Scrutiny on the bounty

Variety in the crosshairs

We newsies report on the lives and actions of others. So it’s sometimes instructive to have the tables turned and be in the media spotlight — in the way that it’s instructive for a dentist to get a root canal without anesthesia.

In the past few weeks, Variety has been accused by various other news outlets of Philistinism, breaches of ethics and unscrupulous practices.

And those were the more positive articles.

I have newfound respect for anyone in the public eye. But this column is not simply about Variety’s PR headaches. I’m writing about all of us who are living in a decade of unprecedented changes. We are bombarded with information and new ways to deliver entertainment, all accompanied by a flood of uncertainty and emotions. We’re trying to apply 20th century rules and practices in a world that is not sure they’re relevant. Every adjustment is accompanied by far more questions than answers.

Here are a few things I’ve learned:

Lesson 1: Perception is reality.

On March 8, Variety restructured its reviews department and eliminated full-time reviewers. We asked Todd McCarthy, David Rooney and Derek Elley to stay onboard, under new terms. But many bloggers declined to ask details and just jumped to conclusions: that we are outsourcing to unqualified freelancers, that we are abandoning reviews and, as one blogger wrote, that we are “running out of money.” (Even the sainted Roger Ebert went on a tirade. If it came to a popularity contest between Variety, Bernie Madoff and Toyota, I think we would have come in third.) Actually, freelancers around the globe have always supplied 75% of our reviews. These are smart, talented people — and, from day one, we asked the review trio to assume central roles in that group. As for our policy, Variety will still run far more than anyone else: about 1,200 film reviews this year — same as in 2009, same as in 2011 and beyond. (And, incidentally, Variety is nicely profitable and plans to stay that way.) Shockingly, some alleged journalists are not interested in facts. Brad, Angelina: Call me, please. I wanna know how you put up with all this.

Lesson 2: We are all exposed.

At first, the experience was a reminder that some words are loaded: I was taken aback by reports that Variety “fired” the trio. “Fired” is a harsh word, implying contempt and finality, but it’s easier to write that than to say “Variety proposed renegotiating terms that it hopes are fair.” Since Variety writes about business actions, turnabout is fair play. But “fired” doesn’t convey the respect Variety has for the reviewers and their profession. And the volume of coverage was a reminder that every one of us — showbiz folk and non-pros alike — now lives in a world of constant surveillance and scrutiny, where every pratfall is video’d and uploaded, every email can be leaked, and every move analyzed (and likely criticized, often anonymously). To paraphrase an old joke, I worry that no matter how paranoid I get, it won’t be enough.

Lesson 3: “No comment” is sometimes valid.

On an unrelated front, Variety was sued March 9 by a filmmaker who … well, legally I’ve been advised to keep quiet. When reading news, I always thought “no comment” was the dullest possible answer. Now I appreciate that those two words can often be shorthand for “No comment, but I cannot wait until the truth comes out!”

Lesson 4: Old-fashioned values still matter.

While showbiz obsesses about hip trendiness, it’s reassuring to know that readers value tradition. The biggest outrage centered on the perception that McCarthy was being dumped, which was seen as a betrayal of him and of Variety’s own traditions. In truth, this is a change in bookkeeping and structure, not in our philosophy. But I’m glad Variety can inspire such passion.

Lesson 5: Journalists love to write about other journalists.

In the past 18 months, virtually every big company has changed fiscal strategies, including terms with employees. Those terms will be rethought again as the economy recovers. While all industries are hurting, journos write with special fervor about their own. Many bloggers criticized us; a few were potentially libelous. (No, I’m not talking about that one blogger whom some people actually read, I’m talking about a few who are trying in vain to be like her.) While fans see Variety as carrying a sense of tradition and stability, detractors for some reason think shooting us down will further their own success. I don’t like their rage, but I understand it: These newish sites are struggling to survive. I think most industry workers are too busy to frequent these sites, but journos do, always looking for tips. Weeks after the initial online misreporting, the mainstream media was repeating the errors. As one reporter at a rival print publication said to me, “I’ve read this everywhere online, how can it not be true?” A scary assumption.

Lesson 6: It’s not Old Media vs. New Media.

When TV boomed in the 1950s, some predicted the end of moviegoing. In truth, fans changed bigscreen habits, and the two media learned to co-exist and even benefit each other. That’s how I see the blogosphere and mainstream publications. But the question persists: What do you do when you’re using one set of rules but the world seems to be adopting new ones?

Variety was playing by the Old Rules, which dictate that a news outlet does not report its own layoffs, does not name the individuals who are exiting, and does not write about itself. (Were we right or wrong? You decide.) Even this column is breaking those 20th century-style rules.

A blogger I know — not someone who works at Variety — laughingly told me about getting a phone call from a producer who was irate after she blogged about a feud with another producer, based only on his rival’s POV. “That’s the beauty of blogging,” she said. “You can write almost anything, and it scares up an immediate reaction!”

“OK,” I said. “But meanwhile, how many people have read the one-sided report, how many other sites have linked to it, and how many people will remember this and think it’s the whole story?”

She gave me a pitying look and said, “I don’t think you understand the Internet.”

After these past few weeks, I think I understand it better than she does.

This is not about blog-bashing. The new media has changed the speed of reporting stories, the reach of news outlets, and added a personal voice to traditional news coverage. Those can be major assets. However, in the rush to be first with the news, writers have started to ignore old rules about balanced reporting and about verifying facts with impartial sources.

Media members need to calm down and realize they don’t have to weigh in on every rumor. Readers and newsies alike have to remember that published speculation (whether on paper or on the Web) is not necessarily fact. We need more skepticism but less cynicism.

Showbiz news coverage may be a microcosm of the bigger picture. Everyone in the industry is dealing with changes. We’re still not sure where and how audiences will watch TV shows and films, and how much they will prefer other fare. What will be the effect of entertainment being available 24/7 on mobile phones? How do people buy and listen to music? We’re bombarded with new developments and are trying to process all this, so are making up rules as we go along. We feel safe sticking to old methods, but are learning they don’t always apply. There is a mixture of excitement and fear, overlaid with a huge portion of economic tension. People are attention-deficit-disordered and overstimulated, studying each other obsessively and suddenly lashing out with surprising glee.

Old Rules, New Rules: In the media and in entertainment, we will have to adjust. But I keep thinking of Kurt Vonnegut’s statement, which should apply to every individual, in all professions, in this age of anger and uncertainty: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

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