Before those expected indictments are announced any day now, this is probably an appropriate time to look at the ongoing Los Angeles Times vs New York Times bitch-slap over Pellicano coverage. In my estimation (and in the estimation of some esteemed journalism colleagues who don’t work for either paper), the NYT is winning and the LAT is losing. In fact, this is shaping up as not even a fair fight.
I don’t get it. This is a story in the LAT‘s backyard, not to mention the biggest scandal to trip up and titillate Hollywood in recent memory. Sheesh, when the Begelman embezzlement broke over bounced checks, LAT brass back in the late 1970s swore that they’d never be beaten on a home turf Hollywood scandal again. A decade later, then LAT editor Shelby Coffey panicked upon hearing that the WP‘s Bob Woodward was investigating the cozy relationship between producer Jerry Weintraub and then Vice President George H. Bush. (Interestingly, Coffey put a reporter on it full-time to beat Woodward to the punch. But then Iran-Contra was exposed, and Woodward got sidelined. Suddenly, Coffey lost interest in the Weintraub-Bush probe and delayed publication of his reporter’s story for months and months until it was watered down beyond recognition. That reporter was Michael Cieply, now the NYT‘s movie editor who has been guiding Halbfinger’s and Weiner’s Pellicano articles.)
Now words like “humiliated”, “embarrassed,” and “beaten hands-down” are being used to describe the LAT‘s Pellicano reporting vs the NYT‘s. There even are hyperbolic comparisons to Watergate and its Washington Post vs New York Times pissing match.
The LAT has a seeming cast of thousands working the Pellicano scandal full-time whereas the NYT has just a 2-person team consisting of one reporter (David Halbfinger) and a freelancer (Allison Hope Weiner, a lawyer), with some on-again, off-again and now gone-for-good help from veteran investigative journalist Lowell Bergman. True, the LAT has done a better job covering the impact of the scandal on the Los Angeles legal community as well as on the local citizenry who’ve found themselves victimized. But there’s no juice in that stuff. Instead, the NYT has concentrated all its effort on the big Hollywood names who now find themselves central figures in the Pelican Flap: Michael Ovitz, Bert Fields, and, most recently, Brad Grey. The result has been a buzzorama for the New York paper.
My biggest complaint with both newspapers is that there’s no institutional memory about events in Hollywood, or at least no evidence of one in many of the stories. True, veteran showbiz reporter/editor Cieply can fill in Halbfinger’s and Weiner’s gaps. But I can’t understand why the LAT isn’t making better use of Claudia Eller on this because she knows where a lot of Hollywood bodies are buried. (One LATer knew so little about Ovitz, yet was trying to write a story linking him to Pellicano, that sources who’d been interviewed phoned me to rant and rave about “that moron reporter.”)
Right before Easter weekend, the NYT broke that big story about what Grey and Ovitz gabbed, or didn’t gab, to the FBI. So what was the LAT‘s reaction? A lame defense of Grey’s two accounts to the FBI of the extent of his acquaintance with Pellicano, including statements by Grey’s attorneys claiming there was nothing inconsistent about that. “The second interview was more expansive, they said, simply because Grey agreed to waive his attorney-client privilege and speak freely about using Pellicano to work on litigation in which he was involved,” the LAT wrote.
In fact, the LAT‘s inability to hit hard at the Hollywood types caught up in the Pellicano mess thus far has given rise to some major rumors. One of them is that the newspaper itself may have hired Pellicano to do some work for the legal department in the past. There’s even a name of who did the hiring being floated, but nothing about why. (Looks like I’m far from the first to hear this rumor that Los Angeles Times itself may have hired Pellicano to do some work for the legal department in the past. There’s even a name of who did the hiring being floated, but nothing about why. (UPDATE: David Garcia, the LAT‘s director of media relations, gave me this definitive statement this morning: “The Los Angeles Times, including its legal department, has never hired Anthony Pellicano ever. This includes in-house legal counsel as well as any outside legal counsel working on behalf of the Times.”) Whispers also abound that the paper’s sharp downturn in movie advertising has created a more cautious editorial climate when it comes to criticizing the major players in Hollywood. (Whereas the NYT seems to revel in the discomfort it’s causing for Grey.) Underscoring this has been LAT editor Dean Baquet’s lunches with major studio moguls in recent weeks. (He confirmed them to me.) On one occasion, he shlepped from Downtown LA to Culver City — which can mean an hour-long trek at midday — to meet with Sony Pictures honchos Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal.