Hollywood's Gossip Showdown

Fox execs dish about why columnist Roger Friedman was really fired.

Fox News online gossip columnist Roger Friedman is an unlikely player in a drama that brings up not just NewsCorp intrigue but journalistic standards. Maybe the gods have a sense of humor.

Friedman was canned over the weekend for writing a Fox411 column in which he admitted that he had watched a pirated copy of X-Men Origins: Wolverine that had made its way onto the Internet. The film is not set to roll out in theaters until May, so the theft of a high-quality version of the film (which Fox says was old and out-of-date) is probably the most serious instance of piracy to date. For Fox, the damage could run to tens of millions; the last X-Men installment grossed $460 million worldwide.

Is it more appetizing to NewsCorp to retain a journalist who lined his pocket, as opposed to one who was merely foolish? That seems to suggest that NewsCorp's standards are different when its own ox is gored.

Friedman wrote that he liked the X-Men prequel more than The Dark Knight, so you can tell he worked for Fox, but he also said—oh, so foolishly—that he’d found online versions of other hit movies now in theaters. “It took really less than seconds to start playing it all right onto my computer,” Friedman continued. “Later tonight I may finally catch up with Paul Rudd in I Love You, Man. It’s so much easier than going out in the rain!”

Friedman’s column was posted last Thursday and vanished from the Fox News Web site within a day. But it prompted a quick response from the blogosphere. Among others, Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News wrote on Friday, “If Fox doesn't go after Roger Friedman—aren't they basically telling the entire world. . . . It's OK?” (Interestingly, Knowles thought Friedman was actually shilling for Fox. “I understand that this is damage control—the overwhelming word-of-mouth on this print is wretched. Fox needed positive word of mouth,” he wrote. That view still apparently prevails among many online X-Men fans who have posted comments on Knowles’s site and elsewhere.)

Studio sources say key executives at Fox’s film division weren’t even aware of Friedman’s column until Friday, the day after it was posted. (“It just shows you that no one reads him internally,” the source noted.) The studio issued a statement condemning Friedman for watching “a stolen and unfinished” version of the film. A short time later, corporate parent NewsCorp issued a statement that also condemned Friedman but mentioned nothing about firing him.

Meanwhile, the studio brass was complaining to Fox News chief Roger Ailes that Friedman’s conduct was egregious. Ailes is not known for playing a lot of ball with his high-level colleagues—a NewsCorp executive says he “likes to be contrarian.” He is also a particular favorite of NewsCorp Chairman Rupert Murdoch. But with Murdoch assuredly in the loop, on this issue there was no room to be contrarian. By Saturday night, NewsCorp issued another statement that Fox News had terminated Friedman. (Friedman, who has written this column for 10 years, disputed that but his fate was sealed.)

This episode seems to have fractured the film-geek world, as was evident just from comments on Knowles’s Ain’t It Cool site. Some readers expressed the view that, as one put it, Friedman “should be prosecuted the same way as anyone else” for watching the stolen film. But more numerous commenters attacked Knowles, who made his name in part by posting unauthorized reviews of films based on test screenings that had been infiltrated. “Please stop with the false indignation you hypocrite,” one wrote. Another: “You basically want to see a guy FRY for doing something this entire site is BASED on, you holyer[sic] than thou pricks. I really don't get it.”

The more troubling question is what this contretemps says about a news division that appears to have been bigfooted by an entertainment unit. Journalistically, one has to wonder where the line is drawn, particularly in the case of NewsCorp. What if the circumstances didn’t involve a lowly gossip columnist at Fox News? Suppose a full-fledged columnist at the Wall Street Journal (also owned by NewsCorp) wrote an article saying that he’d downloaded the movie, it was easy, and the studio model is in trouble?

Byron Calame, a former top editor at the Wall Street Journal and a former public editor for the New York Times, says in some circumstances a reporter at the Journal might commit an questionable act for a story but that journalist should first take appropriate steps. “You talk to your editors in advance,” he says. “Maybe you even talk to a lawyer to make sure there’s a letter in the file.” But why does Friedman get fired when, say, the New York Post’s Page Six columnist Richard Johnson did not? Johnson was accused of various transgressions a few years ago and admitted that he took cash from a businessman whose restaurant was frequently mentioned in the column. Is it more appetizing to NewsCorp to retain a journalist who lined his pocket, as opposed to one who was merely foolish? That seems to suggest that NewsCorp's standards are different when its own ox is gored.

“That’s just a swamp that I don’t want to put my foot in,” Calame says. But he adds, “Fox News has a reputation. The New York Post has a reputation. I don’t like corporate pressure to be brought to bear [on reporters] but I’d have to start out thinking that good journalism was coming under attack.”

A NewsCorp spokeswoman did not return a call about this issue. As for Fox News, it limited itself to a statement, released Monday afternoon, expressing best wishes to Friedman in his future endeavors.

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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.