October 19, 2018

Bernard Weinraub: When the news is not fit to print

Just a few minutes after Bernard Weinraub settled into a booth for breakfast at Nate ’n Al in Beverly Hills, he waved hello to two studio executives he knew from his tenure as The New York Times’ Hollywood reporter, a job he held from 1991 to the mid-2000s. “This is like movie central,” he said.

Weinraub, now a playwright in his early 70s (he wouldn’t give his specific age — “It’s my mishegoss,” he said), has been credited with virtually inventing serious news coverage of the film business. 

As he tucked into poached eggs, he regaled a reporter with stories from his former beat: How he once fell asleep while interviewing Jim Carrey — he had taken medication for a bad cold — only to become mortified when the actor awakened him with a kick to his foot. How former CAA chief and Disney mogul Michael Ovitz was so incensed by stories Weinraub wrote about his then-flailing business enterprises that he tried to get Weinraub fired; and about his own 1997 marriage to studio exec Amy Pascal, who would later climb the ranks at Sony and is now co-chair of Sony Pictures, in the process making Weinraub himself the subject of a media controversy.

“My marriage put me in a very difficult position. … There was a conflict of interest when I met Amy,” he said.

His competition harshly took note: “It was like the end of Western civilization,” Weinraub said wryly.

Yet there was another reason the highly influential reporter finally decided to leave The Times in around 2005: “I’ve wanted to write plays since I was a kid,” he said. So, he returned to his first love by writing his play “The Accomplices,” which revolves around the Roosevelt administration’s reluctance to admit Jews into the country during the Holocaust, and which was staged in New York and Los Angeles in the 2000s, earning him a Drama Desk Award nomination along the way.

About five years ago, Weinraub began writing his second play, “Above the Fold,” a saga spotlighting media ethics that will premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse on Feb 5. “I had all kinds of ambivalent feelings about journalism,” he said. “It seemed to me that in plays or movies, it’s always the journalist as hero — Woodward and Bernstein or those comedies like ‘The Front Page.’ … I was interested more in the conflicts that journalists encounter and the pressures that journalists face.”

Weinraub read several books about the Duke University lacrosse case of 2006, in which three athletes were charged with gang raping an African-American stripper, even though evidence was scant and the accusations turned out to be bogus. “But in the beginning, not just The Times, but every newspaper and magazine and network covered it as a foregone conclusion that these were kind of arrogant lacrosse players,” he said. The case was perceived as a juicy story that spotlighted issues of “white over black, rich over poor, educated over non-educated. Sex, violence, the whole thing. … And then it turned out to be this hoax, but the boys’ reputations were seriously damaged.”

“Above the Fold” tells the fictional story of Jane (played by Oscar- and Emmy-nominee Taraji P. Henson), an ambitious young African-American reporter for a New York newspaper who covers a similar, fictionalized case, also with plenty of inflammatory rhetoric about the accused. The national media promptly jumps on her bandwagon. But even when she begins to doubt the guilt of the young men, her newspaper encourages her to follow her initial premise, partly to avoid making the paper and its columnists, who have written screeds about the frat boy characters, look foolish. The backdrop is the dying age of print media and the rise of digital journalism.

“What interested me was how an ambitious reporter deals with that kind of pressure from her paper to follow and adhere to an agenda. … And ambition can get in the way of a lot of things,” Weinraub said. Jane desperately wants to please her paper, and she’s desperate to go overseas [as a foreign correspondent], just to get out and push ahead.”

Bernard Weinraub

Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, who helped nurture the project as part of the theater’s HOTHOUSE new play development program, sees the story as universal. “The play explores what any of us, in any profession, are willing to do because of our desires to get ahead and thrive,” he said.

Weinraub declined to discuss The Times’ controversial coverage of the Duke affair, but in fact the newspaper was among those accused of adhering to a kind of lynch-mob mentality when reporting the case, and it was one of the outlets that was heavily criticized by Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson in their 2007 book “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case.” The Times’ biased coverage continued with a front-page story even after mounting evidence suggested the case was basically moot, the book said.

Weinraub insisted that he was never forced to follow an agenda while reporting to The Times, save for a small story early in his career assigned by an editor who was disgruntled by the dearth of pharmacies open on Sundays on the Upper East Side of New York. “So I went to the Upper East Side and all I had to do was walk two blocks and there were drug stores open,” he said. “But the drug store he went to wasn’t. … And then I finally found an old lady saying ‘Oh, I wish this store were open’ and all that, and I quoted her. So I did a little story about that drugstore crisis … even though there was none.”

Weinraub grew up the son of Eastern European immigrants in a kosher home in New York and was encouraged to write plays while studying English at the City College of New York. But he was drafted into the Vietnam War, and while stationed in Korea, he chanced to be assigned to a division newspaper. Later, he landed an entry-level job as a copy boy at The New York Times while in his early 20s. “I began writing freelance, and I got all caught up in the ambition there,” he said. Weinraub went on to become a Times correspondent in Vietnam and Belfast and to cover the White House during the years of Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush, among other endeavors. He moved to the movie beat in 1991.

Coming to Hollywood, he said, was like landing in Versailles; Weinraub was struck by the “crazy economic gap between journalists and the people they covered,” he wrote in a lengthy 2005 New York Times column as he left the paper and the entertainment beat. Early on, he had visited the sprawling Coldwater Canyon area estate of producer and former studio chief Dawn Steel, whom he recalled in an interview as “just terrific; a very dynamic, charismatic person.” But her palatial digs — and the movie stars milling about it — proved startling for the novice Hollywood reporter, who then “went back home to my little apartment,” he said.

Once, when Weinraub was waiting at the valet at the Bel-Air Hotel, a producer regarded Weinraub’s modest Ford and said, “I used to drive a car like that when I was a journalist.” Weinraub found himself searching for more remote parking spots around elite watering holes such as Orso to avoid embarrassment at valet stations.

“[Among] people who cover the movie business, there is a resentment, whether they admit it or not, because they know ‘I’m as smart as you’ … and who the hell are these people to earn that amount of money?’ ” he said. “I didn’t feel that,” he insisted, although critics charged that his 2005 piece indicated otherwise. “I wasn’t envious of these people; I was fascinated by them.”

Even as Weinraub earned praise for his unprecedented coverage of the industry, he encountered his own share of ethical dilemmas. His marriage, he wrote in 2005, “brought to the fore some of my own shortcomings. Clearly, I stayed too long on my beat, clinging to a notion that I could sidestep conflicts of interest by avoiding direct coverage of Sony, and learning too late why wiser heads counsel against even the appearance of conflict.”

Even when he requested to leave the movie beat around 2000, his subsequent coverage of television and other entertainment proved problematic because Sony is also involved in TV.

In his 2005 piece, Weinraub also describes becoming so palsy with Disney’s Jeffrey Katzenberg that he showed him off-the-record remarks that had been made about him by exec Michael Eisner. “That was wrong and foolish, and years later I still regret it,” he wrote. During our interview, he described his writing process on that story and said of his decision to show Katzenberg the remarks: “I probably shouldn’t have done it.”

In “Above the Fold,” the fictional Jane encounters her own share of ethical struggles when evidence supports the accused and her newspaper wants her to hold off on the story. 

Jane was initially written as a white woman, but Weinraub decided to transform her into an African-American because that “would give the play a new dimension,” he said in an e-mail. “It was an experiment. And it actually gave the play a dynamic that it didn’t have. “

Indeed, Jane’s minority status ups the pressures she feels to succeed; her editor at one point tells her she’s going to be the newspaper’s Jackie Robinson, and, Weinraub asked, “How do you live with that … to come in to work every day and think you represent a race?” 

Initially, however, he had trepidations about writing two lead characters as African-American — who now are the key protagonists in “Above the Fold.” “You leave yourself open to all kinds of accusations,” he said. 

But Epps, who is African-American, had no problem with the play; neither have the significantly African-American audiences who attended readings of “Above the Fold” at the Pasadena Playhouse. “There was not one person who said, ‘How dare you?’ ” Weinraub recalled.

But he said he probably won’t be reading the reviews of his new play. “When you write about journalists, it makes you nervous, because journalists are critical,” he said. 

For tickets and information, visit www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.