In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising.
—Pauline Kael, 1973
Nearly three weeks after Titanic won 11 Academy Awards, the question that burns most brightly isn’t how much money the behemoth will eventually earn, but what the L.A. Times will do once interest in the movie — and its box-office receipts — diminishes. In the past six months, the Times has published a whopping 183 stories in which Titanic and James Cameron were both mentioned. While most of these articles, including stories on events like the Directors Guild nominations, made only passing reference to the blockbuster, 36 were devoted exclusively to the movie, its director, actors, the two studios that produced the film and the Titanic phenomenon itself. By comparison, during the same period, the Times published just four articles on James Brooks’ As Good as It Gets, including Kenneth Turan’s review and a squib on its premiere.
On Saturday, March 28, in a remarkable move, the Times Calendar section published a by-now infamous front-page letter by Cameron about Turan in which the director essentially called for the critic to be fired. “Forget about Clinton,” Cameron blustered, “how do we impeach Kenneth Turan?” It was a shocking if not entirely surprising assault, made all the more entertaining by the fact that it was difficult to know who was the bigger jackass — the director or the editorial parties responsible for publishing the letter in the first place.
The L.A. Times is hypocritical, but it’s not stupid. Cameron gets to insult Turan in the critic’s own paper — with more column inches than Turan is usually allowed for one of his reviews — and the paper gets to preserve its industry-friendly profile, along with its advertising dollars. Coincidentally, Turan’s public flogging in the Times ran the day before the publication of the paper’s three-part series, “Breaking Down the Wall,” a well-wrought justification by Pulitzer-winning staffer David Shaw of the Times’ much-publicized decision to blur the lines between its editorial and business concerns.
Anyone who reads — and writes — entertainment journalism can tell you that when it comes to Hollywood, this “wall” has, historically, been so porous as to be virtually nonexistent. And while it’s possible to attribute the Times’ interest in all things Titanic to the movie’s indisputable popularity among audiences — and its ubiquity: It’s currently playing on 3,265 screens nationwide — the volume of coverage raises questions not just about the relationship between the local paper of record and Holly wood, but about the inherently corrupting pressures brought to bear on the Fourth Estate by the entertainment industry. A pressure that, as the Times’ epic coverage of Titanic makes clear, can originate as much from within a paper as it does from the studios.