In the movies, reporters are mostly made out to be sleazy louts (It Happened One Night) or bumbling fools (Absence of Malice). Hollywood moguls even portray good journalists (All the President’s Men) as egotistical, obsessive, not-very-nice people. Or maybe it’s just payback. After all, good journalists usually portray Hollywood moguls as egotistical, obsessive, not-very-nice people. Combine the two, and a good Hollywood journalist means a double dose of all those qualities that make a person insufferable.
That, in a nutshell, was veteran movie industry reporter Anita Busch.
“Was” is the operative word here because she has abandoned the profession she zealously plied for nearly 20 years. Not just because she was sniffing around a story that ended in her fearing for her life, not just because she burned her bridges at the major media outlets, but also because the Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood press corps turned their backs on her when she came under what we now know was a genuine threat.
“She told me she’s never going to work as a journalist again,” one of her closest friends tells L.A. Weekly. “It’s not so much what happened to her but the whole way this went down. How she was treated left a sour taste.”
She is gone and, worse, she is near-forgotten, an inconspicuous end to an esteemed career. So I, for one, am going to apologize to Busch on behalf of everyone who covers Hollywood: Yes, we are at fault. Yes, we didn’t take this seriously at first, second or third. Yes, we made the mistake of putting personality before principle. Shame on us — especially now that this ongoing Hollywood puzzle is starting to fall into place.
On Friday, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office announced that celebrity private eye Anthony Pellicano, already in prison on federal weapons and explosives counts, was charged with conspiracy and threatening Busch. The man he allegedly hired to do the dirty work, Alexander Proctor, already had been charged with one count of making criminal threats against Busch in a case filed in 2003. Still unclear is who hired Pellicano. Busch, who’s been in contact with the FBI and the D.A.’s Office all this time, has tantalizingly whispered to friends that her case could lead to a big Hollywood name.
Busch wouldn’t return my phone calls. (Though a guy called me anonymously and warned repeatedly, “You’re being monitored. Everything you say about Anita Busch.”) Also not talking to me was the literary agent for the novel she’s supposedly writing, and the lawyer for the civil lawsuit she filed two years after the incident against nearly everyone she claims was involved. Those who are in contact with her say she’s obsessed with every facet of the ongoing Pellicano taping scandal and talks about it constantly.
She also hasn’t worked for the Los Angeles Times in years and left there disappointed that the paper’s management “didn’t back her up” more, according to one pal. “She didn’t find them as supportive as she would have liked. They turned the matter over to the Human Resources administrative people. This was very offensive to her.”
To refresh your memory, the long-time trade paper reporter-editor was newly hired as a contract writer by the Los Angeles Times when she was threatened while working on a story about has-been action star Steven Seagal’s alleged ties to the mob. That’s when Anita in LaLaland fell down the rabbit hole and never came out again.
Separating fact from fantasy seemed impossible given the wacko stuff that happened that June 10, 2002, involving an actor, the Mafia, a hit man, a note that said “STOP,” a shatter mark on her car windshield — alleged shenanigans by Proctor and Pellicano. The street where she lived was evacuated so the bomb squad could investigate the contents of the mystery package left on her auto; it contained a dead fish and a rose but no explosive device. “People didn’t take it seriously because it sounded like a movie script,” another friend says. “That’s why few people felt sorry for her.”
Blame that on Busch herself and her reputation first as a Hollywood queen, and then as a drama queen. Over time, she went from the reporter relentlessly pursuing stories to reversing course and becoming the story. She was schmoozing media writers for high-profile treatment in stories about Hollywood coverage, sitting for a portrait and profile in the LAT when she became editor of The Hollywood Reporter, or slithering around in evening dress for an Elle magazine feature on “Hollywood After Dark.” The dead fish experience was seen as just another peril to befall Anita: She’d had as many as Pauline over the years, culminating in the bottle of MSG she claimed was sent to her by Michael Ovitz because of her lethal allergy to the food additive.
The Hollywood trades gave short shrift to the intimidation story. Why? Because Busch had worked for both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, then left bad-mouthing the ethics of her former bosses. Not only didn’t it endear her to them, but it started their vendetta against her.
Then, the Washington Post repeated LAT insider talk that Busch was “the Tawana Brawley of the newsroom,” where her fish tale provoked eye-rolling.
Now-defunct alternative paper Los Angeles New Times even questioned Busch’s veracity. “Do Gambino greaseballs read West Coast papers, and even if they do, why would they give a rancid cannoli about Anita Busch? The stuff she and [co-writer Paul] Lieberman were reporting was public record, part of a federal indictment and was also covered on June 5 by both the New York Daily News and The New York Times. The Busch-Lieberman team didn’t break the story, nor any new ground.”
It didn’t help that several reports said she was staying at fancy hotels, at LAT’s expense, and taking other extravagant security precautions. The Washington Post even had to issue a correction after a Times spokesman clarified that Busch “spent only one night at a hotel, and stayed at other locations afterward.”
Damage was done to Busch’s reputation because of it all. “People acted like she was a perpetrator, and in fact she was a victim,” says one of her pals. “The publicity was devastating to her. She’s a little paranoid anyway, and it made her more paranoid.”
Busch also made enemies of almost every reporter who tried to write about her during this time by threatening libel suits and demanding top-to-bottom corrections. Then again, the high-strung journalist tended to come undone whenever anyone turned the tables and wrote about her. She was known as a wonderful friend to have, and a terrible foe; the only problem was that, somewhere during her career, the line blurred and she became increasingly combative. One of her biggest bête noires was early blogger Luke Ford, whose scathing online portrait of “rageaholic Anita” drove her to near-batty behavior.
It wasn’t always so. A Midwesterner, she drove to Los Angeles in 1990, with her sister and cat for company, and described covering Hollywood in those early days like “being thrown naked into the heart of Times Square.” From the start, she was known for her take-no-prisoners style of reporting and fierce spirit of competition on the entertainment beat. A stilted writing style and a mania for industry minutiae prevented her from successfully moving beyond the ghetto of the trade papers. When she did try gigs at Premiere and Entertainment Weekly, she didn’t last long. When she scored the L.A. Times gig it was something of a shock. She was there less than a year.
Again and again, the rap on Anita was that she didn’t play well with others, and complaints about her behavior from inside and outside the media mounted. A lot of this was just Anita being, well, Anita. Typical is this anecdote from a new employee at Variety who on his first day tried to introduce himself. “I didn’t know she was on the phone. I walk up to her and say, ‘Hi, I’m . . . ’ And just as I’m about to say my name, she starts shouting, ‘Oh yeah? Well, fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.’ Every time she says ‘Fuck you,’ she is slamming her headset on the desk. She flings it away and it breaks into 20 pieces. She puts her hand out and says, ‘Hi, I’m Anita.’”
You either liked her or you hated her. There wasn’t much room in the middle. But almost everyone respected her reporting. For a journalist, that’s an epitaph to be proud of.
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