<i>Variety's</i> Mike Fleming analyzes the blogosphere

In the entertainment industry, the proliferation of bloggers puts the news timetable into fast-forward.

With a race to be first, bloggers don’t wait for confirmation — which has hugely increased the spread of mistaken (and sometimes disruptive) info.

To their continued frustration, news sources are no longer in control of how and when they make an announcement.

And, on a personal note, the blogosphere has brought about the biggest change in my job that I’ve experienced in 19 years at Variety, with a mixture of stress and exhilaration.

The challenges in this new medium were evident last week in the tragic story of actress Natasha Richardson. On the morning of March 17, the Time Out New York website reported her death, which was picked up by celeb-blogger Perez Hilton and the website of OK! mag, among others.

In fact, she was still on life support, and died more than 24 hours later. If ever a story deserved to wait for confirmation, it was this one.

Too often, accuracy takes a back seat to being first. I regularly see half-baked stories posted, and quickly spread all over the world by sites that don’t verify them. I’m troubled by a growing lack of objectivity, and an erosion of civility between competing journalists and the subjects we write about.

I chase film news. I grew up competing against reporters at other newspapers, and my mission was to burn up the phone lines finding stories, and not an inconsiderable amount of time keeping them from leaking.

In some ways, the Internet has made my job easier. If a deal I’ve chased down had multiple bidders, or if an exec or agency client changes addresses, I’ll break it on Variety.com. I quickly discovered that the adrenaline rush and instant gratification is much more favorable than hours of anxiety waiting for the print story to break.

The web posting worked well recently on my coverage of the deal Columbia Pictures made for Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg to star in the Adam McKay-directed “The B-Team,” or the deal Universal Pictures made with Media Rights Capital for the George Nolfi-directed “The Adjustment Bureau,” Matt Damon’s next film.

Sometimes the fast “news” process of the Internet is mystifying. I watch sites showcase stories of directors simply taking meetings on projects with no deal in sight. Is that news? It’s certainly a big switch from the memory of the many stories I held for months. Sometimes it was years, which happened when Steven Spielberg circled, backed away from and then finally committed to “Munich.” David Geffen once asked me to hold a story on Bill Condon writing and directing “Dreamgirls” because after previous false starts, Geffen wanted to be sure. I broke the story when he was finally sure — nearly a year later.

That would be a much harder conversation today.

A little over a year ago, I found out Brad Pitt might fall out of Universal’s “State of Play.” The studio’s toppers argued that a Variety story would cement his exit. They asked for a couple of days to let it play out, a request that seemed reasonable. Days later, Variety.com broke Pitt’s exit. (Later that day, Deadline Hollywood Daily wrote about my sitting on the story and cited it as proof Variety was in the pockets of the studios.)

I had no regrets then, but I’m not sure I would even consider holding back the same story if the situation presented itself now.

The blogging phenomenon proved instantly useful to print journalists, because it shortened the give-and-take of deciding when to break a story.

But bloggers are often forced to retract “news stories” that they’ve printed. Certainly all of the websites that prematurely announced Richardson’s death had to make fast retractions. This puts more burden on print to make sure facts are right, and also confuses web readers. Just because something is up on the web, that doesn’t mean it’s true — or permanent.

On Jan. 29, 2008, at 2:33 p.m., Nikki Finke on her Deadline Hollywood site stated that ICM was beset with troubles and that Jeff Berg was leaving. A little later, that item disappeared. 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.

The WGA strike put Finke on the map. She had many supporters among Hollywood workers, with her rah-rah pro-union posts. Those writings didn’t reflect the frustration I heard regularly from screenwriters who were cash-poor, with lucrative assignments out of reach because of a strike they didn’t believe in. But that’s one of the advantages of multiple blogs: multiple voices with multiple points of view.

Sometimes I wish there were more points of view from showbiz bloggers. Too many of them have taken the same tone as they blur a line between objective reporting and opinion. There is a preponderance of catty anonymous barbs, and bullying directed at other journalists and anyone in the industry who doesn’t play ball. Some bloggers seem to prize pummeling each other more than gathering news.

I’ve written some stories over the years that created controversy, particularly when I wrote the columns Dish and Buzz. Still, I always hoped subjects could emerge with their dignity, even if the article was negative. I recall breaking news of the hushed pedophile past of a director on a family film. It became a big story, but the filmmaker’s agent later thanked me for being as fair as they could have hoped. That was OK with me. I thought the community deserved to know what was going on, but my goal wasn’t to punish a man who’d already served a jail sentence.

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. As showbiz bloggers are struggling to find their voices in the new medium, maybe it’s time for turning down the stridency, and writing with a little compassion.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more