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American Journalism Review
The Puppet Masters  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   October 1999

The Puppet Masters   

Continued from page one.

By Unknown

THE OLD GUARD actually had less patience for celebrities and their peccadilloes than you might think. Helen Gurley Brown, Cosmopolitan's grande dame emeritus, used to get extremely annoyed about the whole business. "Celebrities have become more crazy and over-the-top than I can ever remember," she says. "People who should know better are worshipful." Brown didn't feature stars on the cover much, partly because she found their demands too irritating. Raquel Welch, for instance, refused all the clothes prepared for her Cosmo shoot. Sharon Stone didn't like the way she looked, and since she had been given the right to approve the picture, the cover wasn't used.
These days, however, media spin has seeped past the machinations that go into producing magazine covers; now it's a skill practiced by the editors themselves. After I talked to Brown, I tried to talk to her successor at Cosmopolitan at the time, Bonnie Fuller. But Fuller wouldn't take the call without a list of questions submitted beforehand, as if she were Sharon Stone herself. Eventually I reached Cosmo's entertainment editor, Jennifer Kasle Furmaniak, who came in under the new editor, Kate White. And while Furmaniak notes that "the more other magazines give leeway--saying you can have whatever you want--the harder it is for the rest of us," she adds that this is really more of "a trend for other magazines, but fortunately not for Cosmo. A small magazine...with circulation an eighth or a quarter of ours might have problems."
Some writers have simply gotten out of the hard-hitting game altogether. "After 25 years I got tired of talking to people about what they did," says Jesse Kornbluth, who used to do dirt-digging Hollywood stories for Vanity Fair and New York magazine but now is editorial director at America Online. "I wanted people to talk to me."
As writer at large for Madison magazine, Kornbluth still does some celebrity interviews. But he has ground rules: "I only do Q&As, which kind of levels the playing field. I don't do follow-up interviews, I don't interview their friends; it's just two hours. I send everyone I interview a copy of the transcript, and then we edit for clarity. It's a simple, clean transaction--and there's no room for anyone to complain later. It's really very different from those nauseating pieces in which the writer suddenly inserts himself, while still pretending that the piece isn't really all about his own perception. This idea that the star should participate in his own destruction is just so ridiculous."
At the other end of the scale is Toby Young, co-founder of the witty and bitchy Modern Review in London, who lately has been deconstructing his misadventures in the world of celebrity journalism for the New York Press (where I also have a column). Graydon Carter, the Vanity Fair editor in chief and well-known Anglophile, brought Young over to work at the mother ship of celebrity cover stories in the mid-'90s. But Young couldn't seem to learn the rules of the game. When he was assigned to interview Nathan Lane, he asked the actor first if he was Jewish, and then if he was gay, at which point the publicist stepped in and declared the interview over.
Afterward, Young recalls, Carter summoned him to his office. "Toby," Carter sighed, "You can't ask Hollywood celebrities whether they're Jewish or gay. Just assume they're both Jewish and gay, OK?"
Young was finally fired after a drunken dispute over a restaurant bill landed him on the New York Post's Page Six, which the long-suffering Carter decided wasn't good publicity for Vanity Fair. Nor were the antics that didn't get reported, such as Young cornering Mel Gibson at the Vanity Fair Oscars party--this was when the actor-director had swept the Oscars for "Braveheart," his film about the Scottish national hero--and asking why Gibson had such a grudge against the English.
"Suddenly I felt this tug on my collar," Young told me. "It was Graydon yanking me back, hissing, `Toby! Stop bothering the celebrities!' "
A.J. Benza, who was a gossip columnist for the New York Daily News before moving to Los Angeles last year to host E!'s "Mysteries and Scandals" show, has another point of view. "I always got along with publicists; I dated a lot of them--I'm not gonna lie," he says. "But what really gets me sick is these publicists dropping dimes on the people they work for.
"Say you're a publicist," he continues. "Maybe you've got an actress as a client and some shoe store--I'm just using this as an example of how it works, because I've been out of it for a couple of years. So you call up asking me to do something on this shoe store. I say, `I don't wanna do something on some stupid shoe store, baby, what else ya got?' Oh, the actress is anorexic. OK, so I agree to mention the shoe store if I can get the anorexia story."
Now that Benza is in Hollywood and working occasionally as an actor, he sees the same publicists who used to call him with dirt, but from the other side of the fence. When young actors tell him they've just hired a publicist, he typically says only: "Uh-huh, that's great. They sure use the phone a lot."

MOST PUBLICISTS CONTACTED for this story didn't call back, which is understandable. But eventually I had pleasant and enlightening chats about how things seem from the PR side with three veterans in the field.
Henri Bollinger is president and a founding member of EPPS, the 6-year-old Entertainment Publicists Professional Society, which has about 220 members. He's also a past president of the Publicists Guild, and personally represents mostly corporate entertainment clients, like the lobbying group Entertainment Industries Council. He says that the two major issues publicists are concerned about these days are controlling access to clients and placement of clients.
"The problem is a lot of publications flat out don't discuss publicity deals," Bollinger says. "And then we find out deals were made" with other stars. It all depends, of course, on how badly the publication wants someone. "But there are no secrets in this industry," he notes, "and certainly no secrets among publicists. One agency that always gets criticized is PMK. Well, PMK asks nothing others don't ask. But PMK more often gets their way. And if they'd behaved in all the ways they'd been accused of having behaved, they'd be out of business by now.
"The hottest button in the industry right now is placement," he continues, "because publications will not often be interested in second-tier stars. To put it in perspective, in Los Angeles alone there are some 3,000 entertainment publicists. So you have this vast army out there trying to get some space. That's the reason you have a lot of negotiating going on, when you have all these publicists with a few hot clients and maybe 20 other clients each who are not so hot. Magazine editors hate it with a passion, but they have to deal with reality."
Then there is the matter of how publicists are seen (and often treated) by the media--as irritating middlemen who get in the way of the writer and his subject. "TV Guide even went so far as to say that no publicist could be present at the interview," notes Bollinger. "That lasted maybe three weeks at the most. These policies were brought up at a Publicists Guild meeting, and word spread we were not to accept these conditions. It belittles you."
Annett Wolf of Wolf-Kasteler is celebrating her company's 10th anniversary this year. She and Lisa Kasteler run something of a boutique business, with just 50 clients but some very sought-after ones, including Nicolas Cage, Meg Ryan, Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Jenna Elfman, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. Despite her company's somewhat fearsome reputation, she projects a friendly and relaxed persona over the phone.
"Our job description was created to be helpful," she says, laughing, "and I do take pride in trying to adhere to that. I really do want people to trust me, as much as they can, given my job description." But, she adds, she has some qualms about how the entertainment media work now. "I don't like that every person now knows how a movie is put together. The suspension of disbelief is eroded. It takes away from the magic of going to the movies." Thus her reluctance to let writers hang around on the set and ask any question that occurs to them.
"Actors are not running for public office," she points out. "They don't owe the public every detail about their personal lives. I don't go in saying, `Don't ask about that,' because, A, I know it pisses off the journalists more than anything, and, B, they kind of become like a dog with a bone with it. The only thing I do sometimes is step in and say, `Please don't answer that question if it makes you uncomfortable.' Because the world has changed so much, especially in the past year, there really isn't anything they won't ask now.
"I have to tell you, I am not that confrontational. The only time I get very forceful is with some hideous story, reported by some drunk, about something that supposedly happened in some bar. It might start off in the tabs, but it ends up in USA Today, or Morning Report, or Entertainment Weekly. That's changed in the past couple of years."

WHAT'S ALSO CHANGED is the increased use of celebrities to sell glossy magazines. "In order to get them, the magazines have to be fairly nice about it. It's as simple as that," Wolf says. "And, as you can see, they are willing to present these actors in a very friendly way. You know, these are people who have had sometimes very difficult lives, and the media presents them as these big, beautiful, exotic flowers." But there's a downside to all this, even from the PR side.
"Really talented people get overlooked now, because the turnover is so much bigger and so much faster," Wolf says. "You can barely remember who was famous three years ago. It wasn't that way in the early '90s." Which is why she sometimes plays hardball with placement involving inside pieces, saying, "OK, then, who's going to be on the cover and is not going to be completely insulting to the talent of my client? If it's some young adorable bunny who's done a film and a half, then we'll do TV instead, because a lot of people watch it, and they'll show a clip."
Stan Rosenfield has been in the public relations business for 35 years, 24 as head of his own company. His clients include Robert DeNiro, Danny DeVito, John Goodman, Will Smith, George Clooney, Joan Lunden and Christian Slater. He has been around long enough that his recollections of how public relations used to be--when the memory of Walter Winchell still cast a shadow on the land--offer a colorful glimpse of a vanished world.
"In the '60s and parts of the '70s, PR firms used to be able to make a living just representing actors who made their living just doing guest shots on TV," Rosenfield says. "You could easily get trade coverage in the industry papers of these actors. We quote unquote `planted the column.' " Rosenfield started out working for legendary publicist Jay Bernstein. "I was copy chief--I wrote up and planted five to seven items per week. No one does that anymore. And you'd give them an outside item [a piece of news not on a client] for every three planted ones. Here we called them `outside items'; on the East Coast they called them `freebies.'
"It used to be more creative," he continues. "About 25 years ago, there was an old flack by the name of Dave Epstein, who went overboard with PR on his client." The trades in those days were filled with announcements of fictitious, European-based producers who had just hired someone's client. Epstein, it was felt, carried this too far. The trades struck back. "So one day on page one, one of the trades ran an obit: Epstein's favorite phony producer had been killed in a car crash. But Epstein was undeterred. He came up with the producer's brother."
Now, of course, the emphasis has shifted from old-fashioned hijinks in the trades and gossip columns to dead-serious maneuvering for glossy magazine celebrity covers. "Well, we call it `fine tuning,' or `protecting one's position,' " Rosenfield remarks, "but if you want to call them `celebrity covers,' that's fine with me. Anyway, unless you can get a guarantee of a cover, you can really hurt a client. To go from the cover to the inside...well, there are a lot of gray areas. Or `amber lights' as I call them.' " One of those amber lights might be the touchy area of approving the writer assigned to do the story.
"Yeah, absolutely we're more careful about looking at that," Rosenfield says. "I always say this: Clients hire us as much for our judgment as for our ability to execute a plan. Sometimes you just don't have the leverage, and sometimes there are times when you horse trade. A good PR person is more than someone who comes to the phone and says, `Yes, we'll do this' or `No, we won't.' "
Still, even a publicist can get irritated with that immediate, unthinking "No!" publicists these days are known for. "I don't think they're in it for the long haul," he says of this crowd. "These people who just give the emphatic, quick `No,' you better do it with the blessing of your client." One time Rosenfield asked another publicist if his client would do something for a charity Rosenfield was involved with. "He said, `No,' and I said, `Why don't you do this? Because I know it's his favorite charity. Why don't you ask him? Before I ask someone on the board to ask him.'
"And you have to keep that in mind, when you say no to a journalist," he adds. "Sometimes the journalist knows other people in the client's life." But Rosenfield was careful to give the publicist he'd approached for his charity an opportunity to reconsider. "Despite that line in `Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,' there are rules to a knife fight," he says.
And what does Rosenfield think of the media now? He has three big irritations: privacy issues, inaccuracy and negativity. "Freedom of the press doesn't mean you have to be vitriolic," he points out. "It is why they invented the word `symbiotic.' But you know, the magazines, in their rush to be super-competitive, gave the control to us. Any power, eventually we're going to lose it. But right now we've got it."



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