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Pangs of Hollywood

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.

Yet to be resolved is the case of George Christy, the society columnist at The Hollywood Reporter for 26 years until this past May 25, when he was suspended for alleged ethical offenses.

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.

That became clear when Busch first challenged Christy‘s ”reporting“ techniques. She dropped by a store that was featured repeatedly in the column and asked if there was some ”relationship“ with the writer. When word got back to Christy, he complained to the publisher, and Dowling assigned the column to another editor. When Robb began nosing around the same territory, Dowling tried to steer him off as well. And when Robb filed his story, Dowling refused to read it and assigned the matter to another reporter.

That’s when Robb quit; a week later, Busch and Laski followed suit. Stung by their challenge to his ethics, Dowling responded with one of his own, a letter to readers castigating Robb and Busch for harboring ”personal agendas that ultimately led to a glaring lack of objectivity.“ In a related altercation with staff of the Directors Guild, Dowling said, ”Robb crossed the line of standards and ethics.“

Christy‘s ethics, however, were never a problem for Dowling. In fact, the star columnist might have survived the trade-paper tempest unscathed, but he committed a breach more egregious than anything he did in print: He failed to honor his sponsor.

Christy was suspended May 25. According to executives at the Reporter, the ouster came only after Christy lied to Dowling when asked if an office that the Reporter had rented for the columnist was in any way connected to Motion Picture Corporation of America. MPCA was the film-production entity that was named, in 1993, in a pension-fraud civil lawsuit involving Christy (the suit was settled out of court).

Dowling could handle the allegations that Christy was padding a pension account by getting film pals to credit him for work he didn’t perform. But he couldn‘t handle being lied to.

Thus began a slow-motion exit that led to what could be the longest paid leave of absence since Napoleon took a one-way cruise to Elba.

On June 4 the Reporter made this offer: If Christy resigned immediately, he would get two weeks of severance pay for every year he worked (at 26 years, the total would be about $70,000), be allowed to pen a farewell column, and have access to the personnel files of former reporter Robb and former editor Anita Busch without a subpoena to determine if Christy could get a defamation suit against them up and running. Dowling would even throw a going-away affair for the 70-year-old columnist.

It took a while for Lane to respond.

”Let me get this straight,“ he posited. ”You want to fire my client and then throw him a party?“

Christy’s next move was to retain a veteran Beverly Hills publicist and trial litigator, Gatti, a courtroom pit bull whose client list includes stars like Bob Dylan and Paula Abdul. In mid-June, Christy demanded his job back. When refused that, lawyer Gatti supposedly demanded $300,000 and threatened to file suit if he didn‘t get it. The Reporter balked, and nothing was settled.

In the last week of June, in fact, a lawyer for the Reporter told the Weekly: ”There’s no guarantee that George is leaving the Reporter.“

There‘s been mostly silence since, leaving Christy and his lawyers frustrated, but judiciously patient. ”Dowling doesn’t know if he‘s waiting for the results of the SAG investigation against George or his own new job,“ claims attorney Lane. ”All Dowling knows is that it’s bad juju to go public and say he‘s firing George.“ (Dowling did not return repeated calls for comment.)

The message all of this sends about ethics is, at best, mixed. Lane makes a point to say that Christy never crossed the only line that matters -- a line he draws at graft, not swag. ”George never engaged in graft -- which is demanding payment in exchange for coverage,“ Lane says.

As for Busch and Robb, they have their ethics intact, but unlike Bart or even Christy, they haven’t seen another paycheck. By resigning on principle, they forfeited even a claim to severance money.

Reporting by Ross Johnson