The Times: Mel’s cross to bear

Though dedicated to fairness, the New York Times has relentlessly lashed Mel Gibson and his hit film and denigrated its defenders.

The “correction” was buried under the news summary of the April 16 New York Times, and it was somewhat arcane, even by Times standards. Contrary to an earlier report, the correction said, Mel Gibson did not “deploy” TV talkshow hosts like Bill O’Reilly to urge audiences to see “The Passion of the Christ.” Gibson discussed his movie with them, but did not “deploy” them.

The distinction between discussing and deploying may seem pained, but the Times has found its entire experience with Mel Gibson to be a painful one. Prior to its release (and prior to anyone on the paper seeing it), the Times declared “The Passion” an outrage and threat to social harmony. After its release, the Times quoted the predictions of unnamed power brokers in Hollywood that Gibson would be blackballed by the film community, his career ruined.

As predictions go, the Times’ entire litany could stand major “correction.” Despite the fact that Frank Rich compared it to “a porn movie,” by the end of its run “The Passion” could rank second only to “Titanic” as the highest-grossing movie ever made. Further, there have been no signs of anti-Semitic outbreaks tied to the film’s release — not even in places like France and Argentina.

As for Gibson, there’s no indication that his viability as an actor or filmmaker has been compromised. Indeed, Hollywood reveres success, and Gibson’s personal take from his film — somewhere north of $400 million — will surely be history’s biggest. That makes Gibson not an outlaw, but a Hollywood folk hero.

It is not my intent here to indulge in Times-bashing. I spent eight very happy years on the Times staff, and I respect that paper’s unique role in our journalistic establishment.

Still, the Times has vastly stepped up its coverage of pop culture and, in doing so, seems to be bending its normal rules of journalistic fairness. “The Passion” is a prime example.

First came a rather bizarre piece in a March 2003 issue of the Times’ magazine profiling Hutton Gibson, Mel’s obscure father. Depicted as clearly a nut, the 84-year-old Gibson disdains Vatican doctrine, denies the Holocaust, and connects every political assassination to a conspiracy theory. To be sure, he has no involvement in the activities of his son; indeed, Mel often confides to friends his utter exasperation with these flights of paternal weirdness.

Why did this man merit a major magazine profile? Stay tuned. Publication of the magazine piece was followed by a fusillade of columns by Frank Rich, the brilliant critic-turned-polemicist, who clobbered the younger Gibson week after week for acts against humanity. Clearly, the star’s biggest transgression was his failure to invite Rich to an advance screening of “The Passion.” Indeed, Rich claimed no one had been invited except for right-wing weirdos (I was invited, though I may not qualify on either count).

To Rich, it was an open-and-shut case that what Gibson had created was anti-Semitic propaganda. The Times’ overall coverage seemed designed to support this view. Stories from the Times’ Hollywood bureau declared that studio chiefs would no longer work with Gibson, citing Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen of DreamWorks among those who “expressed anger over the film” — a claim that resulted in another “correction.”

Not to be outdone, the Times-owned International Herald Tribune published an antagonistic review of “The Passion,” calling it “a violent cartoon, not a serious film.” The piece was written by an obscure producer named Marie-Christine de Montbrial, who runs a company called SkyDance Pictures.

While other newspapers chronicled the astonishing box office performance of “The Passion” worldwide, the Times largely ignored it — until, that is, the April 12 article, detailing the frenzy that built up to Good Friday encompassing books, CDs and even jewelry tied to the film. That was also the story that marveled at Gibson’s ability to “deploy partisan news media pundits like Bill O’Reilly.”

The rambunctious O’Reilly didn’t appreciate being “deployed.” He also didn’t like the Times’ habit of describing him as either partisan or conservative, pointing out that pundits like Bill Moyers weren’t described as partisan or liberal.

Neither O’Reilly nor Gibson needs my defense, but there are words to be expressed on behalf of “The Passion.” For one thing, it’s a movie, not a political tract. It represents Gibson’s vision, not his rhetoric. As such, it deserves to be judged as art, not prejudged as ideology.

There are legitimate disagreements about the film’s take on biblical history. What is beyond dispute, however, is that “The Passion” is a true phenomenon in the history of motion pictures. As such, it is “news” and deserving of objective reporting by the media. Even by the Times.

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