Online gossip goes haywire

Internet news outlets rely on few, if any, fact-checkers. Sometimes they report the truth. Sometimes they don’t.

When they focus on showbiz executives, as they did last week with a flurry of reports about hirings and firings at Paramount, and merger rumors involving ICM and Endeavor, these Web sites have proved to be a major disruption.

One studio flack says that when scathing items are posted about execs, “it’s like Chernobyl.”

Unlike celebs, who grow thick-skinned from their daily battles with paparazzi, industry executives feel blindsided and wounded when they’re the subject of Internet rumors — and the disruptive effects aren’t easy to control.

Defamer.com is viewed by only a fraction of the Internet users who visit the Drudge Report, and such sites are barely a blip on the radar of top execs at media congloms.

But journalists read them and immediately start pursuing the story (or nonstory).

“It’s very nasty,” says one studio PR rep. “Guys like me are being slammed by (print and electronic) journalists who are trying to sort out the truth, as well as being completely hammered by the people who write our paychecks.”

When Defamer.com ran an item that Paramount’s newly installed prexy Gail Berman was getting the boot, Berman and the Par crew spent hours trying to do damage control. But at least she did it with a sense of humor, starting phone conversations with, “I’m sure you’ve heard that I’m being fired.”

Similarly, the Web site reported that ICM was in talks to buy Endeavor. ICM chairman Jeff Berg and Endeavor partner Ari Emmanuel worked hard to tamp the flames. Berg even wrote a staff memo denouncing the rumor. The memo, naturally, wound up on Defamer.

In Hollywood these days, executives and their publicists spend a good part of their days reacting to Web sites, which in many ways are glorified — albeit more cleverly written — tracking boards.

For all the ruckus these rumor mills are creating, their reach is decidedly insular. None comes close to receiving the amount of traffic of, say, the Drudge Report, which last December was viewed by 2.85 million people. Defamer was viewed by 905,000 during that time.

Most other gossip sites that scrutinize behind-the-scenes players — MovieCityNews.com, MediaBistro.com’s “FishBowlLA” and Zap2It.com — didn’t get enough traffic to register on Nielsen’s tracking system, whose bar is 350,000 unique hits per month.

(Other showbiz sites have different targets: AintItCoolNews.com and DarkHorizons.com focus on movie projects, and E! Online’s Ted Casablanca column The Awful Truth, goes after the Us Weekly readership).

In many ways, flacks fuel the need for such Web sites by keeping execs mum and working overtime to spin stories. But the Web sites have accelerated the way news is disseminated in Hollywood.

“There are shorter time frames,” says Revolution partner Tom Sherak. “Once something is decided, you have to make a plan of how you’re going to get it out, because with the Internet, things have become moment-by-moment rather than day-by-day or hour-by-hour.”

Sherak experienced this firsthand last week when Defamer posted that Revolution was “shutting down” and he found himself being barraged by reporters.

There was some fire to the smoke — while Revolution is not turning out the lights tomorrow, it is indeed ceasing production as Revolution founder Joe Roth renegotiates its future with Sony — thus demonstrating the fuzzy line of veracity that so appeals to the public, and so infuriates publicists.

Sherak takes it all in stride. But other industry players get ulcerous at the rumors.

“It would be better for everyone directly and indirectly involved if this all settled down,” says one producer. “It’s getting distracting.”

Gabriel Snyder contributed to this report.

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