Loose Lips  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October 2001

Loose Lips   

Offensive comments in a magazine interview stir up a variety of woes for Hollywood’s editor-player.

By Catherine Seipp
Catherine Seipp is a Los Angeles-based writer and a longtime observer of the local media scene.     


Three days after Peter Bart was temporarily suspended as editor in chief of Variety for his ill-advised comments to a magazine reporter, one of his many enemies sent me a parody of Bart's infamous Variety column. To anyone familiar with Bart's scolding open letters to various Hollywood honchos, the takeoff's tone was dead-on accurate, complete with the constant first-name-dropping. An excerpt:

MEMO TO: Peter Bart
FR: Peter Bart
Well, Peter, you've really done it this time, Peter. You've been a suit, you've been a seer and now you're out on your ear.... Like Lear on the heath, you are howling in the gale, Peter. To quote the Bard: "Blow wind, Peter, and crack your cheeks. Rage, Peter; howl, Peter".... And for the record, why should you thank Shakespeare? Shakespeare should thank you, Peter. You made him, Peter.

Variety's parent company, Cahners Business Information, a division of Dutch publishing giant Reed Elsevier, suspended Bart on August 17 after the cover story in the September Los Angeles Magazine suggested the editor's values might be "inconsistent" with the company's values. "I'm not hiring any more fags because they get sick and die," Bart was quoted as saying. He also insultingly compared "people they call 'niggers'--who are ghetto blacks" with "better-educated, wealthy black people." Los Angeles Magazine senior writer Amy Wallace also confronted Bart with a movie script he'd been trying to sell under his wife's name, a conflict for the editor of Hollywood's most powerful trade paper.

But Bart, whose trickster survival skills are beginning to seem almost folkloric, is having the last laugh. On September 10 he returned to his Variety post. Still, coming just three months after Variety's rival trade paper, the Hollywood Reporter, suspended its veteran party columnist George Christy for his own conflict-of-interest issues (see "Hollywood Confidential," July/August), the Bart affair suggests a meltdown of Hollywood's tit-for-tat, favor-bank economy.

Actually, I suspect things will return pretty much to normal as soon as the heat is off. In any case, there's a difference between the Bart and Christy situations, which in turn illustrates the cultural differences between Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.

Christy was notorious for demanding limo transportation and other perks from publicists in return for coverage. His most serious gaffe was littering his column with fawning mentions of producer friends in exchange for bit parts in movies, qualifying him for Screen Actors Guild health and pension benefits--except that SAG, which is investigating Christy for fraud, alleges that he didn't even always appear in these parts. (Christy has denied doing anything improper.)

But Christy was hardly in the same league as Bart. Bart is a major mover-and-shaker who's been accused of using his Variety position to reward friends and punish enemies ever since taking the post a dozen years ago. On the other hand, what did anyone really expect? Before arriving at Variety in 1989, Bart had been blurring the boundaries between entertainment journalism and Hollywood for years.

He began his career as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, where a flattering profile of producer Robert Evans led to a job as Evans' second-in-command. By the time he took over Variety, Bart had spent some 20 years at the studios. And it should be noted that although his years at Paramount and MGM may have made him beholden to sources, they also gave him an insider's grasp of the industry sorely lacking in most Hollywood coverage.

Part of the glee that's greeted Bart's comeuppance, though, is because he's seen as tarnishing an institution that for more than 80 years was surprisingly incorruptible. An early low point of his reign was the 1992 "Patriot Games" embarrassment, in which Bart apologized to Paramount for his own reviewer's pan of the film. As one studio publicist remarked to me at the time about Bart's kowtowing, "he couldn't have handled it worse if he'd hired a consultant."

Bart's penchant for dissembling is legendary, a legend he embellished in his September column in GQ, which recalled how he used to keep a file called "Lies" (just to keep some order to the tangled web) when he was a studio executive. The column concludes: "You've got to keep your hyperbole straight if you're going to be a career sociopath. I ultimately decided not to become one. I went back to being a journalist, and as we all know, journalists always are paragons of candor and veracity. Well, let me give that lie some more thought."

"You want to know the difference between Variety and the Hollywood Reporter?" Army Archerd once said. "Variety has me." With all due respect to Variety's most famous columnist, though, there's more to it than that.

The Hollywood Reporter was founded in 1930 (three years before the weekly Variety of New York began its daily Hollywood paper) by Billy Wilkerson, who owned several Sunset Strip nightclubs frequented by movie stars, most memorably the Trocadero. So even in the advertiser-friendly world of the trade press, the relationship between the Reporter and its subjects was remarkably cozy, restaurateurs not normally being known for hard-hitting reportage about their patrons. The Reporter is now owned by BPI Communications, a division of another huge Dutch publishing company, VNU, and under former Editor Anita Busch (who quit in the wake of the George Christy fiasco and has signed a contract to write a column for Premiere) it became much more respected.

Variety, on the other hand, was founded in a fit of editorial independence. Sime Silverman started the trade in 1905 after he lost his job at the old New York Morning Telegraph; Silverman, who was a reviewer, was fired after he panned a comedy that then canceled its ads. For more than 80 years, until the Silverman family sold their legacy to Cahners, Variety was famously cheeky and remarkably independent for a trade journal. After Bart arrived, the paper became noticeably more pandering and driven by cronyism.

Almost four years before Busch quit as editor of the Hollywood Reporter, she had left her film editor's job at Variety in part, she told me at the time, because she didn't like how Bart had handled certain stories. One of several examples she cited involved producer Arnon Milchan, an old friend of Bart's who was negotiating to leave Warner Brothers for Fox. Busch found out that Warners had offered Milchan $100 million to stay. When she saw her story in the paper, the figure had been upped to $130 million. (Bart has long been notorious for inserting information, especially anonymous quotes, into his reporters' stories without telling them.) Evidently, the Milchan incident happened because Bart wanted to help his friend get a better deal at Fox.

Bart the former studio mogul always made clear just how superior he felt to Hollywood Reporter Publisher Robert J. Dowling, a former ad salesman who'd worked his way up through trade journals like American Druggist and Menswear Magazine. When a publicist gave a studio story to the Hollywood Reporter instead of Variety a few years ago, Bart called up, apoplectic. "They're not journalists, they're not journalists!" he sputtered, his voice rising. "They're not journalists at all !"

The inimitable Variety-speak (of which the famous STIX NIX HICK PIX headline, about how farm dramas don't play even in Peoria, is the best-known example) was toned down under Bart. Instead, readers got Bart's much loathed--and, it should be said, widely read--open letters to various people in the entertainment industry. But for Bart to scold Warren Beatty and Robert Redford for being egomaniacs is hardly daring or even incorrect, just kind of funny, considering the source. The theme of Bart's columns is generally a twist on screenwriter William Goldman's famous edict that no one knows anything in Hollywood. Bart's thesis is usually that no one knows anything--except Peter Bart.

A few years ago, when Disney's Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz parted ways, Bart pontificated in print that, rumors to the contrary, the two Mikes were like that. When it turned out this was not so, he wrote another Peter Bart Explains It All For You column, with no mention of the previous, erroneous one written just two weeks earlier.

Under Bart, Variety also once ran a story about a studio president who was on the way out. Nothing wrong with that: Waking up and finding you've lost your job by reading Variety is something of a Hollywood tradition. Except that, according to Busch, Bart told the reporter on the story to refrain from calling the executive for a comment before the story ran. Apparently, Bart knew the guy was about to be fired but had promised not to let on.

It should be noted that some Hollywood observers take all this with several grains of salt. "The concept that the editor of a trade publication has a conflict of interest if he's friendly with studio chiefs and super-agents," wrote veteran television writer-producer Bob Shayne in the Los Angeles Times on August 27, "and thus can call them up on the phone and check out stories with them, is ludicrous. That's what they hired him to do!" Even Dan Cox, who was fired by Variety for leaking information to Inside.com, has come to his former boss' defense. "Yes, he has said some unprintable things and even worse, done some unacceptable things," Cox said on the letters page of Jim Romenesko's MediaNews Web site (poynter.org/medianews). "But every great editor has. And Peter, for better or worse, is pretty good at his job."

The cynical view might have been that Cahners jumped rather quickly at the notion of getting rid of a 69-year-old editor with a $500,000 annual salary. But Bart's fall was merely temporary. His Cahners-decreed penance included suspension without pay for three weeks and God knows how many hours of diversity training.

Cahners says its investigation did not substantiate allegations that Bart sold a movie script while running the newspaper. But the company did conclude that his actions "created the appearance of a conflict of interest," and it ordered the paper to strengthen its editorial policies.

Ultimately, the Bart saga is a cautionary tale about the line colorful characters should not cross--and that line seems to be drawn pretty clearly around the whole territory of embarrassing your corporate bosses with colorful quotes in lengthy magazine stories.

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