The Queens of Hollywood
If only the Bush administration could convince The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times to offer employment to everyone. After two of Hollywood’s highest-profile media jobs were finally filled this past week, some lucky entertainment journalists, just for being courted, scored bigger pay and better gigs.
After a drawn-out and nerve-wracking hiring process, the NYT picked a new Hollywood correspondent and, as L.A. Weekly reported exclusively on October 24, it’s Sharon Waxman, the Washington Post’s Style section entertainment writer. Even more tortuous was the LAT’s prolonged hunt to replace Pulitzer-winning television critic Howard Rosenberg since candidate after candidate turned down the position. The paper even lost columnist Brian Lowry to Variety when he wasn’t offered the job. It got so bad that TV editor Jonathan Taylor began interviews by saying, “We don’t want to get burned again. So we want to know that you’ll take the job before we offer it to you,” according to Time magazine’s James Poniewozik.
On Monday, a disappointed job seeker whom Taylor denied the gig leaked the news that the LAT had settled on Entertainment Weekly writer and critic Carina Chocano. Described in a staff memo as “an exciting new talent,” Times features czar John Montorio went on to praise her as “a distinctive writer with a delightfully original sensibility and a wonderful grasp of popular culture in all its dimensions.”
Waxman and Chocano, both already based in L.A., will start their new jobs in November.
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While the well-known Waxman’s hiring got a thumbs-up in Hollywood, the no-profile Chocano’s anointment prompted many a “Who the hell is that?” But Internet talent spotters knew her work from Salon.com, where the former children’s CD-ROM writer rode the reality-show wave to fame from 1999 to the start of 2003. At E.W. less than a year, Chocano wasn’t there long enough to become a star. On Monday, nervous about being interviewed, Chocano declined to tell L.A. Weekly why she wanted the LAT job. She divulged only that her favorite TV shows are HBO’s The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, and Fox’s Arrested Development.
Adam Moss, NYT’s assistant managing editor for features, called October 17 to offer the coveted position to Waxman, who accepted it because the Post is off Hollywood’s radar. “I’m very sorry to leave a paper I love,” she told L.A. Weekly. “But I felt like I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be able to write for a paper like the Times that has such a broad platform in the industry and is read here every day.”
Yeah, yeah, but the real story is what happened to those journalists who were in the running for one or the other jobs.
The Wall Street Journal’s show-biz columnist, Tom King, was first choice to wear The New York Times’ Hollywood crown, but he stayed loyal — and was rewarded for it before his untimely death last spring. Then a short list was compiled, including Los Angeles Times editor-writer Michael Cieply, Los Angeles magazine writer Amy Wallace, and Wall Street Journal staff reporter Bruce Orwall. Again, all used the NYT’s feelers to feather their nests a bit more luxuriously.
After Waxman’s name first surfaced in L.A. Weekly , Post editors moved quickly to convince their eight-year employee to stay put. Not only were such carrots as the Style section’s Reliable Sources columnist and even national-desk correspondent dangled in front of her, but the paper forked over a fat (and unsolicited) pay raise.
Waxman met with New York Times cultural news editor Steven Erlanger in New York, and with Jodi Kantor, the editor of the NYT’s Arts & Leisure section, in Los Angeles. Then, in September, Waxman visited the Times newsroom for interviews with executive editor Bill Keller and newly named Moss, who was still finding his footing. Demonstrating just how competitive it is between the Times and the Post, sources told L.A. Weekly that the Washington Post knew Waxman was in enemy territory before she had left the building.
Waxman quickly emerged as Erlanger’s first choice — both had been foreign correspondents and had a lot in common — and he pushed his bosses to make an offer before he took a three-week Mediterranean vacation. He was still on holiday when he got word.
Meanwhile, back at the L.A. Times, Entertainment Weekly TV critic Ken Tucker immediately became features czar John Montorio’s number-one candidate to replace Rosenberg. Tucker declined comment, but sources say he kept the LAT hanging for months — to the point where the newspaper offered him a prized slot not just once but twice. Tucker’s pals say he used the LAT’s feverish pursuit to negotiate an even more high-profile position at E.W. “If he wouldn’t move from Philly to New York for E.W., what made the Times think he’d move from Philly to Los Angeles?” wondered one bemused colleague.
In fact, L.A.-phobia became the sticking point with nearly all of the candidates sought by the Los Angeles Times, something the editors hadn’t anticipated. Embarrassingly, LAT TV editor Taylor had to camp out at the July meeting of the Television Critics’ Association and take candidates like Tim Goodman, the San Francisco Chronicle’s TV critic, for a secret drink at weary Hollywood watering hole Musso & Frank just down the street from where the critics were staying. With Goodman, too, Taylor warned, “We want to make sure you’re interested” before proceeding further. Even so, the real nonstarter for Goodman, besides loyalty to his own paper, was just the idea of uprooting his family for Los Angeles. Still, because of LAT interest, Chronicle executive editor Phil Bronstein quickly “took great care of me,” Goodman notes. “I think the L.A. Times is making everyone rich.”
The same thing happened to Lisa de Moraes, TV columnist for the Washington Post who also received an LAT offer and also didn’t want to move to Los Angeles. Her colleague, music columnist David Segal, and Time magazine’s Poniewozik also rebuffed Los Angeles. “The upshot was that it was an attractive job in theory,” Poniewozik recalls, “but I didn’t want to move to L.A.”
Waxman’s journey to Hollywood has been roundabout. With a B.A. in English literature from Barnard, a master’s in philosophy from Oxford’s St. Antony’s College and fluency in French, Hebrew and Arabic, Waxman snagged an internship on the Washington Post foreign desk. She moved to Reuters as a Jerusalem correspondent and later became a freelancer in Paris. In November 1995, Waxman came to L.A. with a full-time contract to cover entertainment for the Post, the first time that Style created such a job. Eventually, she was made a Post staffer. Since 9/11, the newspaper has sent Waxman to the Middle East several times, including a stint in postwar Iraq.
As for Hollywood coverage, Waxman could be characterized as a fair but tough reporter in an industry notorious for co-opting and manipulating journalists. To her credit, she’s not known for being in the pocket of any particular Hollywood studio or executive. On the other hand, she is seen as weak in her knowledge of the business side of entertainment.
Some of Waxman’s work for the Post has been generic Hollywood writing and reporting, one article indistinguishable from another. But in 2000 she won the Penney Award, the highest prize in feature writing, and was nominated in 1999 for a Pulitzer Prize. One of Waxman’s first stories to gain attention was an in-depth look at the Golden Globes. While the article covered old ground, it did unearth new controversies and led to changes within the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
She also has held her own in the various causes célebrès that occasionally roust the entertainment business. She has written tough stuff about Motion Picture Association of America honcho Jack Valenti, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin and Miramax chieftain Harvey Weinstein. During the Beautiful Mind Oscar brouhaha, not only did Miramax target her but other journalists attacked her facts and point of view.
A year ago, Waxman secured a book contract from William Morrow to write about Hollywood’s so-called rebel directors, including Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, David O. Russell, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher.
Chocano, a 1990 Northwestern graduate with a B.A. in comparative literature, already has two books under her belt: She wrote Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?, billed as amusing relationship advice for the perpetually entangled, and contributed to an anthology of humor pieces, More Mirth of a Nation. She also made a short film, Samuel Beckett Orders Out, which was screened at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and elsewhere.
Robert Lloyd, the former L.A. Weekly TV critic who recently joined the Times, will continue on the beat.
Given Chocano’s clips, Hollywood immediately began to ask if she’s Rosenberg lite. The point is that, after primarily making fun of The Bachelor and Survivor, she has yet to show the necessary chops to push hot-button issues, which Rosenberg did so ably. The new gig may have made Chocano richer, but will L.A. Times readers be poorer for it?
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This is an update containing corrections of the previously published version which reported that Chocano was a freelancer at Salon, where she was in fact a staffer, and that Chocano had written two books when in fact she had written one and contributed to another.
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