Saturday, August 18, 2007

Mervgate: What Happened at the Hollywood Reporter?

That is the question we need answered, and media reporters at news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, should be investigating it and fleshing out the facts, following up on Editor and Publisher's piece over the weekend.

I've pieced together from various sources some of the events that transpired as well as my own thoughts on what had an influential American publication actually pulling a story from a web site after it was published in the print edition and had been syndicated around the world, in the most bizarre case of attempted censorship we've seen in years.

The person responsible for pulling Ray Richmond's column on Merv Griffin and the fact that he was gay was editor Elizabeth Guider, pictured here, who was apparently out of town and who completely freaked when the pressure came from various Hollywood titans, advertisers and lawyers for one of Griffin's companies. It's quite possible she was simply told she had to pull it by those way above her at parent company Nielson Business Media, which has many other business interests and connections with many Hollywood moguls and companies (though Editor and Publisher, which so far is the only publiation to cover this, is owned by the same company). Guider has only been editor of THR for less than a month, having been named at the end of July, after serving in various positions for 18 years at Variety.

Specifically, she'd received a legal threat from one of Griffin's companies, but any editor worth his or her salt would know there was no case here: a dead man cannot be libeled, and there was no libel here anyway. Merv Griffin was gay, and many people could attest to that. Apparently some advertisers, specifically one with an ad buy that was a tribute to Griffin, were threatening ads would be pulled. Conceiveably, studios, production companies and others could bear pressure down, pressed by still others.

When we called THR during my radio program on Friday for comment after the column disappeared, we were told it had been taken down "at the request of the editor." But it seemed evident that other staffers did not support Guider's decision. At first, we actually couldn't get an answer at all, as there appeared to be a degree of embarrassment. A source told me later that others warned Guider this would be a huge mistake.

I went back on the air and told listeners across the country what had happened, gave out the phone number and urged people to call the Hollywood Reporter and explain that the editor's action was grossly homophobic. According to many of our listeners, the phone lines were soon flooded. By this point "Mervgate" was on various blogs, such as PamsHouseBlend, and Ray Richmond had given an interview to blogger Kevin Allman. Within an hour, the column was back up on the website, though it was downplayed, not prominent on the homepage. And Reuters wire, which picks up THR for syndication, had pulled the story as well and did not put it back up.

Richmond's column was published the night before and had gone up through the editorial channels and no one saw it as a problem. But the Hollywood power brokers who attended Griffin's funeral mass in Berverly Hills on Friday woke up that morning to see "Merv Griffin was gay" in their Bible of the industry, and obviously they began burning up the phone lines. It's possible that even the governor's office or Arnie himself leaned on THR since Schwarzenegger gave one of the eulogies, thanking Griffin for giving him his start in showbiz. Or did the powerful Washington Post television critic Tom Shales put the pressure on? He certainly has the influence in the industry and was furious about the discussion of Griffin's sexuality.

Many questions to be answered. There is a story here that is now bigger than "Merv was gay" and is very much about strong-arming the media. Will Howie Kurtz and our other intrepid media reporters get on it?