03.23.09

Hollywood's Most Threatening Blog

Why Variety and the Los Angeles Times have so much to lose in their battle to bring down Deadline Hollywood Daily.

Nikki Finke, who runs Deadline Hollywood Daily, has broken some controversial stories in Hollywood, so it’s not surprising to see her become one herself. This weekend, Variety launched an extraordinary three-part attack that was ostensibly aimed at blogging in general but clearly was aimed at one influential online journalist in particular.

The trade publication’s weekend package included a column by Variety editor Peter Bart under the headline “ Hollywood’s Blog Smog” that bemoans the fact that blogs are sometimes used as weapons of intimidation by players in the industry who know how to manipulate them. Then there was a bylined article that seemed to be little more than an extension of Bart’s editorial; the headline—“ Tempest of the `Toldja!’ Journalists"—clearly aimed at Finke, because a screaming “TOLDJA!!” in her headlines is one of her signatures. And Finke was blasted in a piece from columnist Michael Fleming (“ How I Got Blogged Down”) about the difficulty of maintaining journalistic standards given the overheated online competition.

It’s not that Finke doesn’t have her own favorites—but that hardly means Peter Bart is in a position to call names.

There may be a great deal of validity in Variety’s discussion of blogging in general and Finke in particular. But she is largely inoculated by the simple phrase, “consider the source.” Variety’s Bart—who obviously ordered up this assault—would be in a far better position if he were not guilty of two cardinal sins: transparently carrying the studios’ water on many occasions and ceding so much of the turf of real news coverage that there was plenty of soil in which a blogger with Finke’s news chops and outsized personality could take root.

Finke is truly a larger-than-life figure in Hollywood, a place thickly populated with big personalities. The former debutante is much discussed but rarely seen; only a couple of photos of her are floating around the Internet, the most recent of which, Finke claims, is from 2006. She is accused of being many unpleasant things: shrill, vindictive, self-promoting, and more. But what can’t be disputed is that she has broken some important news, notably NBC-Universal’s hiring of Ben Silverman to run the network and more recently, the fact that Peter Chernin was leaving his job as Rupert Murdoch’s No. 2 man at News Corp.

Thanks in part to a loyal cadre of sources and to the enormous vacuum she filled during the writers’ strike, Finke’s column has become a must-read in Hollywood. And clearly, Variety’s Bart cannot take it anymore. But the most serious allegation in the whole Variety takedown came from columnist Fleming. He briefly spanked Time Out! New York and Perez Hilton, among others, for reporting Natasha Richardson’s death before it had occurred. But he reserved his sharpest barbs for Finke.

“On Jan. 29, 2008, at 2:33 p.m., Nikki Finke on her Deadline Hollywood site stated that ICM was beset with troubles and that Jeff Berg was leaving. A little later, that item disappeared. A new post materialized with the same time stamp, and this lead: ‘Let me knock down that rumor making the rounds that Jeff Berg is supposedly leaving ICM on April 15th ...’ Finke, Fleming observed, was ‘in the unenviable position of debunking a rumor that she had started.’”

He also suggested that her writers’ strike coverage was filled with “rah-rah pro-union posts,” which belatedly counters Finke’s assertion that Variety was a shill for the studios.

Asked about the allegations about the Berg post and about the Variety onslaught generally, Finke untypically declined to comment. No doubt she’ll have her say and then some on her website, probably by the time you’re reading this.

And she may have a lot to work with. Bart has been editor of Variety for a long time—he’s in his late seventies. I recounted as long ago as 1996 the ways in which he carried water for his friend (and television co-host) Peter Guber during the years when Guber ran Sony Pictures into the ground. (Variety's relentlessly upbeat spin on Sony’s financial failures is detailed in Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood, the book that I co-wrote with Nancy Griffin.) There was more material questioning Bart’s objectivity—as well as alleged sexism and racism—in a blockbuster 2001 article by Amy Wallace in Los Angeles magazine.

It’s not that Finke doesn’t have her own favorites—many in Hollywood complain that she indeed has several, some in very high places, who influence her coverage. But that hardly means Bart is in a position to call names.

The fact is Variety—like the Los Angeles Times (which has also taken an increasing number of shots at Finke lately)—too often lags behind the news. How is it possible, to pick just two easy examples, that both well-staffed institutions missed the Silverman-to-NBC story and the Chernin-is-out story? Perhaps, as they claim, they’re handicapped by their desire to verify information before slapping it up on the web. But maintaining a high journalistic standard hardly explains the type of anemic coverage too-often found, or not found, on the pages of either Variety or the Times. Bart’s attack—indeed the whole whiny Variety package—sounds too much like the enraged cry of an old-media dinosaur trying to defend what’s left of its terrain.

Whatever Finke may have to say about Variety, Bart did a lot to damage himself in one of the closing paragraphs of his column. He allows that he admires Finke’s energy and dedication while bemoaning “her dissing of fellow news gatherers, her personal vendettas and her use of intimidation.” And then he continues: “She once attended Miss Hewitt's classes in New York, which taught upscale girls how to be warm and cuddly. I'd like her to take a warm-and-cuddly refresher course.”

If that line doesn’t show how profoundly Bart just doesn’t get it, it’s hard to imagine what would.

Kim Masters is the host of The Business , public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.