The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Variety to bloggers: Would you (please) drop dead!

March 23, 2009 | 12:41 pm

I guess it was inevitable that Variety, our most venerable trade paper, would eventually respond to the chorus of cat-calls from the blogosphere about the way it covers Hollywood. It finally did so over the weekend, in typical fashion, with an entire phalanx of stories, some quite thoughtful, some hilariously wheezy and out of touch. (Full disclosure: I am mentioned frequently in Cynthia Littleton's blogger vs. blogger piece, though I think she was quite fair to my role in various blog disputes.) So where to begin?

The most interesting piece is a first-person account by veteran Variety reporter Michael Fleming, who is the industry's go-to guy when they want to give a scoop to a trade paper. Fleming is an old pro and his piece makes some important points, notably about the bullying and constant contentiousness in the blogosphere. As he writes: "I just wish many bloggers could be a bit more gracious--and I don't think it would make them boring. Even six months ago, it was fun to laugh at the meanness and negativity on the web. But as times get tougher, it's not fun any more."

Fair enough. He also zings the Queen of Mean, Deadline Hollywood's Nikki Finke, not only for her nastiness but for her lack of transparency. Being a good reporter, Fleming gets her dead to rights, noting that on Jan. 29, 2008, at 2:33 pm., Finke said that ICM chief Jeff Berg was leaving the troubled agency. "A little later, that item disappeared," he writes. "A new post materialized with the same time stamp, and this lead: 'Let me knock down that rumor making the rounds that Jeff Berg is supposedly leaving ICM on April 15th...' Like some other bloggers, Finke was in the unenviable position of debunking a rumor that she had started."

Bradpitt_2 My only beef with Fleming's piece is his complaint about the "anonymous barbs" that frequently show up in web posts. His complaint about the tone is fair but when it comes to anonymity, it would be hard to top Variety itself, whose entire journalistic model rests on anonymous, unattributed sources. It's impossible to open up the trade on any given day and not find a story--like this recent story about Brad Pitt being cast in a new film--that runs without any credited sourcing at all. It's the deal Variety makes to get the stories. Whoever provides the leak, be it an agent, manager, producer or studio exec, knows that Variety will never divulge their identity. Without that anonymity, Variety would never get all those scoops but it seems slightly hypocritical to complain about the lax journalistic standards in the blogosphere when your front page is filled every day with deliberately unsourced material. It's telling that Variety didn't run one quote from anyone in its entire three-story package of blogger criticism.

Still, Fleming is a solid, principled reporter. I don't know what to call his boss, Variety editor Peter Bart, except for lazy. He's launched his own blog, which you'd have to call half-hearted at best, since he often goes days and days between posts. But his column in this package complaining about blogger excess is an embarassment, and not just because of his Olympian disdain for what he calls the "aura of desperation" that surrounds blogdom. (When you write blog items shamelessly hocking studios for Oscar ads as Bart did, that's desperation.) Most of the column is Bart musings, bolstered by constant references to a six-month old Atlantic magazine piece ("Why I Blog") by Andrew Sullivan.

I hate to be the one to break the news to Mr. Bart, but in the blogosphere, six months is an eternity. I'd suggest that he read up the subject and find some more timely context for his arguments. Bart's major point seems to be that blogdom has yet to discover a workable business model, hence its nastiness and desperation. Peter, take it from someone who knows all too well: No one in today's media, whether it's my paper or yours or any pajama-clad bogger, has a reliable business model anymore. When it comes to a downward economic slide, we're all tumbling down the elevator shaft together.   

Photo of Brad Pitt by Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times