By Jon Campbell
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Michael Ovitz's interview in the August issue of Vanity Fair might have drawn more attention to what he calls the New York Times' biased coverage of him, if the Hollywood power broker had not blamed his downfall on a "gay mafia" led by Dreamworks co-founder David Geffen. In the weeks after the interview came out, those two words spawned a string of one-liners, and one story after another parroted Geffen's line that Ovitz was just "crazy," a bitter and self-destructive man who went down in a blaze of homophobia.
Of course, it was a stupid thing to say. Gay stereotypes are offensive, and gays did not gang up to lynch the former head of Creative Artists Agency. It was Ovitz's own fault, goes the conventional wisdom, because by the time he left CAA for Disney in the mid 1990s, he had alienated almost everyone. But in the ensuing frenzy last month, the media overlooked Ovitz's central thesis, which involves the sacred cows of pop culture and The New York Times.
Is it true, as Ovitz claimed in Vanity Fair, that Geffen enlisted New York Times Hollywood reporter Bernard Weinraub in a campaign to bring Ovitz down? No one has tried to unpack this allegation, possibly because Weinraub is well respectedand straightor because intentional malice is so hard to prove. For whatever reason, Vanity Fair did not take Ovitz up on his offer to analyze Weinraub's oeuvre. But even a cursory review shows a pattern of showering praise on Geffen, while demonizing Ovitz.
Weinraub is said to have bonded with Geffen in the course of a 5000-word puff piece he wrote for the Times magazine in May 1993. In October 1994, Weinraub had enough access to co-write an inside story announcing Geffen's decision to launch DreamWorks. At the time, Ovitz and Geffen were the two emperors of Hollywood, and an April 1994 Ovitz story by Weinraub suggested that the CAA chief was so powerful his rivals were plotting to destabilize him. (This echoes Ovitz's thesis in VF).
Weinraub's Ovitz reporting began to shift the next year. In April 1995, Weinraub reported that Ovitz was widely expected to leave CAA to run the MCA conglomerate. That summer, talks fell through at the last minute, too late for Weinraub to revise the article he had filed for June 5, predicting Ovitz's imminent departure. One insider speculates that Weinraub never forgave Ovitz, who ended up going to Disney instead.
Weinraub first savaged Ovitz in October 1996, when the mogul was floundering at Disney, and again in December 1998, when Ovitz launched Artist Management Group (AMG). (Sample line from the latter story: "He's back and not too many people are happy about it.") In book reviews, Weinraub found a Geffen bio not as bad as Geffen seemed to think, and a book on Ovitz insufficiently harsh.
At bottom, this story is less about Weinraub than it is about the hypocrisy that drives media reporting. It's a dirty little secret that few editors expect reporters to remain neutral. Indeed, if a reporter has a relationship with a top media or entertainment exec, that's not a conflictit's a credential that increases one's chances of getting scoops. And if a media reporter makes enemies, that's okay, too. To be popular, one must write the occasional hit joband pay the consequences. You can't stop writing about bad people just because they hate you.
If Weinraub is friendly with Geffen, it wouldn't be the first time a journalist got cozy with a studio head. In the 1980s, former Los Angeles Times editor Shelby Coffey III became friends with Ovitz and Michael Eisner, causing his own staff to complain about the appearance of a conflict. In the late 1980s, Vanity Fair's Tina Brown explicitly promised Ovitz a puff piece, in a fawning letter that landed in Spy. (Spy editor Graydon Carter now edits VF and has since become a producer as well.) Spyalso reported that during the 1980s, then Disney exec Jeff Katzenberg was the "primary blind source" for Aljean Harmetz, a New York Times Hollywood reporter who now writes obits for the Times.
Enter Anita M. Busch, who teamed up with Weinraub to write a series of New York Times stories this spring, publicizing every detail of Ovitz's "Shakespearean" fall. The first, a March 22 front pager, reported that the film unit of AMG was undergoing an audit. The details of the audit remain in dispute, but the story set off a frenzy. Weinraub and Busch published two follow-ups that week, ending the latter with a brutal anecdote about how Ovitz had been spotted outside the dressing room of Robin Williams, "essentially hanging around to pay fealty to a star client."
According to one insider, The Wall Street Journal was tipped off to the audit a month earlier, but did not quite follow through. Editors there thought the Times had overplayed the story. Meanwhile, some people in Hollywood actually started to feel sorry for Ovitz, because the Times stories felt like overkill. In May, Weinraub and Busch broke the news that Ovitz had sold AMG to the talent management group known as the Firm, calling it "one of the lowest points in his career."
The allegation of Times bias first reached me in March, when an Ovitz-watcher called to say that "Weinraub and Busch is the most conflicted byline." Weinraub, who started covering Hollywood in 1991, is said to have set the agenda for hard-nosed industry reporting. But the appearance of conflict attached to him after he married Columbia Pictures president Amy Pascal in 1997. In response, the Times announced it was taking Weinraub off certain stories about the industrybut in 1999, Brill's Content reported that the Times had bent the rules for him yet again. Ovitz went so far as to complain to then Times editor Joe Lelyveld, which did not endear him to Weinraub.
Busch is no slouch. After writing tough stories for Variety in the 1990s, she took over the Hollywood Reporter and tried to make it competitive with Variety. Then she resigned in a dispute over an article she published charging that a Reporter columnist had taken favors from producers. After a stint of freelancing, she was hired by the Los Angeles Times this past June.
According to two people who have worked with her, Busch is willing to trash people she doesn't likeand she hates Ovitz. (Once, when Ovitz was still at CAA, she wrote something that pissed him off. Knowing that Busch is allergic to monosodium glutamate, Ovitz sent her a bottle of the stuff in response, with the one-word note: "Enjoy.")
Ovitz's latest beef with Busch is that she is friends with Universal head Ron Meyer and supposedly plays pool with him three nights a week. As the head of a studio that was in partnership with AMG, Meyer was in a position to at least know about the AMG audit, Ovitz claimed in VF, insinuating that Meyer leaked the story to Busch.
Weinraub declined to comment and Busch could not be reached at press time.
Hypothetically speaking, does it matter if a reporter gets a tip from a powerful friend about someone neither of them likes? What counts these days, it seems, is that the resulting story made news.