That's the tightrope you walk when you cover Hollywood. I'm thinking about all this because NYT Hollywood correspondent Sharon Waxman announced Friday that she's taking a book leave starting July 1 and does not want to return to cover entertainment. (Word is, she has met with The Hollywood Reporter, which is seeking a new editor. She refused to comment.) "I want a new challenge," she says. "I've been writing about Hollywood for 8 years for the Washington Post and 3 1/2 years for the New York Times. There are a lot of other things in my background. I was a foreign correspondent for ten years. I speak French, Hebrew and Arabic. I don't think the Times intended me to cover Hollywood eternally. I don't know what the immediate future holds."
In January, when Waxman finishes her book (it's about the market in antiquities), she may return to another beat at the NYT. One-time culture desk editor Steven Erlanger hired her and then moved on to become Jerusalem bureau chief. Waxman has been dealing with other culture and movie editors since then.
I have always rooted for Waxman as a hard-nosed, fearless reporter who can write. But I preferred many of her thoughtful, long-reported features at the Washington Post, where she functioned as an observant outsider, to the daily news stories she turned in at the NYT. Even Arts & Leisure doesn't have room for the fun thumbsuckers Waxman used to deliver. (It's not easy to write for the highly visible NYT, as I can attest; it has many rules, regs, politics and cooks.)
To my mind, Waxman's days on that beat were numbered from the day Michael Cieply morphed from NYT movie editor to Hollywood correspondent. As her editor, Cieply could contain and protect Waxman. He's an experienced Hollywood player who understands the entertainment beat's intricate politics and knows how to massage a story's language. On her own, Waxman tended to stomp through the Hollywood minefield, heedless of any explosions she might set off. (Stories such as her David O. Russell feature, who was one of her subjects in her book on indie directors, Rebels on the Backlot, often elicited gobs of attention--and strong reaction. Cinematical founder Karina Longworth, now at Vidiocy.com, devotes an entire category to Waxman under the heading "Bad Journalism."). "It was a tumultuous first few months," Waxman says. "It settled down after that. It was a period of adjustment. Hollywood didn't have an aggressive reporter on the beat before."
Waxman is dipping her toe into blogging, which might be something to consider. Deadline Hollywood Daily's Nikki Finke can be abrasive, but she's found her sweet spot as a blogger. She thinks fast on her feet and runs with breaking news in a way that would never pass muster at The Grey Lady. Finke has often chafed under the constraints of her employers. Now she is free to do whatever she wants--and works the town effectively.
By comparison, the LAT's entertainment reporters work the inside fence, making nice with the players as they collect info. It's a daily newspaper in a company town.
Of course, the entertainment business has a history of absorbing those who cover it, including LAT reporters Dale Pollock, Alan Citron, David Friendly and Michael London. (After the LAT, Cieply gave producing a whirl, then returned to journalism.) After a stint as a NYT staffer, my boss Peter Bart had a career as a studio production executive and movie producer before returning to journalism as a book writer and editor-in-chief of Variety. The NYT's Bernard Weinraub covered Washington, then came to Hollywood in 1991, and swiftly became a member of the insiders' club when he married studio chief Amy Pascal, in 1997. He left the beat in 2000; Waxman came on board 3 1/2 years ago. When Weinraub eventually left the paper in 2005, he wrote an exit story in the NYT revealing how much he coveted the money and social standing of the people he covered.
It's hard to imagine the industry welcoming Waxman as one of their own (not that I'd imagine she's interested -- to her credit, she's a journalist to the bone). Case in point: In 2004, Waxman talked producer Mark Johnson into giving her an early sneak peak at his movie, The Alamo. Hoping that she would give the troubled movie some much-needed perspective, Johnson went out on a limb with Disney. The result was a piece, published more than two weeks before the film's April 9 release, that was widely perceived as damaging the film. Opening line: "When the dust finally settles, the Walt Disney Company may not want to remember 'The Alamo.'" The story goes on to say:
The film, screened this week for a reporter, is heavy on history and sweeping shots of the reconstructed Texas monument, but short on action and drama. Part of the problem with the movie, Mr. Johnson acknowledged in December, was the lack of a central hero. "There's no one lead," he said during the re-editing process, when three editors were reworking on sections of the film. "We've got to keep six characters alive, which is proving really difficult. We may have attempted to do too much."
Granted, it's Waxman's job to get the scoop. Her reporting confirmed bad buzz on a $107-million film; that's a story. However, Johnson is known as a one of a rare breed, the good guys -- a solid producer whose word you can trust. He expected the same in kind.
The artful journalist dodgers walk the line. They keep their best sources without burning them, give a little here, take a little there and get the true story across without making too many friends -- or too many enemies.
UPDATE: David Poland posted at 1:18 AM.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]