The best entertainment journalists are often a weird mix of reporter, critic and analyst. You write about television and/or the movies and a large part of that includes straight-forward reviewing. But many of us end up writing a mix of other stories, ranging from casting info and hard news to lots of interviews. Succeeding depends in part on access and no one wants to be an industry pariah.
It’s easy to get caught up in this show business bubble when it comes to reporting uncomfortable stories. The best of us are cognizant of the fact that the TMZ’s of the world might break news, but do it in a way that often involves paying sources or trading information to bury stories. And then there are the hundreds of celebrity gossip web sites, who traffic in baby bump photos and stories about who is sleeping with whom. If you consider yourself a serious entertainment journalist, you want to try and distance yourself from that world. So when we hear rumblings of something like sexual misconduct about a celebrity, we often take a deep breath and wait.
There’s a lot that goes into the decision about whether to write about an uncomfortable topic. There’s the obvious problem of wanting to make sure there are enough facts to justify a serious news story and that’s often not easily available. But there are also other pressures reporters don’t often like to talk about. In the case of Bill Cosby, there was the prospect of writing about a television icon with a powerful management team and a lot of industry people invested in his success. Few reporters are willing to move forward with a story if it means pushback from their editors, studios and other powerful Hollywood players. Access to celebrities can sometimes be a fragile thing and not many people are eager to burn bridges for a story that might not pan out.
And yet at the end of the day, that willingness to take on the powerful in a fair and even-handed way is what separates the great reporter from the stenographer. You have to be willing to do your job, no matter the short-term consequences. Yes, you might live in an industry town and you don’t want a reputation as a gossip whore or a reckless journalist. But if you’re doing solid journalism and someone doesn’t like it, then that’s their problem, not yours.
“These people are not your friends…Friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong…If you want to be a true friend to them, be honest and unmerciful.” –Lester Bangs
These stories about Bill Cosby and possible sexual misconduct have been circulating for years. Even when interviews with possible victims began surfacing earlier this year, few entertainment journalists gave the stories more than a passing mention. It was an important story and yet because this type of story makes reporters queasy and because Cosby was such a beloved figure, few people gave the topic the attention it deserved.
One of the few reporters who tried was Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur, who has plugging away on these stories for the past year. She was one of the few entertainment reporters who gave the stories attention and it wasn’t easy to get anyone in the industry to talk about it. For example, read this piece of hers from February, in which it’s clear that few people in the industry seemed to take the stories seriously:
The Cosby source also said the interest in the comedian’s past is solely because of Farrow and Allen. “These cases came and were adjudicated at the time, and then they went away. We never hear anything about any of them.
“You had the Gawker thing. And now there’s a gal at Newsweek that’s frisky, looking at some of these things,” the source continued. “I can’t see that that has anything to do with him going back to television.”
She did good work on this story and she’s one of the few entertainment journalists who can say that right now. Lots of entertainment writers and web sites are cranking out stories this week about the allegations, touting their hard-hitting approach to the topic. But before you break out the champagne, ask yourself where you’ve been for the past few years.
I spent a lot of years as a hard news reporter and financial journalist before I moved into covering the media and Hollywood. Entertainment journalism is a profession that doesn’t always get the respect it deserves from other journalists, in part because of the perception that, like sports reporters, we’re often locked in this comfortable dance with our sources.
The Cosby story was a chance for us to prove them wrong and for the most part, we blew it.