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An Attack on Flacks and Hacks

It may be the most fertile marriage in Hollywood, a pairing that this summer has given birth to the most cherished event a celebrity couple can share: joint time in the spotlight.

The couple in question is Demi Moore and Bruce Willis. When Moore appeared nude and pregnant on the August cover of Vanity Fair, she garnered more publicity than Pee-wee Herman.

Now her husband appears nude and pregnant on the cover of the September Spy.

But Willis was not consulted and had no idea that he was on the cover. “We were trying to keep (my pregnancy) quiet,” said Willis. “But I guess the cat is out of the bag. I’m expecting some time next spring.”

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At least that’s what his publicist says he said.

To understand the full irony of Willis’ appearance, readers may want to turn from the celebrity cover of the moment to the article most discussed in show-biz circles, a piece by Ivor Davis and Sally Ogle Davis in the August Los Angeles magazine.

Titled “Flacks Fatales,” the article is a bone-bruising attack on the new breed of show-biz publicists--mainly women--who treat the entertainment media much as the Pentagon treated pool reporters during the Gulf War. Publicists, the Davises say, “make dogmatic decisions as to which publications are fit, or important enough, to get the rare bone. In many cases, they demand covers, insist on quote approval, set ground rules for interviews and reject the publication’s choice of writer or photographer--often without the advice, consent or knowledge of the star in question.”

The story has stirred up ugly tensions between celebrity journalists and publicists (also known, derisively as “flacks”) on both coasts.

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For example, Entertainment Weekly reports in its current issue (Pee-wee’s on the cover) that industry types are faxing around an “honors list” of publicists. The categories include: “Publicist Most Likely to Eat Her Young” and “Publicist Most Likely to Breast-Feed a Star’s Pet Ferret.”

A miffed publicist reportedly once asked an editor at Los Angeles magazine, “Why do YOU always get to decide who’s on your cover?”

According to the Davises, magazine editors increasingly find that such decisions are not always theirs.

In the current Newsweek, Robert J. Samuelson, discusses the sorry state of advertising and its effect on the media. He writes, for instance, that one unnamed health magazine offered to do flattering stories on two diet products in exchange for $25,000.

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Is it any wonder, then, that some editors will sell their soul to get a circulation-boosting star on their cover? Rolling Stone is among the magazines accused of “kowtowing” to publicists by sources in L.A. magazine--a charge the editors angrily deny.

A call to Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner was referred to . . . a publicist.

“She is the one who takes interview requests, and if she deems it necessary or important enough, she’ll put you through,” a secretary said, illustrating the fact that celebrities aren’t the only ones who attempt to doctor their image.

Rolling Stone Executive Editor Robert B. Wallace said that dealing with publicists is unavoidable, but “there is a spirit of professionalism” that determines just what kind of dealing will be done. “You reach a certain point where the spirit of professionalism is violated.”

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Rolling Stone refuses to drop below that line--it refuses to give a publicist or celebrity the right to approve a writer or photographer or to dictate content, he said. “If we didn’t maintain our standards, we’d be horse-trading every day.

“We don’t have much of a problem getting people on the cover of Rolling Stone. Some magazines are begging to get celebrities on the cover. I don’t think we have to go through all the hoops that a magazine like Los Angeles probably does.”

Lew Harris, editor of Los Angeles, denies that his magazine jumps through publicists’ hoops. The magazine does let celebrities look at potential cover shots. But the final choice is made by editors, he said.

Harris and Wallace concur that they and the publicists generally share the same goal--making the celebrity look good.

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Most magazines, in fact, do almost as much tinkering to make a star look good as Spy did to make Willis look pregnant.

Does Willis, for instance, look any less natural on the Spy cover than Arnold Schwarzenegger does, (as groomed by Lori Matsushima and “styled” by Vivian Turner, the credits tell us) all decked out in black leather on the current Rolling Stone cover?

The photo credits for the Los Angeles magazine cover shot of Michelle Phillips include the names not only of the photographer but also--no kidding--of the set stylist, clothing stylist, makeup artist, hairdresser and the stores that supplied the dress, the earrings and bracelet, the chair, the champagne glass, the utensils and the food.

Such excesses may explain why Spy’s covers are always so refreshing.

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Spy had planned for its September cover to feature a Ku Klux Klansman to accompany its enlightening expose of Louisiana legislator David Duke. “The day Vanity Fair arrived,” said Morrison, “we decided one piece of questionable taste deserved another.”

Spy editors found an old head shot of Willis and grafted it onto a model’s body, which they then modified. “Who needs Bruce when there’s this incredible computer imaging (technology) that will create Bruce for us?” asked Morrison.

If only some of that irreverence would rub off on other entertainment magazines.

A key problem with the L.A. magazine piece is that it fails to evenly spread the considerable blame for the flackery-puffery dilemma.

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Many of the reporters in the story were too wimpy to be quoted by name, and the Davises’ concerns that they’ll be forever shunned--presented as anxious humor--hints that they are overly awed by the alleged power of publicity moguls. Next issue, Los Angeles will run a letter from critic Gary Franklin applauding the Davises’ article. But Franklin also chastises certain celebrity journalists.

The “alleged reporters who live and die by the press release . . . deserve all those evil flacks,” Franklin writes with inimitable self-righteousness. “One must recognize, of course, that the shallow and stupid reportage is often encouraged by the editors and (infotainment) segment producers of the organizations for whom these undereducated morons work.”

The husband-and-wife team of Ivor and Sally Davis has earned the praise colleagues are heaping upon them for their “courage” in writing this piece.

But as writers of show-biz pieces for 25 years and 30 years, respectively, the Davises must share some blame. After all, the Faustian bargain between flacks and hacks was made the first time a journalist accepted a free hotel room from a studio. It became more insidious when journalists allowed themselves to be herded onto a studio lot to interview a star en masse. No one seems to be questioning the existence of journalistic prostitution, but merely haggling over the price.

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Given the massive indignities celebrity journalists must endure, why don’t the Davises simply spurn the genre for other types of writing?

“It’s what editors and magazines want these days--this is not what I’d write about given my druthers,” Sally Davis said in a phone interview. “It’s the market.”

Exactly.

But really, does any of this matter?

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As the Davises put it in their story: “Is it reasonable to talk about freedom of the press when dealing with something as inconsequential as show business?”

The New York Times’ Larry Rohter thinks it is. “People form their views and world vision, the image of how they see themselves as a society, from the movies. Stars and the creators are therefore accountable to the public at large,” he says in the L.A. magazine article. “These are publicly traded companies making this stuff, they should all be scrutinized the same way defense contractors are.”

Each time a Schwarzenegger succeeds in cajoling the media into complying with his image machine, for instance, the level of public skepticism drops. Recall, for instance, the celebrity treatment Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf received on some magazine covers after the war.

If Ronald Reagan has taught us anything, it’s that lines separating a Schwarzenegger from a Schwarzkopf are now blurred in the public eye. With Arnold joining the pregnant ranks of stars who harbor political aspirations, it would certainly seem time for journalists to start taking their jobs more seriously.

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At the same time, maybe magazines should--a la Spy--force celebrities to stop taking themselves so seriously.

So here’s a modest proposal: From now until the end of the year, let all magazines agree to not profile a single celebrity. (Let’s say Gary Franklin can’t do any interviews, either, OK?) Would this celebrity vacuum accelerate global warming, cause the stock market to collapse, or inspire the East Germans to rebuild the Berlin Wall?

No.

Would it trigger a subtle but discernable elevation of the nation’s collective IQ?

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Maybe.


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