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).
There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that both Sullivan and Christy have done what they’re being accused of doing – it’s an element of any good scandal that the culprit be caught dead to rights.
In each instance, there was a kind of sting operation. Other gay journalists contacted Sullivan through his Web personals to confirm his identity (Sullivan has subsequently admitted to most of the gory details); an ad hoc unit of the Hollywood Reporter staff got the goods on Christy.
The odd thing is that neither man was doing much to hide what he’s now been fingered for. For each of them, the problematic behavior was, in some sense, his professional stock-in-trade.
In Sullivan’s case, he was exposed for something that he discusses freely. He cruises. He’s proud of being well known in gay bars across Washington. Before you know it, when you’re with him, he’ll be talking about leather stuff. He’s written, too, about unprotected sex between HIV-positive partners – he’s in favor of it and has a strenuous point of view about its relative safety. He’s not keeping many secrets. Of course, his enemies argue that he’s intellectually dishonest – but that’s different from being actually dishonest.
Still, the in flagrante delicto Web pages, which were enterprisingly saved and reposted by his detractors, are a fleshy corpus: “killer muscle ass that loves to milk loads with my power glutes.” Not exactly gay pride, but strong porn-writing skills. With pictures too: a fabulously muscled, thick-necked headless torso – which will make an ideal book cover when the story is told. (We may just be on the verge of understanding what an incredible kink-catcher the Web can be – a Web page becomes the misdelivered letter in a Restoration comedy.)
As for Christy, he was exposed for doing a low-rent version of what almost every reporter covering the movie business does: get stroked and handled and coddled by the studios (if you don’t submit, you get cut off). A Cartier pen? An Armani suit? Christy may be the cheapest date in motion-picture history. Okay, some of what Christy allegedly did may have been illegal. He’s accused of taking kickbacks involving no-show acting jobs, which allowed him to receive union health insurance. But how unusual do you think this is in an uninsured freelance town?
Neither scandal was a slam dunk – it took major strategizing and cunning to get both of them into print. In the Christy case, any reporter would reasonably ask, why now? The man is geriatric (so much so that it’s impossible to confirm his exact age) and he’s been in the studio pocket for his entire career. In the Sullivan case, the difficulty should have been getting anyone with a lawyer to publish such unconfirmed stuff. (Yes, Sullivan more or less confirmed it, but not until it was all over the place.)
Weeks ago, editors at some of the publications Sullivan worked for received e-mails directing them to Sullivan’s bareback Web pages, which created the effect, when those publications didn’t fire him or investigate him or censure him, of a cover-up – which then became the pretext to circulate the e-mail to the media engaged in the business of monitoring the media. (When I first heard about this, the angle was about the Times’ malfeasance – the Times knew but was protecting him.) Within a few days, news of the Sullivan Web pages made it into Michael Musto’s Village Voice gossip column. Then a local throwaway gay paper, LGNY, ran a story by Sullivan antagonist Michelangelo Signorile, and also posted it on its Website. Signorile, a name brand in gay controversies (scandals, like everything else, need brand association), was keenly attuned to the process, explaining in a Web interview: “I sort of thought it would get linked and e-mailed around the gay media world. Already, everybody at the New York Times knew about this because it got to gay people there. And now that Andrew has responded, it does give more leeway to some other papers, in terms of maybe covering it from a media angle.”
The Christy case broke open when a staffer at The Hollywood Reporter quit (followed by two of the paper’s editors) because the paper would not run his investigation of Christy’s conflicts (which would be, if you think about it, like a New York Times reporter expecting the Times to run a story investigating, say, Maureen Dowd). The Hollywood Reporter’s refusal to print the story promptly became the story. The reporter in question was then hired by Inside.com, a competitor of The Hollywood Reporter, which then published the story not merely as a scandal story but as a media-business story.
Still, up until this moment, you have a gay-press story (such stories seldom make it to the straight press), and a Hollywood business story (most don’t leave Hollywood). The transforming element was the linking of each of these stories on Romenesko’s MediaNews. Romenesko, because all he does is link, has come to be thought of as the ultimate honest broker. What’s more, because his site is targeted at the media industry, it is, effectively, wire-service-like in its reach. Once posted here, the scandals were airborne.
Of course, because we are the media and we understand both the figures in the scandal and the operation of the scandal, nobody is really shocked. It’s scandal, but nobody is scandalized. It’s ritualized. It’s something close to parliamentarian maneuvering. It’s procedural. It’s blocking, it’s checking. It’s basic, close-quarter back-stabbing. It’s a communist cell, or a college English department. It’s backroom stuff carried out in public – with the public itself being irrelevant to the dispute and uninterested in it. It’s a media thing. We’re on some meta level of hypocrisy.
Still, the question is whether Andrew Sullivan and George Christy should be punished. And what exactly are they being punished for?
They embarrass us, I suppose is the point.