Variety Sucks Up to Studios on Strike
November 12, 2007
In the days leading up to the writers’ strike, Guild members took to blogs to blow off steam about those hard-bitten studio heads—and also, to complain about what they saw as unbalanced coverage in Variety, the paper that for many in Hollywood has been the go-to outlet for coverage of the work stoppage.
“Am I overly-sensitive or did the entire front page of Variety today reflect an anti-WGA bias?” read one entry on the blog United Hollywood.
“[Variety reporter Dave] McNary’s reportage reminds me of the work of Judith Miller in the run-up to the Iraq war,” read another.
Some writers have also charged that Variety, whose editor, Peter Bart, has served in senior positions at Paramount Pictures and MGM/United Artists, has an institutional bias toward the studios. “We all know,” wrote another blogger, that “the same companies we’re negotiating with (I use the term loosely) own the press outlets we all read.”
Speaking to Off the Record, Carleton Eastlake, a member of the Guild, elaborated on his group’s complaints. “Variety seems to be doing so much press release reporting,” he said. “When the Guild doesn’t come up with a statement, they don’t seem to have the inside sources to flesh it out.”
Guild members have singled out several Variety stories for scorn. One article from last week reported that the studios have numerous movies ready to go into production, strike or no—undercutting the writers’ position by implying that the studios could weather a work stoppage. Another story led with the line: “As might be expected from showbiz writers, the WGA is probably going to push back its deadline.”
Tim Gray, an editor at Variety, told The Observer, “Our coverage has been comprehensive and very fair. We’re covering every perspective here and we think we’re objective.”
And in a Nov. 5 editorial, the tabloid glossy, which is owned by the publishing company Reed Elsevier, pointed the finger back at the Guild, which it criticized for being hesitant to speak to the press.
“During the entire pact talks,” Variety wrote, “the producers have shown a well-organized attempt to convey their point of view. But the Writers Guild of America reps are potentially hurting their cause by being so slow to explain their side to the media.”
It concluded, “By carefully watching their words, the writers are in danger of getting swift-boated.”
Indeed, in the last few days, the Guild has been racing to build a communications team and improve its press outreach.
“At first, there was no grassroots effort to get the story out,” said John Aboud, a member of the Guild who is part of the communications team. “The guild leadership and communications team was hunkered down in the negotiation itself. It wasn’t providing the press the personal touch that only the membership could provide.”
Over the weekend, the team drew up a list of “WGA Talking Points,” like “A work stoppage is simply negotiating by other means,” and “We didn’t choose this moment. It chose us.” It has begun to disseminate the list among Guild members.
Of course, platitudes alone aren’t sufficient for reporters—they need anecdotes! Mr. Aboud said the team has also put together a collection of personal stories to help make their case. One involves Marc Cherry, a creator of Desperate Housewives, who for years, according to the Guild, had to live off of earnings from The Golden Girls, illustrating the tight economics of the business for even the best writers.
Still, it may be difficult to please some writers, regardless of the tone of the coverage. “I’ve been very frustrated—frustrated enough that last night at midnight I was posting [comments to Variety.com] instead of sleeping when I had to wake up at 6 a.m. to organize a picket line,” said Mr. Eastlake. “I’m surprised—no, not surprised, I’m disappointed.”