The Chaos at The Hollywood Reporter Is Downright Trumpian
Hollywood producer and THR contributor Gavin Polone on why the upheaval at the entertainment industry’s leading trade magazine spells doom for a truly free and independent media.
In Orson Welles’s enduring masterpiece, Citizen Kane, there is a scene where Kane, played by Welles, finishes his first day as the owner of a newspaper by printing a Declaration of Principles. Notably, it includes his promise to offer his readers “the truth” and that “no special interests are going to be allowed to interfere with that truth.” Later in the film, as Kane’s ideals are overwhelmed by his monstrous ego, his wife, upset by muckraking in his paper, chastises him over breakfast, saying, “Really Charles, people will think…” But Kane, cuts her off with, “What I tell them to think.”
These scenes, which neatly bookend Kane’s fall into disrepute, came to mind last week as I read details about the resignation of The Hollywood Reporter’s editorial director, Matt Belloni. There is no one person in this real-life drama who resembles Charles Foster Kane, but just as Kane’s curt dismissal of his wife’s question illuminates the loss of his journalistic integrity, THR’s dismissal of Belloni shows a similar turn to the dark side.
According to reporting in The Daily Beast and Variety, and my own knowledge of the situation, Belloni had clashed with the magazine’s president, Deanna Brown, and the co-CEO of their parent company, Valence Media’s Modi Wiczyk. Valence is also the owner of entertainment content producers MRC and Dick Clark Productions. Allegedly, and believably to me, Wiczyk wanted to be alerted about any THR articles that were in process that reflected badly on certain celebrities with whom Valence had a relationship and might affect the parent corporation’s business interests. Further, Wiczyk wanted the magazine to promote projects in which Valence had an investment. Brown, according to Variety, also wanted Belloni to pull back on “hard-hitting” reporting on the industry.
For the prior 18 months, Valence and THR had been consulting with the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism school and research organization, whose mission is to “fortify journalism’s role in a free society.” Valence hired Poynter to provide “ethics training for the editorial brands and senior leadership.” Despite Poynter’s ongoing training, and the involvement of Kelly McBride, Poynter’s lead ethics adviser, Belloni was, apparently, given an ultimatum to conform or leave. He chose the latter.
But really, who gives a shit? This is just a trade mag for Hollywood, not The New York Times or The Washington Post, right? Uh, not right. Nobody enjoys knocking the entertainment industry more than me, but THR is not like other industry trade magazines. It is the most-read professional journal for an industry that is arguably the most public and widely known of all U.S. exports. And while Valence certainly isn’t breaking the law by pushing out one executive, and has the right to dispose of their assets as they see fit, there are several aspects of this Passion Play that must be considered:
First, like all big businesses, the entertainment industry needs to be held to account and THR’s track record of investigative reporting has been outstanding. Gary Baum, over the years, has written numerous detailed pieces on the mistreatment of animals on film sets, which has led to real change in this area; and, in my judgement, the best entertainment business article of last year was Tatiana Siegel and Kim Masters’ detailed work on the sex scandal that led to Warner Bros. Chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara’s resignation.
About seven years ago, I had lunch with Belloni and his then-boss, Janice Min, who were interested in having me write for them. At our lunch, I threw out ideas that I knew might be difficult for them, as they could instigate retaliation against the magazine. I told them I wanted to do a piece about how it seemed to be common knowledge that Harvey Weinstein was a rapist but no one had written about it, including THR. I had no evidence, other than the varied and abundant rumors and a conversation I’d had with one person, who told me long ago that Weinstein had chased her around a hotel room (though she swore me to secrecy about the event). Not much to go on, and The Weinstein Company was a big buyer of Academy Awards ads in their magazine. Still, without a second thought, they said “yes.”
In 2014, I wrote an article where I stated that there had been rumors circulating for years about a very prominent executive who is purported to have raped women, and I called on all publications who follow the entertainment industry to devote resources to finding out if these rumors were, as I suspected, true. I especially pointed the finger at THR, suggesting they needed to step up and do the work to expose this person.
Janice and Matt published the piece, which led to my receiving lame calls from several journalists who asked me to provide them with a source who will go on the record saying that Harvey raped them and then they would be happy to pursue it. But I also heard from an excellent reporter, Kate Aurthur at BuzzFeed, who, after our conversation, contacted and interviewed Rose McGowan. McGowan, in that interview, intimated, on the record, that she had been raped by someone who got “the face and body [he] deserved.” The thinness of the veil chummed the waters, leading other reporters to expose Weinstein, and, at the same time, change the culture.
Over the next six years, I never got any pushback from Matt when I pitched writing stories that would piss off important players in the business, such as when I wrote about how talent agencies’ package fees are undeserved and screw their clients, or how film and TV studios rip off profit participants on their hit shows and movies. In fact, he seemed to find fielding the calls of those offended by the truth as proof that we’d done our job.
That kind of vital self-policing will vanish without editorial independence.
Second, Valence seems to have used the Poynter Institute and Kelly McBride’s credibility to provide a façade of righteousness to their removal of Belloni. In Valence’s statement about the firing, they highlight the fact that they have worked with the Poynter Institute for 18 months to “maintain optimal editorial independence.” Given that under Matt’s leadership, The Hollywood Reporter was the most-honored and most-read entertainment trade publication (they were the only one nominated this year for a National Magazine Award), I would say that firing Belloni because he wanted to stay independent from corporate meddling was actually the opposite of maintaining “optimal editorial independence.”
If the reason for Belloni being discharged wasn’t because he would not yield to unprincipled demands, wouldn’t Poynter’s Kelly McBride be able to shed some light on what happened? She has yet to publicly chastise Valence for their actions—at the exact moment when we needed an objective point of view on the ethical questions of Belloni’s expulsion. More troubling to me is that McBride has left Poynter to join NPR, one of my (and probably your) most beloved sources of news, to be an in-house ethics watchdog. Will she be an advocate for independence in public radio, or provide cover for the powerful to gain greater control over the distribution of information, as is what apparently occurred at THR?
(McBride told The Daily Beast: “I never experienced the leadership of the company ask the journalists to ‘pull back’ on any stories, including the allegations that have surfaced. Instead, I saw an ongoing conversation about aligning the editorial strategy with the business strategy.”)
If I were running a company that owned a periodical I wanted brought to heel, so they would kill stories I wanted killed and promote products or causes I wanted promoted, I would surely follow the Valence playbook. I would find some ethics expert, like McBride and Poynter, to use like a can of Febreze, so the stench of my actions was well concealed. I will be surprised if, in the near future, we don’t see Valence or some other private equity buyer of news sources run the same game on another publication.
Finally, these events support Trump’s relentless attacks on the news media and truthful reporting. This week, after being asked about his failure to take action earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump said to CBS News White House Correspondent Paula Reid, “You know you’re a fake, your whole network, the way you cover it is fake.” The president’s repeated claims of media elites fabricating bad news and hiding good news about his administration are untrue and fall flat with the voters—unless there is proof of corporate overlords killing some stories and promoting others for their own benefit.
Anything that supports Trump’s claims of a crooked journalist class makes his assertions seem plausible and encourages his war on the truth.
I’m not saying that Modi Wiczyk and his partners have political motives—they are likely financial. If one already owns film and television production companies, buying the foremost source for news and reviews on those businesses makes financial, if not ethical, sense. Valence also owns Billboard, which is the THR of the music business, and Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks market data for the record industry. It’s possible that Valence’s next step will be to buy a company that makes, markets and/or publishes music and then to compel Billboard and SoundScan to slant their coverage in order to support the parent company’s endeavors in that business. Again, that would make financial sense, though not ethical sense.
President Trump has indicated that his favorite movie is, in fact, Citizen Kane. In an interview with Errol Morris years ago, Trump commented on the film—specifically the distance that grew between Kane and his first wife as he becomes more successful and less principled, leading to the memorable breakfast exchange. Trump said that was a situation he could “understand.” When Morris asked, “If you could give Charles Foster Kane advice, what would you say to him?” Trump responded with, “Get yourself a different woman.”
Clearly, Trump didn’t get that the movie was about the corrupting nature of power and pride. I don’t know if the team at Valence has ever seen Citizen Kane, but if they have, they certainly didn’t get it, either.