If you're an online gossip columnist, it's easy to make trouble for a mainstream reporter, and that's what the flamboyant Roger Friedman has done lately for New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman. Since December 31, Friedman has repeatedly accused Waxman of making mistakes and stealing his material without attribution. He even calls her the next Jayson Blair. Last week, the two finally faced off. Says Waxman of Friedman, "If he spent half as much time checking his facts as he did complaining about people stealing from him, there wouldn't be so many errors in his reporting!"
Says Friedman of Waxman: "There are no errors in my reporting. . . . She's reported everything wrong so far!"
Both are entertainment reporters, but of different stature: Friedman is a New York fixture who writes a daily column for foxnews.com; Waxman is a former Washington Post reporter who now covers the film industry out of the Times bureau in L.A. Their feud has taken place against the backdrop of Michael Jackson's child molestation charges and the revelation, reported first by Friedman and then by Waxman, that Jackson is getting business advice from a Nation of Islam official. In recent weeks, Friedman once again decided that Waxman was trespassing on what he deems his exclusive territory.
The Fox scribe's latest point of contention involves a $70 million loan payment that Jackson reportedly owes, a payment that has either been made or not, depending on whose sources you trust. On January 13, Friedman reported that the payment had been made by two "Jackson stalwarts"; a month later, on February 12, Waxman reported that the payment had not been madeand that Jackson may face bankruptcy as a result.
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Friedman says he was too "tired and incensed" to ask Waxman about her reporting on his story about the loan payment. (Perhaps it didn't occur to him that she didn't credit him because her sources contradicted his.) Instead, he wrote to New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent, expressing his shock at the alleged theft. According to one source, the letter begins, "I can't believe she's doing this to me again!" Waxman wrote a letter defending her work, and shortly thereafter Okrent informed Friedman that no correction would be forthcoming.
Friedman had been casting the bait for weeks, speculating on the identity of Waxman's anonymous sources and accusing her of all manner of impropriety. Meanwhile, Waxman had remained silent to the point of ducking a potential confrontation with Friedman at Sundance and refusing to be featured with him in an upcoming People story on top Hollywood reporters.
Meanwhile, Waxman maintained the support of Times culture editor Steven Erlanger. "Sharon Waxman has done her own reporting," Erlanger said last week. "It has been accurate reporting, more accurate than Mr. Friedman's." Erlanger says the Times is "very happy" with Waxman's work and that the decision to hire her reflects the newspaper's desire to emphasize "good aggressive reporting" in its arts coverage.
Erlanger denies that the Times has been stealing Friedman's work. "This Times administration, like others before it, is very serious about giving credit where credit is due," he says. "We follow certain rules and have no lack of generosity of spirit. But we have not been taking Roger Friedman's reporting."
So which of them is the more accurate reporter? Their points of contention are many. It all started with the question of who broke the story about Jackson and the Nation of Islam. On December 18, the second item of Friedman's column bore the headline, "Jacko Chaos: Has Nation of Islam Taken Over?" In that item, he reported that Jackson was so panicked about his legal situation that "he is now taking advice from [Nation of Islam leader Leonard Muhammad] rather than listening to his managers."
In a story that made page A1 of the Times on December 30, Waxman reported that Nation of Islam officials had "moved in with Michael Jackson and are asserting control over the singer's business affairs." Her story was based on interviewers with friends, employees, and business associates, and contained denials from Jackson's lawyer and the Nation of Islam's newspaper. In other words, she relied on primary sources and advanced the story considerably, which minimizes her obligation to cite previous reporting on the subject.
Subsequent disputes involved Waxman's December 2 story on Roy Disney's parting of ways with the Walt Disney Company, in which she quoted Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein criticizing the company. On January 2, Friedman took up Miramax's complaint that Weinstein had given Waxman that quote for a book, not a Times storythen proceeded to mischaracterize the nature of her book. Next, Friedman jumped on Waxman's December 30 revelation that CBS allegedly paid Michael Jackson $1 million for a 60 Minutes interview. Actually Waxman had reported that the payment was for an entertainment special as well. (CBS denies paying for the interview.) In his January 14 column, he wrote that the Times had refused to print a letter from 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt complaining about an uncorroborated quote Waxman had attributed to 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley. (The Times declined to give Friedman a comment on Hewitt's complaint.)
Sometimes Friedman gets it right. But anyone who starts crowing about inaccurate and unethical reporting will eventually have the spotlight turned on himself. Other scribes express varying degrees of affection and pity for Friedman. One calls him "marginal, with delusions of grandeur"; another says he wants "to be respected."
Friedman wrote the Intelligencer column for New York in 1994, contributed to The New York Observer, and has been a Fox staffer since 1999. He calls himself a reporter, "a digger and a debunker" who takes his cues from his self-appointed mentor, Liz Smith. She "breaks a lot of stories," he says, but "credits everybody." Taking that rule to the absurd extreme, Friedman recently criticized Vanity Fair's Maureen Orth for not attributing a story that appeared first in the National Enquirer.
The worst rap on Friedman is that he shills for Miramax, a charge he denies. He edited an Oscar supplement for Talk magazine in 2000, and Miramax backed the 2003 r&b documentary Only the Strong Survive, which Friedman co-produced. Colleagues say his column often repeats Miramax spin. But no one is as disgusted as Waxman, who asks of Fox, "Do they hold him to journalistic standards or does he just get to slander people with impunity?" Friedman responds, "I have the same standards as the Times, I think." Three people read his column before it is published: a copy editor, his editor Refet Kaplan, and webmaster Steve Bromberg. "I will tell them in advance I'm looking at something that's tricky. . . . If something is problematic, it's vetted."
Friedman says he has nothing against the Times reporter personally. "I'm not her media critic; I'm not looking into her stories," he says. "My main complaint is that there's no citing of previous reporting in her stories. . . . I invite Sharon Waxman to lunch anywhere she likes, on any coast at any time. Just please stop this doing this thing. Just give me credit."
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