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RECORD SCRATCH

Billboard Chief Squashed Sexual-Harassment Stories About His Record Exec Pal

Hollywood Reporter-Billboard Media Group President John Amato hindered reporting of sexual-harassment allegations against his friend Charlie Walk, sources told The Daily Beast.

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Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

John Amato, president of Hollywood Reporter-Billboard Media Group—the parent company of The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard, Spin, Stereogum, and Vibe—has never been shy about his friendship with Republic Records’ ex-president Charlie Walk.

The duo—who, two sources said, described each other as “brothers from another mother”—have been spotted together at events in New York and Los Angeles for over a decade. A quick Google search turns up photos of the two partying together in the Hamptons as early as 2008. They sat next to each other at industry lunches like Billboard’s Women in Music. Their families were friends, and in early January, Amato presented Republic with a Hot 100 Label Award.

For years, Walk’s relationship with the Billboard Media Group president didn’t present much of an issue for the company’s newsrooms.

But that was before the executive was accused of serial sexual harassment by more than half a dozen women. In several blog posts and a Rolling Stone investigative story, the women said that throughout his time as an executive at Columbia Records as the president of Republic group, Walk made numerous inappropriate and unwanted advances on younger women.

The fate of the former Republic chief was one of the biggest stories in the music industry for weeks.

But according to conversations with a half-dozen high-level sources who spoke with The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, Amato worked to derail at least three stories about Walk’s alleged misdeeds from being published at his own outlets.

Over the course of several weeks, sources said, Amato personally insisted that he review several stories about Walk. None of those articles—which were finished and featured extensive original reporting—ever ran.

Another story aggregating allegations against Walk was also quietly taken down by Billboard several days after it was published online. No explanation was given.

It's not smart to tell reporters, many of whom are female, what is valuable to report and not to report in #metoo, especially when you're not a journalist yourself, and you're just pretending to be one to keep your friends happy.
Billboard staffer

Five people familiar with the editorial process surrounding the pieces told The Daily Beast that the company’s top editorial staff, including the leads at each of the media group’s sites, all supported and advocated for the stories to be published.

Staffers placed the blame solely on Amato, believing he was attempting to slow-roll the editorial process.

“It’s a pretty brazen act of mansplaining to decide what’s newsworthy and what’s not,” one staffer familiar with the process said.

“It’s not smart to tell reporters, many of whom are female, what is valuable to report and not to report in #metoo, especially when you’re not a journalist yourself, and you’re just pretending to be one to keep your friends happy.”

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According to five knowledgeable sources across the company, Amato was rarely involved in editorial decisions at any of the publications he oversaw, aside from the occasional Billboard cover story.

And he had not taken much interest in the media group’s previous stories about sexual harassment.

In January, Billboard covered and broke stories about the fallout from misconduct allegations against former Warner Music Group Executive Vice President Jeff Fenster. Spin published a lengthy investigation with seven accusations of harassment against the guitarist of the popular indie-pop band Real Estate, as well as a separate investigation into allegations of misconduct against influential Goldenvoice concert promoter Sean Carlson.

Other knowledgeable individuals at The Hollywood Reporter told The Daily Beast that Amato had never been very involved in THR’s previous reporting on claims of harassment by some of the biggest figures in the entertainment industry—including ousted Amazon executive Roy Price and actors Dustin Hoffman and Jeffrey Tambor.

In the weeks after several women accused Walk of harassment in late January, reporters at Spin and Billboard were among those at several news outlets who heard that other women said they had experienced harassment from the record executive.

On Friday, Jan. 29, Billboard scored an interview with music manager Harvey Leeds, who told the publication that while Walk claimed no human-resources complaints had been filed against him during his time at Columbia Music, Leeds had filed two complaints against Walk to Sony, Columbia’s parent company. Leeds confirmed to The Daily Beast that such an interview had taken place.

According to two sources, a Billboard reporter filed a story about the Leeds conversation. But the publication’s upper management, including Amato, sat on it for several days due to concerns from the company’s legal team. One insider told The Daily Beast that over that weekend, Amato had suggested a pause on Walk stories (although several items about him were published in the interim on Billboard).

After The New York Times broke the same news about Leeds on Sunday, the publication did not publish its own version of the story. Instead, word trickled down to editorial staff that the interview had been shelved and would not be published.

Billboard inexplicably removed a story from its site that was critical of Walk’s behavior but contained no new original reporting.

In another instance, just days later, Billboard inexplicably removed a story from its site that was critical of Walk’s behavior but contained no new original reporting. The post, written by Colin Stutz, aggregated an item containing new allegations against Walk shared in the widely read industry newsletter The Lefsetz Letter. The story was posted on Jan. 31, and was live on the site until sometime after Feb. 5, which is the last time the internet-archiving service The Wayback Machine captured a version of the article.

The decision to take the story down went unmentioned in the newsroom, and was kept between an extremely small group of staff at the top of the company, to the point that many editorial employees were unaware that the article had been taken down.

In two other separate instances, sources said, Amato became directly involved in processes that prevented their publishing.

Spin had a piece with original reporting ready to go by the first week of February, including new accusations against Walk from anonymous accusers. The piece was reviewed by top editors at the publication and editorial staffers were under the impression that the story had been cleared by the legal team that oversees all potentially controversial, heavily reported stories at The Hollywood Reporter.

Staff knew there was a time crunch, as several reporters had heard that other publications were chasing similar stories about Walk’s alleged harassment, and believed the story would be published.

But when Amato personally reviewed it, he was unconvinced that it was prepared to be published, halting the story’s publication for two weeks. Two people familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast that Amato did not express outward concern about Spin or Billboard being scooped by competitors.

When Rolling Stone broke an extensive story on Feb. 22 about Walk’s harassment of women, Spin did not push to publish its own story. Instead, the publication aggregated Rolling Stone’s piece, and did not include its own original reporting—which has not yet been published.

Several weeks later, a lengthy Billboard profile of Walk was given similar treatment.

As part of a March magazine edition, the publication planned to run a retrospective of Walk, with an exploration of his background and his significance to the music industry. One person familiar with the story’s background told The Daily Beast that staff were frustrated that previous stories about Walk had been thwarted, and wanted to have a prominent story about the executive on the company’s map.

The feature, according to two sources, included original reporting but no new accusations of harassment against Walk, and was cleared by the company’s legal review several days before it was set to be sent to be printed.

But Amato, who wanted to personally review the piece, never approved it. The profile, too, was shelved, and has never run.

On Feb. 5, Amato called a meeting between the company’s legal counsel and top editors across all of the music sites—a rare occurrence—to discuss reporting on sexual misconduct. At the meeting, sources said, he asked the editors to review a set of editorial guidelines about how to report on stories about harassment, saying that going forward, the sites would need to meet the guidelines before publishing any original stories about harassment.

According to two insider sources, the impression among staff was that Amato was uncomfortable with Billboard publishing potentially complicated #MeToo stories about the music business. In conversations with site leaders, Amato reminded editors that Billboard was a trade publication that covered the business of music. According to one source, the company president privately speculated to associates about where to draw the line with stories about harassment.

No one who spoke to The Daily Beast could recall the president of the company acknowledging or disclosing his personal relationship with Walk during the reporting process.

The company president’s intervention in the stories did not go unnoticed in the newsroom; his closeness with Walk has been well-known among staff for years.

But the company president’s intervention in the stories did not go unnoticed in the newsroom; his closeness with Walk has been well-known among staff for years.

Multiple sources inside the company said Amato’s handling of the Walk stories has raised questions about whether the company is truly committed to reporting difficult stories despite potential conflicts of interest for an industry-centric publication.

Earlier this year, Billboard-Hollywood Reporter Media Group announced a merger with Dick Clark Productions and MRC. During several all-staff meeting on the same day, management adamantly emphasized that the new company structure would not create conflicts of interest.

While the company refused to discuss specifics on the record, it maintained that Amato’s involvement was not out of the ordinary.

As this story was being reported, the company’s general counsel called The Daily Beast to deny the accuracy of the story.

And in a statement to The Daily Beast, a spokesperson declined to answer detailed questions about why the stories were scrapped or why one was deleted altogether.

“As a media publisher, we do not comment on the details of editorial decisions,” the spokesperson said. “We covered this story thoroughly, publishing 23 reports in less than two months across Billboard, Spin, and Hollywood Reporter.”