Newspaper piece raises questions about anonymous attacks

HOLLYWOOD — Claims that two unidentified major studio heads had decided to never work again with Mel Gibson — among the most serious charges that can be leveled at anyone in Hollywood — were published Feb. 26 in the New York Times, a day after the paper issued a new policy vowing to crack down on the use of anonymous sources in its pages.

In a memo to the entire Times newsroom announcing the new policy, executive editor Bill Keller wrote, “We resist granting sources anonymity except as a last resort to obtain information that we believe to be newsworthy and reliable.”

The new policy, which requires at least one editor to know the identity of every anonymous source, also bars the use of anonymous quotes attacking someone else.

“We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack,” the new policy states. “If pejorative opinions are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor.”

The new Times policy takes effect March 1. The Washington Post and Boston Globe have already adopted similar rules.

Martin Kaplan, head of the Norman Lear Center and an associate dean of the USC Annenberg School, says, “In an ideal world, reporters wouldn’t use quotes from cabinet secretaries or studio heads unless they could attribute them, but under those ground rules, the most powerful sources would dry up.”

The Times story, by reporter Sharon Waxman, claims Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and remarks by his father Hutton Gibson suggesting that “most of” the Holocaust was fiction angered many in the movie business. Waxman anonymously quoted a studio chief as saying, “I won’t hire him. I won’t support anything he’s a part of.”

Ed Limato of ICM, who reps Gibson, replied, “Not according to the scripts and offers I see on my desk,” and categorically denied Gibson had been blacklisted anywhere.

Waxman also cited an unnamed source to report that DreamWorks partners Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen “have privately expressed anger over the film.”

The day the story was published, Katzenberg and Geffen requested the Times retract that claim, and according to DreamWorks, the paper agreed to correct the record in its Friday edition.

Toby Usnik, a spokesman for the Times, says the story is acceptable under both the old and new standards for using anonymous sources.

“Ms. Waxman’s story does not contain any directly quoted pejorative opinion from an unidentified source,” Usnik says. “The comments are from an unidentified source about that source’s own intentions. They are not about the character or behavior of Mel Gibson.”

Apparently the Times does not consider Gibson’s work or industry relationships part of his character.

Gibson spokesman Alan Nierob also disagreed with the spokesman’s assertion.

“Is McCarthyism pejorative?” he asked.

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