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Strange Bedfellows

What could the Andrew Sullivan sex scandal and the George Christy Hollywood-graft affair possibly have in common? More than you think.

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The two big media scandals of the moment aren't, technically, in the same debate. Andrew Sullivan, the conservative gay pundit, who is HIV-positive, has been found anonymously soliciting unprotected anal sex on AOL and the Web (bareback is the online term of art -- AOL's censoring of cruder words has helped create a new class of euphemisms). George Christy, of The Hollywood Reporter, is accused of accepting kickbacks -- tchotchkes as well as health insurance -- from the Hollywood bigwigs he covers.

The Sullivan scandal is about hypocrisy (he's a famous scold, regularly railing against the Clinton sexual misadventures as well as all manner of gay promiscuity) or, depending on who's debating, the right to privacy (the Sullivan case was being linked last week with the Bush twins' drinking episodes). The Christy scandal is about conflicts of interest and possible pension-fund fraud (the Justice Department is looking into allegations involving Christy and the Screen Actors Guild pension and health plans).

And certainly you wouldn't compare Sullivan and Christy as journalists. Sullivan is the former New Republic editor, the current "TRB" columnist, and a frequent New York Times Magazine contributor; Christy writes a dopey party column for a Hollywood trade paper.

But I can't stop thinking about them together. Possibly because there's a strange role-playing aspect to both cases. Sullivan is role-playing on the Web -- a studly, porno-guy kind of role. Christy's role is that of a Hollywood bon vivant and self-styled silver-screen gossip. There's pathos and discomfort in each instance -- the intellectual as stud, the old trade reporter (who's scrounging for health insurance) as power diva.

Then, too, they're linked by Jim Romenesko, the arbiter of all media gossip and news (from newspaper union disputes to studios making up phony movie reviewers). It is Romenesko's selection of these stories for big play on his Website, MediaNews.org, that turned these tales from marginal reports to scandals du jour. We trust his selection -- everybody in the media business gets his or her media news via Romenesko. His finger is on our pulse.

I'd also argue that media scandals, unlike political ones, say, or financial ones, are a special category of personal disgrace. The Bush twins can just blame the press -- when you are the press, it's a harder excuse to make. We've turned on ourselves. Media scandals represent a kind of blackballing, or excommunication, or drumming out of the corps. Political scandals are about control, financial scandals about profit, media scandals about identity -- how we see ourselves. And about not liking what we see.

It's hard to ignore the interoffice elements of the contretemps. Sullivan's and Christy's enemies (if the Clinton scandals taught us anything, it's to pay attention to the enemies in a scandal) are other journalists -- with great media contact lists.

When I started writing a column about Sullivan a few months ago, I was e-mailed right away -- even before I knew I was writing the column for certain -- by some of the same Sullivan enemies who are now in the forefront of the present revelations (is a conspiracy a conspiracy if everybody knows who the conspirators are?).

Sullivan has infuriated many colleagues. He's righteous, even abusive, in his anti-gay gayness. He believes he's despised for reasons of ideology, but there's something else too -- something more basic. He's taken the ground from other gay journalists. This is a turf war. Sullivan has made himself into the principal gay writer for two of the most prominent liberal publications in the nation -- The New Republic and The New York Times Magazine. He's cornered the market. If you're a gay person in the media, it must be maddening to have Sullivan as the main success model. What's more, going after Sullivan has the added benefit of mussing up Adam Moss, the editor of The New York Times Magazine. Moss, who is gay -- making him the most powerful gay person in journalism -- has, in the eyes of other gay media people, shamed his gay identity by hiring and, they argue, protecting Sullivan. (The New York Times has long been a gay bête noire -- gay journalist David Ehrenstein, one of Sullivan's chief pursuers, was going on last week in a Web interview about the Times' sour history with gay reporters.) It's office politics gone operatic.

George Christy, likewise, has, through his media position, gained outsize presence and power. He's an official Hollywood chronicler (along with Variety's Army Archerd, who is as fawning and as legendary). That's a time-honored, albeit ridiculous, Hollywood job -- it's the Louella Parsons role. It might seem strange that Christy's column -- hardly a column at all, more like a list of names (So-and-so was seen with So-and-so, who is a good friend of the delightful Mrs. Walter Matthau) -- would earn him dedicated enemies. But you build up resentments over a quarter-century of lording unwarranted and unseemly power. The point is, really, that he isn't truly powerful. In fact, Christy is pretty tattered and comical -- but he has the power that comes from sucking up to the powerful (which makes people really hate you). If you're a journalist in Hollywood -- a condition that must involve considerable self-loathing -- it might make sense that you'd turn your own self-hatred on the most loathsome in the ranks. Attacking Christy, you could possibly believe, is an attack on Hollywood values, on Hollywood corruption in general, and even on the second-class status that Hollywood confers on journalists (you get treated like a service person).


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