Media Circus: Thin-skinned journalists

When it's their turn to be written about, media honchos believe that turnabout is NOT fair play.

By Catherine Seipp

Published July 25, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the recent New Republic letters-to-the-editor exchange between Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz and New Republic media critic William Powers was one of those rare moments when the skeleton in the media's closet stopped merely rattling around behind closed doors and instead came out and did a little dance. Yes, here in the open was our awkward secret: No one is more thin-skinned than the media. No one.

Members of the press are usually also deeply committed members of the can-dish-it-out-but-can't-take-it club. And since this was a case of a media critic angry at another media critic for criticizing criticism of yet another segment of the media, the whole imbroglio had a surreal added dimension that was almost cubist.

The particular bone of contention here isn't actually that important. But to summarize: Kurtz felt that Powers "committed a flagrant foul against me" by coming down on him for questioning the supermarket tabloids' handling of the Frank Gifford affair. Powers responded that he had merely "observed that the mainstream press profits hugely from tabloid journalism while simultaneously sneering at it, and that this is hypocrisy."

Kurtz added that Powers should have called him for comment, "but actually checking the record would have ruined his story line." Powers volleyed that his piece was not reportage but criticism, and "as Mr. Kurtz should know, a critic ... is not obliged to discuss his opinions with the people whose work he is critiquing."

I'd say Powers won that round, but then the person who has the last word usually does. No one knows this better than the media, who have the last word as a matter of course and are furious whenever someone takes it away. This is regarded as a dastardly violation of professional courtesy.

I personally last felt the wrath of my media fellows in March, when I wrote a long, critical article about Variety and the Hollywood Reporter for Buzz magazine. (I should explain that this was before Buzz had morphed completely into the curious amalgam of In Style and Tigerbeat that it is today; the magazine doesn't run pieces like that anymore.) My thesis was that the trades, being trades, are remarkably beholden to readers, subjects and advertisers -- who of course in the world of trade paper journalism are all the same.

To illustrate how this gimme-mine attitude is especially prevalent at the Reporter, where it even trickles down to the staff, I related an anecdote about how its editor, Alex Ben Block, had insisted on including his daughter in a special issue on child actors. Told by a subeditor that this was not exactly proper, Block protested, "I don't care. If my own daughter can't be in that issue, then what's the point of being editor?"

Now this remarkable remark had been uttered in front of several witnesses. Still, Block wrote an angry personal letter to the editor of Buzz claiming he hadn't said it. But when push came to shove, he avoided actually denying the quote -- at least in his second letter, the one he submitted for publication.

However, he did argue that none of my criticism of his paper was justified: "She invented a red herring ethics issue ... Her article is an insult to the hard-working journalists who regularly test the limits of the First Amendment to remain fair in a world full of seductive publicists."

Perhaps someone who finds publicists seductive is just too far gone. But I've noticed that such thin-skin is especially prevalent here in Hollywood, where journalists typically regard celebrities and their antics as fodder -- and I've pushed my way up to that particular feeding trough over the years myself, by the way. But let media foibles be held up as a source of public amusement and edification, and the howls of outrage rival "If you prick us do we not bleed?" in self-pity.

I think another element is the poisonous resentment that grows in people whose job it is to report on those who make bizarrely large amounts of money. In any other city, what an entertainment journalist gets paid is perfectly respectable. Here in Hollywoodland, however, it can seem unreasonably inadequate. The Hollywood player's salary looms over the local press like a gloomy shadow. Maybe being criticized like a public figure -- while not getting paid like a public figure -- just strikes journalists as too unfair.

Anyway, at Hollywood's hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, even run-of-the-mill, in-house grousing can get you in trouble since the rise of senior editor and vice president Carol Stogsdill. She was recently promoted (although some say it was actually a demotion -- the Times is complicated) to being in charge of "interdepartmental topic teams." An adherent of the "I heard that!" school of management, Stogsdill always seems to be rounding the corner, Big Nurse-like, when you least expect it. And she takes a similarly dim view of dissent.

"If you're going to complain about this newspaper," she reportedly once told a group of staffers grumbling in the hall about the latest goings-on, "you shouldn't be here."

Another time she upbraided an expert writing to criticize the Times' coverage of the Los Angeles subway project because he used her name without the proper honorific ... in a letter addressed to someone else. "You refer to me familiarly as 'Carol,'" she wrote back. "If in the future you have reason to refer to me or address me, you may do so as Ms. Stogsdill." For insulted media folk, it seems there just aren't enough hours in the day.

I know about this because for five years I wrote a monthly column for Buzz chronicling the inner workings of the Los Angeles Times. It was a popular column -- at least 1,000 loyal readers, just figuring in the Times editorial department, although the constant downsizing there probably took its toll. But the column also got me called by fellow journalists "malicious," "mean-spirited," "so unfair," "a very, very angry woman" and (courtesy of Times contributing editor Robert Scheer, who for some reason objected to my calling him Robert "Romeo" Scheer) "that bitch."

I wonder if they meant that ... in a bad way?

Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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