By Albert Samaha
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On April 12, entertainment reporter Nikki Finke filed a $10 million lawsuit against the Walt Disney Company and the New York Post, claiming that two of the media world's biggest power brokers had conspired to protect their interests and to destroy her reputation. The basic plot has not changed since the Voice broke the story last month: The Post fired Finke after Disney complained about two Finke stories in which she investigated pending litigation over the merchandising rights to Winnie the Pooh.
In dispute are the accuracy of Finke's reporting and the legitimacy of the decision to sack her. Finke's lawyers argue that editor in chief Col Allan falsely accused Finke of unnamed "inaccuracies" and wrongfully terminated her contract to appease the mighty Disney. Her complaint repeatedly dubs the paper "the pusillanimous Post."
A Post spokesperson called the notion of special treatment for Disney "ridiculous," and News Corp., which owns the Post and is a named defendant, called the lawsuit "a joke." The complaint was also a source of amusement in the Post newsroom last week, where staffers were said to be chuckling over it while the top brass met behind closed doors for their own laughfest.
Someone should adapt this colorfuland at times implausibleimbroglio for the silver screen. The cartoon villain could be Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who is rumored to have called News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch in a rage when he read the Post's Disney stories. Hollywood strongmen Michael Ovitz and Harvey Weinstein could make cameo appearances, complaining of shabby treatment by Finke, and the film could introduce a new brat pack: Lachlan Murdoch, the young turk who now controls the Post; his brother James, another rising star at News Corp.; and Post metro editor Jesse Angelo, whose father is Eisner's best friend from childhood and who is himself a close mate of James Murdoch's. The hardest role to cast might be that of Col Allan, who comes off looking the fool.
At the center of Finke's conceit, though not a defendant in the suit, is New York's king of PR, Howard J. Rubenstein, who has reportedly talked to Rupert Murdoch almost every day for more than 20 years. Rubenstein Associates has at one time or another represented not only Murdoch and the Post, but also Weinstein, Ovitz, and half of New York. As Kurt Andersen noted recently, power has shifted from gossip writers to publicists since the 1957 release of Sweet Smell of Success. The J.J. Hunseckers are weaker now. It's the Sidney Falcos who rule.
Finke's lawsuit accuses the Post of giving special treatment to Rubenstein clients, and it paints Allan as a puppet of the flacks. The friction between Allan and Finke apparently started in December, when the Post ran a story in which Finke revealed that Vivendi Universal was preparing to buy USA Network. In an editors' meeting the next day, according to the complaint, Allan expressed skepticism, saying he didn't believe USA's Barry Diller would work for Vivendi. Days later, Diller took a job with Vivendi.
On December 19, according to the complaint, business editor Jon Elsen offered Finke an $85,000-a-year staff job in New York, but she decided to stay in L.A. Finke claims she and the Postentered into a year-long contract that was to pay her $2000 per month and 50 cents a word.
Cut to January 21, when Finke reported that Miramax was suspected of masterminding the pre-Oscar campaign to discredit A Beautiful Mind. Gossips loved this story, but Miramax's Weinstein apparently did not. Without informing Finke, the complaint alleges, Allan ordered up a Page Six item that threw water on the anti-Miramax story by speculating that competitor Dreamworks may have been the source of it.
The next plot twist came on January 25, when Finke cited on-the-record sources in a story that claimed Ovitz was behind on paying his charitable pledges to UCLA. That day, the complaint says, Finke accepted Elsen's second offer of a staff job in New York. But at the same time, Allan was undermining Finke by arranging for Ovitz to give an interview to another reporter. In the resulting story, Ovitz denied he was a deadbeat.
The final straw came on January 29, when the Post published the notorious Pooh stories. The next day, according to the complaint, Disney spokesperson John Dreyer called Elsen to bitch, and over the next several days, Finke heard that Disney was "very, very upset" and that Allan was "very upset" that Disney was upset. A few days later, Los Angeles magazine writer Amy Wallace heard that Disney had threatened to pull its advertising from the Post in retaliation. (Wallace was unable to verify the tip.)
On February 5, the suit claims, Allan decided to fire Finke at Disney's behest, but refused to discuss his decision with her. No follow-up story appeared. Instead, on February 18, Murdoch's Fox News Channel invited a Disney lawyer to appear solo on The O'Reilly Factor to give his version of the Pooh litigation, while Fox refused a request by the Pooh plaintiffs lawyer to appear on the show. The next day, Finke was fired.
Finke's lawyer Pierce O'Donnell is best known for representing Art Buchwald in his successful lawsuit against Paramount Pictures over the genesis of the movie Coming to America. His complaint offers a compelling course in the dangers of media conglomeration, citing previous instances in which Disney and News Corp. have used their clout to control and censor media coverage.
But it will take more than rhetoric to prevail against the Murdoch machine. Shortly before O'Donnell filed the suit, he says, a Post lawyer proposed that they begin settlement talks. O'Donnell sent a letter summarizing the complaintonly to see the Post use the information to sue Finke, just days before she sued the paper.
The Post's complaint argues that Finke never had an "enforceable agreement" with the paper. It also states that the paper "was notified, post-publication, of serious objections to statements" contained in some of her articles. After investigating the complaints and deciding they had merit, the Post published follow-ups "to correct those errors and the lack of fair reporting" in her work.
Disney has not responded in court. But in a written statement, the company claims that it did nothing wrong and accuses Finke of threatening freedom of speech for those who are covered by the press.
"Finke's truthful and timely reporting is the quintessence of the core values of the First Amendment," counters O'Donnell. "Silencing her by firing her is clearly a violation of the public's right to know, especially Disney shareholders." Of the Post, he says, "First they fire her, then they defame herand then they have the gall to sue her. Desperate people do desperate things, and the Post and Disney are scurrying to cover their tracks, but they've left some indelible footprints."
Post lawyer Slade Metcalf declined to comment. Steven Rubenstein of Rubenstein Associates said the firm had no contact with Ovitz, Miramax, or Disney in regard to Finke's stories, adding, "Ms. Finke's claims about our firm are fiction."