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The Blind Leading the Mauled

NEXT TO CONAN O’BRIEN’S and Jimmy Kimmel’s skewering of their networks at TV’s annual “upfront” pre-season presentation to advertisers, and the great newspaper race to be the first to publish Hollywood suck-up allegations about Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter, the real funny business was largely overlooked this week: the changing of the culture guard at The New York Times.

The surprise drop-kicking of Steve Erlanger as the Times’ cultural news editor should be seen as yet another slash in top dog Bill Keller’s bloody purge of anyone and anything relating to predecessor Howell Raines’ editorship. “It was done in a brutal way,” one Times insider tells L.A. Weekly. “It came totally out of the blue. It was as ugly and shocking as the stuff in the old Soviet Union and China.”

Sources say Erlanger’s ouster had more to do with the recent double whammy delivered by Adam Moss (the Times’ features czar who jumped to New York magazine in February) and Howell Raines (whose I-did-it-my-way-and-it-was-the-right-way rant ran in the May issue of Atlantic Monthly) than with the quality of the Times’ cultural coverage. And that’s the point. Erlanger did nothing wrong to deserve a boot in the ass. Needless to say, Erlanger is said to be pissed at what he sees as guilt by association: the fact that Raines praised him lavishly in the Atlantic article. “Erlanger thought that was the kiss of death,” an insider says. “You have no idea how much Howell is still talked about in the most loathsome terms at the highest levels of the Times.”

Erlanger refuses to comment. But the former Berlin bureau chief was not an obvious choice when Raines pushed him into editing culture back in 2002. (The NYT’s culture desk shares Hollywood coverage with the business section.) After Raines was fired and Keller was installed, Erlanger settled in nicely. Sure, he wasn’t considered a good administrator, but that said more about the Times’ long and quaint tradition of turning great reporters into mediocre managers than it did about his overall ability. Soon, Erlanger had another new boss, this time Moss, who was promoted by Keller from magazine editor to assistant managing editor for features.

Again, all was well until Moss abruptly departed in February, though everyone but Keller had known something was going on because Moss suddenly started sitting in his office with the door shut and the window blinds closed for hours and hours. According to several insiders, that’s when Keller panicked. Why? Because the Times’ guy who supposedly had his finger on the pulse of what was artsy and trendy was exiting just when the paper was in the final throes of rethinking and redesigning its cultural coverage for a fall debut. (For more, go to “Kellerwood”). Rumors began circulating that Keller was looking to replace Moss with longtime pal Jon Landman, the Metro editor who became a hero for helping to unmask the now-infamous fabulist Jayson Blair. Landman was also a hardcore Raines nemesis. (Landman sent that April 2002 e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.”)

Erlanger had no problem with the prospect of working for Landman, sources say. But he did have a problem with Landman replacing him, which was announced on May 12. The axing took Erlanger totally by surprise. Later, in his parting remarks made to the staff, and buttressed by email, Erlanger said Keller told him "that he would feel easier with a more experienced manager to do the building" on the Times' culture renovation project. "I felt that what we are doing here is too important to him and to the paper for him to feel at all uneasy....my personal feelings aside."

Keller offered him Rome or Jerusalem, presenting it as the choice of a cushy job or being on the front page every day. Ever the news man, Erlanger opted for Israel.

This wasn’t the week’s only episode of Keller acting the Tough Guy. The Erlanger exiling coincided with Keller’s attempted takedown of fellow alpha male and archrival Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll, who had totally eclipsed Keller in Pulitzers this year and won industry hosannas.

As L.A. Weekly reported in last week’s Web exclusive, first one, then two, then three of America’s finest newspapers began running around like chickens with their heads cut off to “Get Carter” and examine the Vanity Fair editor’s financial ties to Hollywood.

The Los Angeles Times had been probing for weeks when Keller received an e-mail tip about it. Suddenly, The New York Times was pursuing it too, on stern orders from Keller. Then The Wall Street Journal began making calls until media editor Rich Turner called off the dogs, deciding the story wasn’t all that interesting.

Turner may have had the last laugh. The L.A. and N.Y. Times’ stories seemed virtually identical and smelled like rush jobs. Worse, they were tepid. It’s said that if you intend to kill the king, you’d better be sure to not just wound him. While Graydon is hardly journalism royalty, it’s clear he doesn’t yet have a muckraker’s scratch on him.

But on Wednesday, media circles were buzzing about a harsh editorial in the New York Observer that accused Carter of "crossing a line that no journalist can afford to cross, and few would dream of crossing." Opining his taking money from Hollywood was "unconscionable," the editorial claimed Carter had dirtied VF's editorial reputation in order to "cash in" his integrity. The impact of the editorial was even greater because the Observer had been Carter's employer before Conde Nast. Sources said it especially unnerved the VF staff, who were beginning to think Carter had dodged a bullet.

As for Keller, he should have kept his ear to the ground in his own newsroom, because film critic Elvis Mitchell blindsided him. Everyone by now knows that Mitchell threatened to quit when A.O. Scott was promoted to the Times’ No. 1 movie reviewer instead of him. Over the next days, Keller tried to move heaven and Earth to keep one of journalism’s most prominent African-Americans in the Times’ fold. (Sources tell the Weekly that the editor even tried to negotiate a starring role for Mitchell in a Times’ TV series.) But Keller was in the dark about Mitchell’s negotiations (which went on for some time) about becoming a Sony Pictures exec and co-head a New York development office. There’s still no guarantee that Mitchell will take the lucrative job, but he was continuing to review Sony movies for the Times in the weeks leading to his final day on May 4th.

Keller did not return messages in time for publication.

IF YOU DON’T THINK that once-awkward and acne-prone really white guy Conan O’Brien could be the funniest man on late-night television, then you didn’t see his blistering command performance at NBC’s upfront presentation Monday.

These annual hooplas put on by the network majors to show off next fall’s prime-time schedule to advertisers are usually such a snore, filled as they are with charts and numbers intended to fool the out-of-town rubes that somehow each network is No. 1 with grandmothers married to Ph.D.-educated men age 41 to 49 making over $250,000 a year. To introduce at least some comedy (since the paucity of new sitcoms demonstrates the network’s comedy development tanked big-time), NBC once again showcased O’Brien, who was even more deliciously mean-spirited than usual. Like making fun of the absurdity that NBC’s and DreamWorks’ new Father of the Pride CGI-animated series is — get this — based on the white tigers used in Siegfried & Roy’s Vegas act before one of them went psycho on Roy. O’Brien imagined the conversation between execs: “He’s been terribly mauled . . . We’ll make a show about it!”

Ah, but there’s so much fodder, especially with the just-announced NBC-Universal megamerger. Claiming that one of the first movies in development will focus on this corporate marriage, O’Brien began casting it. Parent company boss, General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt, will be played by Tony Bennett. (I didn’t get this one at all, but it was still funny.) GE vice-chairman Bob Wright by Bobby Duvall (guess it was the bald thing). The similarly hair- and height-challenged NBC president Jeff Zucker by Mini-Me.

He went on: Universal president and COO Ron Meyer — whom Vanity Fair once called the Warren Beatty of Hollywood moguls — would be played by Leonard Nimoy. (Huge audience laugh.) NBC’s Olympics czar Dick Ebersol by Nick Nolte on a very bad hair day (remember the actor’s 2002 DUI mug shot?). And new NBC Entertainment head Kevin Reilly, who looks like a GQ model, gets played by a loaf of Wonder Bread.

There was even a dig at a rival, Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who O’Brien said was to be portrayed by Il Duce himself, Benito Mussolini. (Even funnier would have been underscoring how the tyrannical boss is now a has-been by casting, say, Burt Reynolds.) Given all the rumors that Eisner’s ABC will be offering O’Brien a hefty $30 mil to switch networks, even he acknowledged he may have just kissed any such deal goodbye.

On the other hand, Jimmy Kimmel, currently ABC’s Great Late-Night Hope, may be looking for another job soon. That’s because of shtick at ABC’s upfront like, “We’ve got a new show called Who Wants To Run ABC? The loser gets the job.” Fully acknowledging ABC’s disastrous year, Eisner’s formerly favorite comic noted that the network has “nothing to spin off. No CSI. No Law & Order. Only NYPD Pink.” Finally, there was only nervous laughter when Kimmel told advertisers, “We know we came out here last year and told you we weren’t going to be in last place again. You got punked!”

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.