Before The Hollywood Reporter’s top editor resigned, he was told by his bosses: Tiptoe around Jennifer Lopez, lay off Louise Linton, stop talking so much about box office “bombs,” and ease up on the “negative coverage of the industry.”
According to multiple company sources and documents reviewed by The Daily Beast, THR editorial director Matthew Belloni’s departure on Monday came after high-level clashes with the heads of the magazine’s parent company, Valence Media, and partner company MRC. Company higher-ups attempted to kill stories, influence the tone of coverage, and discourage negative reporting on “sensitive” individuals and companies.
Belloni declined to speak, and referred The Daily Beast to Valence. But in an email to staff on Monday obtained by The Daily Beast, he seemed to allude to friction between himself and the company’s leadership.
“Today’s announcement is the result of conversations I’ve had for months with Modi [Wiczyk, one of Valence’s CEOs] about the direction at THR,” he wrote. “Some may want to read into that, but I’ll just say that well-meaning, diligent, ambitious people can disagree about the fundamental priorities and strategies. That’s what happened here, and my exit is 100% amicable.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a Valence spokesperson said the company was “committed to our publications and to journalistic integrity.
“We are, and have been for the past 18 months, in the process of working with the Poynter Institute to follow modern best practices and maintain optimal editorial independence,” the spokesperson said. “We have implemented many of Poynter’s recommended changes and recently opened up the discussion beyond our leadership teams to all editorial staff.”
In 2018, Billboard/THR merged with television producer Dick Clark productions and film and TV studio Media Rights Capital, forming Valence Media. In a statement at the time, Valence CEOs Asif Satchu and Modi Wiczyk emphasized that Billboard/THR would remain editorially independent.
“As we seek to strengthen THR-BB’s leadership position in this space, we will continue to protect the independence and objectivity of our journalists," they said in a statement.
But over the past year, company higher-ups have attempted to do just the opposite.
The Daily Beast reviewed emails between Belloni and MRC’s president Deanna Brown, who reports directly to Satchu and Wiczyk, that have circulated among some top staff. Those messages highlight the parent company’s push to squash negative stories.
In one email between the two reviewed by The Daily Beast, Brown complained about THR’s “ongoing negative coverage of the industry vs. educational or celebratory (when it makes sense).” She singled out several stories, including a decade-end list that described movies as “epic bombs.”
“This isn’t about not covering the 'misses' in the industry and educating the world as to why things weren't successful,” Brown said. “But the glib sort of ongoing negativity here is exhausting and not part of our strategy.”
In the same email, she also said the publication’s negative coverage had overshadowed an event the publication had with actress Reese Witherspoon.
“We have our big event (WIE) and a celebration of Reese and its clouded by the other negative coverage above (not sure you can see the coverage that took away from a great moment for Reese),” Brown said.
On another occasion, Brown complained to Belloni about the tone of a piece about Jennifer Lopez signing a new contract with the brand Guess, saying that she and the top editor “need to get on the same page” about coverage.
In that email to Belloni, she questioned why the author had included a line about sexual harassment allegations against Guess cofounder Paul Marciano, and reminded the top editor that MRC did business with Lopez.
“There's no real new reporting or expertise here,” Brown said. “How does this serve the industry, talent, or the company. You likely or the industry held Marciano accountable a year and half ago (truth to power).”
She continued: “We had an agreement that you would alert me to anything controversial - and this registers (as much by the headline) as in the multiple touch points to JLO in the company,” she said.
Occasionally, the company went even further, attempting to kill stories outright.
According to multiple sources, MRC attempted to kill a juicy story by veteran reporter Kim Masters about Louise Linton, the actress married to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. According to several sources, after learning of the story, someone close to Linton complained to higher ups at Valence, who appealed to THR to kill the story. The publication ultimately published the piece. Masters did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A representative for Linton said she and her team dealt exclusively with THR, and did not appeal to Valence higher-ups.
Multiple sources also confirmed that Wiczyk and Satchu sought to develop a list of people and companies that THR should consider “sensitive” when reporting on, a request that was first reported on Monday by Variety.
Staffers said Wiczyk, the Valence executive who oversees The Hollywood Reporter, gave lip service at least to the concept of journalistic ethics and independence in instances when Belloni argued that certain stories not be interfered with or killed. But this isn’t the first time Valence higher-ups have attempted to influence and curtail coverage of powerful entertainment industry higher-ups.
In 2018, The Daily Beast reported that former CEO John Amato shelved several stories about former record executive Charlie Walk, a close friend and occasional business partner. Amato eventually exited the company following accusations of misconduct, prompting Valence to hire a media ethicist from the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank, to ensure a clear separation between the company’s business and editorial departments.
THR staffers, several of whom spoke to The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, began to catch wind of a rift between the company and its management in recent weeks. On an all-staff call last month with that media ethicist, Belloni and Kim Masters alluded to pressure from the parent company to influence stories, including an exclusive THR wrote about the sequel to Rian Johnson’s whodunit Knives Out. According to staff on the call, an MRC film executive had complained about the news leaking out early to THR “before [the studio] were ready.”
—with additional reporting by Lloyd Grove and Lachlan Cartwright