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Spiked in Hollywood

Dave Robb, the investigative reporter at the center of the management upheaval at the Hollywood Reporter, is so old-school he doesn’t seem to realize how he stood out among the many toadies in the murky realm of Hollywood journalism.

”There are other people doing what I do. You don‘t even have to turn over a rock. There’s news everywhere. You just write until they stop you,“ Robb said during a phone interview Monday, the same day Reporter editor Anita Busch resigned, in part over Robb‘s sudden departure the previous week. (Writer’s disclaimer: Robb is an old, and much-respected, colleague of mine.)

Robb quit over Reporter publisher Robert J. Dowling‘s decision to kill his investigation into allegations that the paper’s society columnist, George Christy, was on the take. Specifically, Robb said he learned that Christy was being investigated for not appearing in several films for which he had received acting credits. The phantom appearances qualified Christy for lucrative Screen Actors Guild (SAG) health and pension benefits. One of the producers who gave him the credits, Steve Stabler, got numerous favorable mentions in Christy‘s influential back-page column.

Reporter spokesperson Lynda Williams said Christy would not be responding to questions, but provided statements indicating that Dowling had reassigned the Christy story because he believed that Robb had lost his ”objectivity.“

It wasn’t the first time Robb quit over a spiked story. In fact, it wasn‘t even the first time Robb looked into Christy. (In 1993, Robb broke the story of a lawsuit the SAG pension and health fund had filed against the Motion Picture Corporation of America, Stabler’s company with then-partner Brad Krevoy, charging the outfit with inflating Christy‘s salary for bit parts to qualify the columnist for SAG benefits. The suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed six-figure sum.) Time and again during his 20 years at the trades -- Variety as well as the Reporter -- 51-year-old Robb dug into the seamy underside of Hollywood and surfaced with stories of mob corruption, presidential fancy footwork, and scamming. And he demanded the same ethical standards of his own profession that he did of the movie biz.

One might ask why Dowling would sacrifice not only Robb but Busch, a consummate pro credited with restoring the Reporter’s luster -- along with the equally respected executive editorfilm editor Beth Laski, who also quit in the fracas -- to save a male Hedda Hopper. Specifically, a male Hedda Hopper given to such prose as ”The musicale . . . got off to a grand start.“ (The quote is from Christy‘s May 1 column, which also included the gem ”Julie’s husband Blake Edwards then announced that he‘s always been enchanted with singers and the music that comes forth from their vocal chords.“) But then, one would be showing one’s ignorance of Hollywood culture, its baroque court politics, the importance of seeing and being seen -- not to mention the power of Hollywood wives, of whom Christy is said to be a great favorite. (Christy is not a favorite of some publicists, who have complained that his demands for swag and tribute were outlandish even in the graft-laden atmosphere of Hollywood.)

Hollywood wives probably don‘t know Robb, but many power players do -- players like Tommy Short, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees president. Robb first quit the Reporter in 1995 over the paper’s refusal to run a story about Short‘s alleged mob background; a version of the tale later appeared in the Weekly. Robb returned to the Reporter after an amicable eight-month hiatus he calls his ”walkabout.“

Robb also took on Power Rangers co-creator Haim Saban for claiming music credits, and ASCAP royalties, for titles composed for his TV kiddie shows. And then there was California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk: Robb uncovered a police file concerning the then-politician’s dalliance with a prostitute. And former SAG official Ronald Reagan: Robb found Reagan‘s secret grand-jury testimony from a U.S. Justice Department antitrust investigation into the then-actor’s superagent, Lew Wasserman.

Robb‘s finest hour may have been his lengthy investigation into the denial of film credits to blacklisted screenwriters. Robb’s work corrected the record for dozens of writers, including Michael Wilson, whose credit for the Oscar-winning film Lawrence of Arabia was finally restored.

Robb got his stories the old-fashioned way: He followed the paper trail. (For the blacklist story, he dug through old correspondence in UCLA‘s film archives.) He cultivated sources. And he was relentless.

”It’s not like all I do is George Christy stories. I‘ve been busy covering union strikes,“ said Robb, who was on the Reporter’s legal and labor beat. ”But I‘ve been covering [SAG pension scams] since 1993. George just fell into my net. What was I supposed to do?“

Now, however, it looks like Robb’s 20 years in the trades are really over. He‘s unlikely to jump to Variety, whose editor, Peter Bart, has also been the target of Robb’s investigative reporting. But Robb harbors no rancor against the Hollywood Reporter.

”I always liked Bob Dowling, and I still like him,“ Robb said. True to his old-school reporting values, Robb won‘t hazard a guess as to why Christy and Dowling acted as they did.

”Why people do things I don’t know,“ Robb said. ”‘Why’ is not my specialty.“

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