Media Circus: "Variety" is not the spice of life

Film industry's star reporter quits, feb up with the trade rag's sleazy ethics.

Published October 3, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Waking up in the morning and finding out you've lost your job by reading Variety is something of a tradition in Hollywood. So I was less outraged than I might have been when I heard that exactly this happened to MGM's former president, Mike Marcus, earlier this year. Besides being a nasty surprise for Marcus, however, this was the first in a series of incidents that led to Variety's much buzzed-about loss of its star film reporter, Anita Busch, who quit in August.

"Yes, it was accurate," Busch told me over breakfast a couple of weeks ago, when she was in the middle of weighing half-a-dozen job offers. "But there was no call placed to him. I felt it was really wrong of the paper. After the Marcus thing, I started interviewing. I felt like the paper's level of integrity was reflecting on my work."

Apparently what had happened was this: Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart, who has sources at the top of the Hollywood power structure from his two decades at Paramount and MGM, knew Marcus was about to be fired, but had promised not to let on. So he told the reporter on the story -- not Busch, as it happens -- to refrain from calling Marcus. This is just the sort of thing that makes Peter Bart (who did not return my call for comment) one of the most hated men in Hollywood.

Other things, of course, include Bart's much-loathed (but widely read) commentary and open letters to people in the industry, which seem to be a twist on William Goldman's famous edict that no one knows anything in Hollywood. Bart's thesis is generally that no one knows anything -- except Peter Bart. Two weeks before Disney chief Michael Eisner fired Michael Ovitz, for instance, Bart pontificated in print that, rumors to the contrary, the two Mikes were like that. When it turned out this was not so, he wrote another Peter Bart Explains It All For You column, with no mention of the previous, erroneous one.

Now I kind of like a man who's always right, even when he's wrong. Peter Bart, for better or worse, is a good writer who began his career at the New York Times. So when he furiously called up a press agent who'd given a studio slate story to the Hollywood Reporter, screaming, "They're not journalists! THEY'RE not journalists! They're not journalists AT ALL!" ... well, he did have a point. The Reporter's editor-in-chief, Bob Dowling, a former ad salesman, is also that paper's publisher.

I'd say the truth of the Marcus story (hey, at least Bart was on the money there!) is more important than its discourtesy toward its subject. But this is a minority view.

"Anyone who thinks that can go to hell," a studio publicist told me bluntly. "Or in Peter Bart's case, go back to hell ... where he's probably just on disciplinary leave."

This is actually a rare instance when a Hollywood publicist and Busch are on the same side. Because, like her former boss, Busch is famous for calling up studio flacks and raking them over the coals, although she says she doesn't really deserve that reputation.

"I'm a screamer in the office, not on the phone," Anita says primly. She adds that a Fox publicist once lied to get her in trouble. "She said I called her an F.C. Anyone who knows me knows I don't use language like that." This will come as a surprise to any source who's picked up the phone in the morning to hear Anita on the other end announcing, "You fucked me!"

Such ferocity is what's transformed Anita from the sweet young thing some observers remember to Hollywood's premier breaking-news reporter. For three years, the first thing writers for Variety's rival trade, the Hollywood Reporter, always asked sources was, "Does Anita have this?" Because usually she did.

Her coverage of Sony was so inside that joking rumors circulated that maybe she was sleeping with Sony Corp. Chairman Noboyuki Idei. Anita is justifiably annoyed by this -- "would people say a male reporter is sleeping with Sherry Lansing?" -- but she's not above having a bit of fun. When Peter Bart posed for Vanity Fair reading Variety next to a nearly naked bimbo, Busch brought some pictures of her own to a staff meeting.

"Uh, you know, Premiere wants to do a profile of me," she announced blandly, "and I just was wondering which of these pictures of me you guys think is better." Then she produced shots of herself reading Variety ... with a completely naked man looking over her shoulder. There was a silence, and then Peter Bart laughed, and then everyone laughed. (Although Bart then added, a little huffily, "this is not the time or the place.")

Last month the New York Observer noted that Busch's scoops "so infuriated Hollywood's excitable movie moguls that Michael Ovitz once sent her a bottle of MSG -- to which she is allergic -- with the note saying: 'Enjoy.'"

"I think he meant it as a joke," Anita says calmly. "He's kind of a nerdy guy."

Anita Busch is 36, shoots pool in her spare time, wears her straight blonde hair in a plain pageboy and has a direct, Midwestern way about her. She grew up in Granite City, Ill., for generations a blue-collar steel mill town, and began her journalism career in Chicago working for advertising trade publications. She came to Hollywood because she wanted to move to a warm climate and heard about an opening at the Hollywood Reporter for someone to cover the marketing side of the entertainment business.

"The first six months I thought I was going to get fired every day," she recalls. "No one would talk, because no one had ever covered marketing there before. So I started tapping sources I already had: Dairy Queen had a tie-in with "Radio Flyer" and there was Disney and McDonald's ..." When the Reporter moved Busch to the film beat, she was so embarrassed by her first story she "just wanted to crawl under a rock and never come out. I didn't understand what I was writing about." After a few weekends boning up in the library, however, she caught on, and quickly became one of the top reporters there.

But the unofficial motto of the Hollywood Reporter has always seemed to be "We're Number Two: We Kiss Ass Harder." Once Bob Dowling killed a story of Busch's after Mike Ovitz called preemptively to complain. When a fellow reporter who revealed one of Anita's secret sources was not disciplined, she quit and went to Variety.

Now, however, Anita says that despite the Hollywood Reporter's reputation for graft -- its longtime party columnist George Christy is basically the Sultan of Schnorrers -- she's actually seen more examples of unethical behavior at Variety. There was run-of-the-mill stuff, like when Peter Bart was trying to get a book deal with Miramax a couple of years ago; Variety reporters who wanted to write about stalled Miramax projects were told to back off. Then Bart appeared in "You'll Never Make Love in This Town Again," the film version of the Heidi Fleiss girls' opus, which was bad enough. Having his name edited out of the Variety review was even worse.

But two incidents after the Mike Marcus episode were especially galling.

Last summer, there was the situation with Janet Shphintz, a Variety legal correspondent married to Adam Platnick, the president of Peter Guber's production company. Shphintz was allowed to keep writing about entertainment attorneys Bert Field and Lew Meisinger, even though both men were involved in a lawsuit (representing opposite sides) between John Travolta and Platnick's employer.

Then, a couple of weeks before Anita quit, came the business with producer Arnon Milchan, an old friend of Peter Bart's who was negotiating to leave Warner Brothers for Fox. Anita found out that Warner Brothers had offered Milchan $100 million to stay; when she saw her story in the paper, however, the figure had been upped to $130 million. It seems that Bart wanted to help his friend get a better deal (Milchan eventually went to Fox for $230 million).

In August, Bart published a retraction to a story Anita had written about an exchange between William Morris Agency head Arnold Rifkin and agents in Morris's London office. Anita insisted the story had been accurate and quit. But by that time, the Rifkin incident was just a tiny last straw.

"She was nice and funny but strange," recalls one of her former colleagues. "She'd think the latest Burger King promotional tie-in was a fascinating story. She was big on conspiracy theories. She probably believes in UFOs. I wish her well."

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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