JOURNALIST-SCRIPTERS MULL MORAL DILEMMAS

More and more journalists are picking up second paychecks for adapting their stories for the screen. The list of critics and scribes who’ve traded bylines for screen credits include Oscar nominees Paul Attanasio (“Quiz Show”) and Jay Cocks (“The Age of Innocence”), and investigative writers like Howard Blum and Lawrence Wright are making fortunes by transferring their work from page to screen.

And now there are some new kids on the block: Former Los Angeles magazine film critic Rod Lurie not only has written two scripts, he’s also directing one of them this fall; the New Yorker’s Stephen Schiff scripted “Lolita” and is starting his third feature; New York Times TV reporter Bill Carter not only sold his Jay Leno-David Letterman book “The Late Shift” to HBO, but also rewrote the script, which just completed shooting and airs in January.

The trend is raising alarm bells for some who fear that conflicts of interest can result.

For Carter, screenwriting was a fluke: “My book was sold, a scriptwriter attached, and HBO didn’t get what it wanted, so I stepped in. For me it was a matter of trying to get the project going, because you don’t get paid much unless the movie gets made.” Carter said there’s no conflict, since he’s avoided covering HBO since making his deal, adding that nowadays journos who write books for publishing houses parented by companies they cover would be no more conflicted than he is. “The world is growing small and more tightly connected, and has become much too convoluted to say there’s a hard and fast rule. You have to judge people by their work.” Carter says he’s not pursuing a screenwriting career.

Schiff is shifting to screenwriting and plans to phase out covering showbiz. His success is by accident. He scripted “Lolita” on a lark, and eventually was asked by producer Richard Zanuck to show it to Adrian Lyne after other drafts didn’t work. He soon found himself a screenwriter repped by CAA.

“My life has changed considerably,” says Schiff, who just wrote “Westward” for Turner Pictures and will adapt “Stormy Weather” for Fox 2000. Like Carter, Schiff feels there are no hard-and-fast rules about conflicts, but he’ll back off covering the biz he’s become part of. “My conflict-of-interest buzzer hasn’t really gone off yet, but I could imagine it happening. That buzzer should go off when you’re writing, and the first thought in your head is not whether you’re getting the story right or writing it beautifully, but rather if the person you’re writing about will be pleased.”

Lurie also is leaving print journalism, and prepping his directorial debut, the $4 million Canal Plus-financed “Porkchop,” a drama he wrote about a killer pimp that will star Eric Roberts and Bronson Pinchot. He’s also adapting his book about slain Hollywood con man Jon Emr. Unlike Carter and Schiff, Lurie always hoped to break into the biz, but denies writing to curry favor. “Most of my pieces were scathing, and I made a lot of enemies,” said Lurie, who, indeed, will be unlikely to work with Danny DeVito after once declaring he looked like a “testicle with arms,” and made no friends at CAA by excoriating Tom Cruise’s connections to Scientology.

“I’ve dropped a deal I had at Buzz magazine, because the conflicts of interest leapt into my face immediately,” said Lurie. “My first assignment was going to be a story about Arnon Milchan. My film’s produced by Cameramark, and the president of Cameramark is engaged to Arnon’s daughter.”

Premiere editor Susan Lyne, for one, is wary of this growing trend: “It’s hard enough not to be punished for doing tough stories that are accurate but cost you access. If, on top of reporting, you’re also trying to get screenwriting assignments, it makes it virtually impossible to do your job.”

Blum has refused assignments to write about Hollywood. “It would be very hard to bite the hand that feeds you,” he said.

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