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Last month, the New York Post fired entertainment reporter Nikki Finke, shortly after the Walt Disney Company complained about two stories that appeared in the Post under Finke's byline on January 29. But did she get the boot because her stories were inaccurate, as the Post and Disney say, or because the Post caved in to pressure from one of News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch's valued business partners, as Finke's lawyers are ready to argue in court?
The offending stories dealt with a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed against Disney in 1991 by Stephen Slesinger Inc., a company that owns merchandising rights to Winnie the Pooh and claims it has been cheated out of millions in royalty payments. The news hook was the January 18 disclosure of court documents revealing that a judge fined Disney $90,000 last year for destroying documents that might or might not have been relevant to the case. The disclosure resulted in a spate of bad publicity in the days following.
Enter Finke, whose anti-Disney stance appears to have turned her into Mickey Mouse's whipping girl. In interviews with the Voice, Disney spokesperson John Dreyer said that Disney sent the Post a letter pointing out "serious factual errors" in Finke's stories, and Disney outside counsel Daniel Petrocelli called parts of her reporting "recklessly inaccurate."
After the stories appeared, sources say, the Post received angry calls from Disney execs. One rumor has it that Disney CEO Michael Eisner personally raged to Murdoch.
According to one insider, Post editor in chief Col Allan first gave the order to have Finke sacked in early February, then rescinded it for a few weeks. On February 19, Postbusiness editor John Elsen reluctantly told Finke she was fired.
Allan and Elsen did not return calls for comment. A Post spokesperson said that during the 10 weeks Finke freelanced for the paper, "We had a number of problems with the accuracy of her reporting."
Finke's attorneys deny any inaccuracies in the stories she filed with the Post. They say the paper never informed Finke of any complaints about factual errors in any stories including the January 29 stories, and editors never conducted any investigation of errors with her. No corrections have been published, which suggests the Post is comfortable with allowing inaccuracies to stand. Instead, they say that on February 19, the Post told Finke that she was being fired because of pressure from Disney. They are planning to sue Disney, News Corp., and the Post.
According to Finke's lawyer Pierce O'Donnell, "This is a much bigger story involving a journalist's freedom to report the truth, the shareholders' right to information about a public company, and big media's willingness to sacrifice news integrity in their drive for corporate profits." News Corp. and Disney are preparing to launch a joint venture, Movie.com, this year.
Finke is an aggressive Hollywood scribe who butts heads with editors, and is not beholden to the industry. She has worked on staff for the Associated Press, The Dallas Morning News, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times. In the early 1990s she had a contract to write a book about Hollywood agents that was eagerly anticipated, but never published. From 1995 to 2000, she was under contract with The New York Observer and then New York, before becoming editor of The Los Angeles Downtown News.
In December, Finke resurfaced in the Post, with an exclusive story about Vivendi's deal to buy Barry Diller's assets. She continued to break stories after the Post put her on contract, and sources say business editor Elsen was pleased with her work and twice offered her a job on staff. Then fate intervened. After giving Finke the assignment to write about the Pooh contract dispute, Elsen turned one of her two stories over to the news desk, which is notorious for cutting writers out of the editing process.
On January 29, the Disney story landed on the front page with a color picture of Mickey Mouse and the headline "Disney Caught in Shredding Scandal." A colorful Mickey showed up again on page three, feeding a drawing of Winnie the Pooh through a shredder under the headline "Pooh Scandal Is '$hred' Hot." The first sentence read, "Maybe Mickey Mouse should go work for Arthur Andersen." A second story, "Deep Pooh Pooh," appeared on page 27, alleging that if Disney loses its Pooh license, gross revenues could fall by 25 percent. Together they painted the mouse rather black.
But how much of the spin came from Finke and how much from her editors? Finke's attorneys say the Post asked her to investigate the newly released court documents, which formed the basis of her reporting. But after she filed the stories, they say, unnamed editors made adds and cuts to her text that she never saw or approved.
Entertainment lawyer Bert Fields, who represents the Pooh plaintiffs, was baffled by the Post's decision to fire Finke. When he first heard about it, he wrote a letter to Post publisher Ken Chandler, asking to be informed of the alleged errors.
"We read the articles," says Fields' law partner, Bonnie Eskenazi. "We believe there's evidence for everything she said in there." Eskenazi says they have not received a response from the Post, but they plan to subpoena all Disney documents related to the Post's stories for their case.
Meanwhile, Disney lawyer Daniel Petrocelli is still furious with Finke. "I was disappointed by how one-sided and biased [the page three] article was," he told the Voice. "Critical parts of the article were false." Petrocelli was especially ticked off by the comparison of Disney to Enron. In fact, the lawyer says, "there was no shredder. There was no destruction of evidence." He says the recently disclosed judge's ruling pertained to boxes that had been kept in a Disney warehouse, where old files are routinely discarded over time.
"It is very convenient for someone who has destroyed boxes and boxes of documents to say there is nothing important in them," counters Eskenazi. "At least one file Disney admits destroying was entitled 'Winnie the PoohLegal Problems.' "
Talking to the lawyers in this case quickly devolves into a game of he-said, she-said. For example, the plaintiffs claim they own expansive rights to Pooh, while Disney claims their rights are more limited. The plaintiffs claim the existing contract can be terminated; Disney claims it cannot. But Petrocelli vigorously disputes the allegations that any of the missing documents were relevant to the Pooh case, or that Disney ever intentionally destroyed such documents. He also disputes the plaintiffs' claim that the Pooh brand generates about 25 percent of Disney's gross revenues, insisting that the figure is more like 3 or 4 percent.
All that complaining paid off. On February 18, Petrocelli appeared solo on Fox News' O'Reilly Factor to discuss the Pooh contract dispute. The next day, Finke was fired, and at a Disney shareholders' meeting, execs declared that Mickey and Pooh were in excellent health.
Says a Post spokesperson, "There are no sacred cows at the Post. And Disney is certainly no exception."