cheap freelance assignments. A few months ago, freelancer Nancy Griffin told friends she’d been asked to begin writing for the Times’ Arts & Leisure section. Esquire’s Kim Masters says she was asked to do the same recently. On the other hand there’s the sad tale of what happened to one journalist writing at a competing New York City paper. Asked to “try out” as Times editorial writer at Raines’ request, the writer spent months freelancing several dozen $250-apiece editorials, some of them even lead editorials, and shorter $150 “Topics of the Times,” pieces for thatnow-defunct section. In the end, the Times went another way. Moral of the story: Don’t quit your day job.

Send Nikki Finke e-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com


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