WGA has a failure to communicate

Writers' demands aren't being articulated

At CBS Television City Monday, a Writers Guild strike official shooed away a reporter who was trying to talk to a picket. The scriptwriter later admitted he was scolded for talking with the press.

Another reporter asked a question of a picket, who growled, “We’re not talking to you guys.”

Writers like to write. Apparently they don’t like to communicate, except for star writers who disregarded the instructions and talked anyway.

During the entire pact talks, the producers have shown a well-organized attempt to convey their point of view. But the Writers Guild of America reps are potentially hurting their cause by being so slow to explain their side to the media.

Many in showbiz don’t have a clear understanding of the writers’ demands or the reasoning behind these demands. And so far, the WGA leaders are not helping enough to get the message across.

For example:

  • WGA West press reps have never addressed the conflict with the DGA about its strike rules requiring showrunners to perform writing services, even though the DGA sent out its email to members Oct. 24.

  • Many writers are confused about the WGA’s Script Validation Program, which requires writers to turn in a draft by Thursday to the guild. The studios have told writers that they’ll be in breach. Though WGAW general counsel Tony Segall sent a letter to the AMPTP lawyer Bill Cole Oct. 24 affirming the guild’s stance, the WGA website does not address the studio’s claim at all.

  • The WGA has held exactly two news conferences this year to discuss negotiations: on July 18, after the second day of talks; and Friday to announce the strike. People in the industry want to know what’s going on and they need more info from the horse’s mouth.

The Writers Guild leadership is scrupulous about communicating with its strike captains. The leaders are trying to communicate with their members. But in Hollywood, it’s not enough to have an idea — you also have to sell it.

When 10 hours of negotiations broke down Sunday at 9:30 p.m. PT, AMPTP president Nick Counter issued a statement at 10:16 p.m., saying “the guild was unwilling to compromise …. It is unfortunate that they choose to take this irresponsible action.” WGA spokesman Gregg Mitchell simply said, “For now all I can confirm is contract talks have ended for the night.”

It wasn’t until 11:46 p.m. that the guild countered Counter — too late for some newspaper deadlines, including Variety‘s. Meanwhile, those 90 minutes allowed the producers’ version of events to spread on the web. When so many in the industry are hungry for facts quickly — and especially in the age of the Internet — silence and slowness can prove to be a serious handicap.

Admittedly, the guild has a an inherent difficulty because both parts of the negotiating committee — the WGA East and the WGA West — must approve statements.

As a result, many media outlets are accused of taking the companies’ side. Several emails to Daily Variety have charged that the paper’s coverage is one-sided. In truth, articles here — and in other major media outlets — often have included sharp quotes from the producers, but not much from the writers due to their delayed reactions.

WGA members were told over the weekend, “Please do not talk to the press. There will be a press captain and a WGA staff member at each gate on each shift to handle press and any other issue we may encounter” during picketing.

Off the picket line, scribes normally receptive to giving interviews with reporters were suddenly clamming up. Several returned calls, but begged off giving on the record interviews. They cited chatter that there had been a backlash against several prominent scribes who had talked to reporters, even if their comments were pro-guild.

Writers are careful about crafting their words. During the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry took “the high road” and refused to comment on the Swift Boat rumors. His silence allowed the rumors to get out of hand and by the time he responded, irreparable damage was done.

By carefully watching their words, the writers are in danger of getting swift-boated.

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