Anthony Pellicano case: A Hollywood bust
It ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. After years of breathless coverage in every newspaper and magazine known to man, Anthony Pellicano was sentenced to 15 years in prison for running an illegal wiretapping operation that dug up dirt--or at least tried to unearth dirty laundry--on a host of prominent Hollywood celebrities and industry insiders. A longtime private investigator who engaged in everything from wiretapping to computer fraud, Pellicano was supposed to bring down half of Hollywood with him. But after years of titillating speculation, the story was a bust. The news of Pellicano's conviction didn't make the front page of my paper, which put the story on the front of the California section, next to a winter storm story, while the New York Times buried its brief news account on Page 3 of its business section.
If you think I'm exaggerating about the over-amped coverage, let's revisit the 10-page Vanity Fair story that ran in its June 2006 issue. After some scene-setting, it said:
"No scandal in Hollywood history can compare to the Anthony Pellicano wiretapping scandal. Not the Fatty Arbuckle murder trials, of the 1920s, not the killing of Lana Turner's lover Johnny Stompanato, in 1958, not director Roman Polanski's statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, in 1977, not even the late-1970s 'Indecent Exposure' embezzlement scandal involving producer David Begelman. 'People out here, they're talking about this endlessly,' says media magnate Barry Diller. 'If you're talking to people in L.A. right now, it's the only topic.' "
If they gave Oscars for stoking media hysteria, Vanity Fair would have a row of statuettes on its shelf, though we'd have to give out some lesser awards to the New Yorker, the New York Times, my paper and many other publications who often appeared convinced that a host of industry luminaries, led by legal eagle Bert Fields, ex-CAA czar Mike Ovitz and Paramount chief Brad Grey, were all going to end up in the slammer as well. Wherever I went, I was bombarded with gossip and innuendo about Fields, Ovitz and Grey, who were, as Vanity Fair put it, the "whales" in the investigation whose futures were being "debated every night at the Ivy, Mastro's Steakhouse and Koi," VF's idea (circa 2006) of three must-be-seen-at Hollywood eateries.
So what happened? Why did the story turn out to be such a bust? Keep reading:
1) Media feeding frenzy: I hate to reveal inside information, but with rare exception, media insiders only pay attention to other media insiders, so when one paper breaks a story, a feeding frenzy erupts, the end result being that the media feeds on itself. (Try to imagine the image of a firing squad forming in a circle.) When the New York Times started breaking stories on the Pellicano case, especially with its links to Hollywood big shots like Grey, everyone one else started scrambling the jets, putting teams of reporters on the case, hoping to shake some more juicy fruit from the trees. But for all the intriguing relationships the Times and other publications dredged up, no smoking guns were ever discovered.
2) Hollywood backstabbing: It's no coincidence that Grey and Ovitz were--OK, still are--two of the most disliked figures in today's industry, Ovitz for a variety of past offenses, Grey for jettisoning his old managerial ties and abruptly ascending to power at Paramount without a graceful period of dues paying. The trash talk has died down a bit in recent months, but for years, Grey was a magnet for any number of bitter asides and accusations, having aroused an enormous amount of industry jealousy for his attempts at credit-grabbing during past awards seasons. When the DreamWorks-Paramount marriage fell apart, virtually everyone sided with DreamWorks, even people who'd been bitter Dreamworks enemies just a few minutes before. In short: Everyone in Hollywood was hoping that the whispers about Grey and Ovitz skulduggery was fact, not just wishful thinking.
3) Showbiz drama queens: People gravitate to Hollywood for good reason--they love the drama and spectacle of show business, both the movies on screen as well as the backstage drama. If Vanity Fair didn't get its money quote from Barry Diller, about the Pellicano scandal being "the only topic" of conversation in town, the magazine could've gone to three dozen top insiders and landed a similar quote. People inside the business were endlessly yammering about Pellicano, but largely because of schadenfreude, they were hoping the scandal would bring many of their most loathed foes down to their knees.
It's always possible, as some conspiracy theorists believe, that the bad guys didn't get caught, that the Feds botched the case, that the smoking guns are still lying around, locked away in someone's closet. But I think the Pellicano case serves as an apt journalistic reminder that sometimes, even when something looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it doesn't mean that it really is a duck. I know because I've followed my share of stories, convinced that I had the goods, when I really was chasing my own tail. The burden of proof is on the reporter, not the duck, even when the duck looks guilty as all get out.
Photo of Anthony Pellicano by Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times