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Merv Griffin’s Bodyguard of Lies
Posted on Aug 27, 2007
By Larry Gross
Seventeen years later, the situation is vastly different, but celebrity closets remain dangerous journalistic territory, even when their inhabitants are deceased and therefore immune from being libeled. The day before Merv Griffin’s funeral, the Hollywood Reporter, one of the industry “bibles” read by everyone in showbiz, ran a front-page story by regular writer Ray Richmond that began, “Merv Griffin was gay.” Richmond, who had worked for Griffin in the 1980s, went on to note that “Merv’s secret gay life was widely known throughout showbiz culture, if not the wider America.” Richmond made clear why he thought it important to set the record, um, straight about Griffin’s sexuality:
The reaction to Richmond’s article was swift and effective. Recently appointed editor Elizabeth Guider, a Variety veteran who had taken over The Hollywood Reporter less than a month before, seemingly caved in under pressure from her corporate bosses at Nielsen Business Media or from one of Griffin’s companies, which threatened legal action (although, of course, there was no legal basis for such a threat). In any event, the article was pulled from the website, but in the age of the Internet, of course, the cat was long out of the bag. As the story bounced around the blogosphere, it clearly was beyond containment, and THR restored the story, although in a less prominent spot. As Raymond later wrote on his blog:
Reuters, however, which had run the story when THR first posted it, took it down and did not put it back. Reuters explained: “This was a story from The Hollywood Reporter that ran as part of a Reuters news feed. We have dropped the story from our entertainment news feed, as it did not meet our standards for news.” Officials of the news service did not explain, however, why the article seemed to meet their standards when they originally ran it (Yahoo News, which picked up the Reuters story, kept it up even after Reuters took it down).
So, how far have we come in the years between Malcolm Forbes’ and Merv Griffin’s funerals? Quite a way, to be sure, but at least for many power-wielders, things are much the same. Hollywood, like its East Coast counterpart in image manipulation, Washington, D.C., is endlessly engaged in the selling of constructed personae on the mainstream media’s pages and screens. If, as Churchill said, in wartime truth has a bodyguard of lies, then Hollywood’s image factory is always at war. Its defensive strategy relies heavily on a fifth column within the ranks of the press: gossip writers. The progeny of Louella Parsons and heirs of Hedda Hopper follow in the footsteps of their infamous ancestors, “two vain and ignorant [columnists who] tyrannized Hollywood” in the 1940s, as they were characterized by historian Otto Freidrich. Early in the 20th century the component parts of the image-manufacturing complex were firmly in place: On the one side studio publicists, publicity agents and public relations flacks, and on the other side an array of media writers ranging from freelance stringers to writers working for supermarket tabloids and magazines, whose contemporary counterparts work for mainstream personality gossip magazines like People and US, television programs like Entertainment Tonight, syndicated gossip columnists that reach millions of readers through their local newspapers, and the latest venue, commercial and amateur websites. But despite the occasional adversarial pretense, these groups really collude in providing the sort of gossip they believe the public wants to know. Gossip may not have the journalistic respectability of “hard” news, but it is an increasingly visible feature of the media landscape.
It may be a commonplace of journalism courses that the ultimate standard for news media is honesty—never knowingly to report something that is untrue, even if the “whole” truth may not be reportable for a variety of reasons (such as protecting one’s sources). But when it comes to celebrity gossip, “The standards are different,” said Jerry Nachman, then editor of the New York Post. “That’s why I always say gossip pages should come with little warning labels: The rules of regular journalism were not followed in reporting these stories.”
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