HBO Tells 'Sopranos' Publicist To Fuggedaboudit

Conservative, gifted, and black: too different for 'diversity'?

Sunday night, instead of attending the Emmys in Los Angeles, Frances Edwards sat at home in New Jersey watching the glittery ceremony on television. She was shocked when James Gandolfini, a/k/a Tony Soprano, lost the Best Actor award to Dennis Franz. She was thrilled when Edie Falco, who plays Tony's long-suffering wife, Carmela, was named Best Drama Actress. But mostly she was sad that she couldn't attend the Emmys in person to show her support for The Sopranos— a show she helped put on the media map.

Until last month, Edwards was the widely liked publicist for the critically acclaimed series about the Mafia. On August 4, in the wake of news that The Sopranoshad garnered 16 Emmy nominations, her bosses at HBO removed her from the show. Two days later, she was suspended from the network, ordered not to contact anybody connected with the company, and put under investigation for ethical misconduct.

The GOP activist— who has written for The Wall Street Journaland was featured in The Economistas an example of the upcoming generation of black Republicans— now says she's the victim of corporate communism. HBO suspended her, the axed publicist claims, because she's a black conservative who doesn't conform to the one-size-fits-all affirmative action mold. Edwards says she did her job too well for the white, liberal entertainment executives who run the channel and think minorities can succeed only with their help and guidance. "I'm the victim of the suffocating political correctness that has taken hold in some corporations today," says Edwards, who was born in Grenada but grew up in the pleasant suburb of Ridgewood, New Jersey. "I'm a casualty of diversity run amok."

HBO counters that Edwards is creating a political smoke screen. The real reason she was ousted, the company insists, is that she constantly undermined superiors and attempted to solicit private clients among HBO talent. "I couldn't care less if Frances Edwards is to the right of Genghis Khan," says senior executive vice president Richard Plepler, who runs the corporate communications department and also heads HBO's diversity council. "This is not about political correctness. This is about a smart, capable woman who nevertheless managed to alienate many in her department."

"The level of hostility, animosity, and mistrust which she generated in the company was absolutely unprecedented," concluded one HBO executive, who requested anonymity. "She was promoting her own agenda with the talent, not the company's. And HBO was legitimately concerned."

The migration of political correctness out of the academy and into the workplace is indeed a noxious social trend. On the surface, such measures as no-smoking policies, drug tests, diversity training, and sexual-harassment workshops may seem well-intentioned. But what these codes of conduct are really about is avoiding expensive litigation, polishing up the corporate image, and, most of all, controlling worker behavior. Which explains why, these days, big offices are often such joyless, buttoned-up environments.

Diversity training aims to increase minority representation in the workplace. But Edwards believes that these courses, while encouraging diversity of skin color, discourage diversity of political opinion. "I'm philosophically opposed to anything that elevates group rights over individual rights," she explains. "When you coerce individuals to change their views, oftentimes you create resentment that ends up being worse than what you're trying to change. I don't think that forcing people to think a certain way is the best way to bring about social progress. What corporations get out of diversity training is cover. If the NAACP shows up at the front door, the company can say, 'See what we do? We make them undergo reeducation.' "

But is the Edwards case really about white liberal paternalists picking on a freethinking black woman? Or is this more the story of a driven, ambitious publicist who overstepped professional boundaries and is now adopting victim status— just like the left-wingers she criticizes— to gain sympathy and to hurt the reputation of her soon-to-be-former employers?

HBO prides itself on its groundbreaking, envelope-pushing, rule-shattering image. But behind the scenes, Edwards says, the situation is far different. She paints a portrait of treacherous office politics in the publicity department— where the best way to get ahead is to toe the company line. "HBO says I'm not a team player," contends Edwards. "They say I don't give enough information to my bosses. They say I'm not trusted by my colleagues. What they really mean is that I refused to peddle in the common currency of HBO, which is gossip. Not only am I considered 'off-the-plantation' because I'm black and politically conservative, I'm considered not a team player because I do my job with discretion."

Did her right-wing views ever get in the way of doing her job? "I hardly ever discussed politics in the office. In the entertainment industry, you can't let people know your political views when you're conservative. It's career suicide."

Edwards claims her troubles began soon after she landed what she thought was a dream job at HBO, in 1997. She had impressed Plepler and HBO CEO Jeff Bewkes at a gala dinner for the Museum of Television & Radio. Plepler admits he was charmed by this gracious and eloquent black woman who spouted Tocqueville and Ayn Rand, and who subscribed to The Economist. Several months later, he offered her a low-level publicist post.

To Edwards's dismay, once installed in the publicity department, she found herself in charge of a "black press list" of African-American journalists and publications she was supposed to woo. "I didn't realize until I got there that I was hired as the affirmative action candidate," says Edwards, whose Caribbean lilt is sometimes mistaken for an English inflection. "I told them if they wanted a black voice on the phone to appeal to black journalists, I'm not the one for the job because of my accent. That made them very nervous." Eventually, HBO broadened her responsibilities to include dealing with nonblack journalists. Then, in her first job review, she was reprimanded for not showing enough sensitivity to the diversity training program— she failed to volunteer, because she thought it was a waste of time. Later, her supervisors contacted her and told her the course was compulsory, so she signed up.

HBO claims Edwards crossed the line from conscientious objector to ideological crusader when she gave her Persian assistant permission not to attend the class because it was "superficial" and "ineffective." Ironically, the beginning of the end of Edwards's HBO tenure came not because of her right-wing politics, but because she helped organize a bash for bleeding-heart liberal intellectuals who were all Sopranos fans. The July power dinner— held at a downtown Italian restaurant and attended by New York Post columnist Jack Newfield, Sopranos creator David Chase, Nicholas Pileggi, Mario Cuomo, and Pete Hamill— incensed Edwards's immediate superior, Tobe Becker, who Edwards says told her: "You had no business being at that dinner."

"This was the pretext for me being put under investigation," says Edwards. "I guess this little nigger was too uppity for her masters." A few days later, Becker and her boss Quentin Schaffer approached Plepler and told him they believed Edwards was attempting to build up a private client roster culled from such HBO talent as Gandolfini, actress Lorraine Bracco, and Oz creator Tom Fontana. (Through their respective managers, both Gandolfini and Bracco denied Edwards had ever tried to solicit them as personal clients; Fontana declined comment.) Exiled from HBO's Bryant Park offices, Edwards decided to fight back, retaining Milton Mollen— of Mollen Commission fame— as her lawyer.

Writer Frank Renzulli, co­executive producer of The Sopranos,agrees with Edwards that it's easy to get blackballed in the entertainment industry for having the wrong political views. "Showbiz has room for everybody, just as long as they think like us," he jokes. "No matter what anybody says, there is a party political line you're expected to toe. It's not as ugly and repressive as the McCarthy era. But it's definitely there."

Renzulli has nothing but praise for Edwards: "She's a joy to work with, as opposed to another HBO publicist I had to deal with," says the script writer. He's talking about Becker, who after removing Edwards from the show, took over herself. "My experience with Tobe was very unpleasant. Her whole tone was insulting. It doesn't surprise me that a person like Tobe could make such an unfair accusation against a person like Frances. Frances was the perfect person for the job. She did her job so well that she made her superiors jealous."

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