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Are Movie Celebs Picking on Online Entertainment Journalists? Maybe

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Recent Internet gossip "reported" that actors Russell Crowe and Lawrence Fishburne had banned reporters from press gatherings related to their new movies. Representatives for the actors deny it. But there is evidence that  entertainment companies have little respect for Web-based reporters and treat them accordingly.

Consider the source. These are three words to live by when you read any entertainment or celebrity "news." And when you get that juicy tidbit online, you'll want to consider the source even longer and harder.

Consider this recent tempest in a virtual teapot: BBCi Films gossip Stella Papamichael reports breathlessly that actor Russell Crowe -- he of the tempestuous past -- has banned online media from covering his latest flick, "Master and Commander." Why, pray tell? Because of "nasty gossip about him," according to Papamichael's column. A gossip column spinning gossip about a celeb who hates online gossip. Makes your head spin like you need an exorcist, no?

I decided to break online tradition and actually call Crowe's publicist and studio to confirm the rumor. Crowe publicist Robin Baum told me it wasn't true, and Twentieth Century Fox publicist Carol Cundiff called the report erroneous. The Beeb's Papamichael says she got her information from Showbiz Networks, an entertainment "news" source known for rounding up tabloid news from other sources. (Showbiz Networks would not speak on the record to me, naturally.)

If Crowe had indeed issued a masterful ban on Net journos, it didn't last. The "Master and Commander" movie junket took place last Friday, and at least three online journalists were there, according to one of them, The Hot Button's David Poland.

Oddly enough, more online gossip came out that Lawrence Fishburne wouldn't talk to Net journalists at a recent press event for "The Matrix: Revolutions." Once again, the source was questionable, with the "news" posting on the Internet Movie Database with an unusual credit to the World Entertainment News Network: "This column does not represent IMDb's opinions nor can we guarantee that WENN's reporting is completely factual." (Perhaps the tagline "unfair and unbalanced" would do the trick?)

Once again, Poland said that this report was wrong, because he attended the press event for "Revolutions" and spoke one-on-one with Fishburne.

So what gives? Fox's Cundiff says that some movies have very limited slots for Net journalists, and Poland concurs that these two events were small and limited all journalists. Cundiff believes some Net journalists who didn't make the cut might have come to the conclusion that Crowe was not in love with the Net press.

Papamichael opines, "What Russell Crowe wants, and what the distribution company want may not be the same."

Celebrity power and access

The game of Hollywood journalism is predicated on access to stars. Access to stars is usually on the studio's turf, in prepackaged junkets designed to wow small-town critics who can't help but praise a movie and get blurbed on the film's ad -- thereby getting invited to more junkets.

Online journalists once played outside those rules, with people like Ain't It Cool News' Harry Knowles getting inside sources to spill the beans online about movies before they came out. Now that Knowles has plied the junket circuit and become a Hollywood producer himself, online reviewers live in a weird netherworld, with little access and limited credibility.

Bans on particular press formats have been in vogue lately, with California governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General John Ashcroft staying away from print media -- and talking with softball-lobbing TV journalists or conservative talk radio.

"I think the proliferation of media alternatives has given exceptional leverage to those who are famous," Travis Smith, editor of Variety.com, told me via e-mail. "They can pick and choose the audience they want to reach, and how to reach them. ... All media, even big media, is becoming fringe media, and celebrities have the advantage of choosing which fringes they're going to tap into."

Poland says that actor Nicolas Cage banished some print journalists from his roundtable interviews at the junket for "Gone in 60 Seconds," and banned Net journalists the year before.

Ironically, it's the Net journalists who are probably the most "whipped" of the media, Poland says, because they're the first ones who could lose access.

Anderson Jones, senior editor and movie columnist for E! Online, told me that for entertainment reporters, it's all about "access, access, access." And the studios have a certain stereotype for each medium, and how they might control them, according to Jones.

"The easiest people to control are TV people, because they want pretty pictures and they're not especially bright," Jones said. "The next level are print journalists, some of whom are junketeers and are so desperate to get back to their free room at the Four Seasons. The radio people are fighting amongst themselves for a few slots. And the Net is the Wild Wild West. The studios don't know how to deal with it."

Better days ahead?

The dot.com bust laid waste to some promising movie-related online ventures, such as Inside.com and Mr. Showbiz. The quality journalism sites, such as Slate and Salon, have very little Hollywood content. That leaves sites such as E! Online and Entertainment Weekly's EW.com, along with a vast array of independents run as labors of love -- sometimes laced with piss and vinegar.

Jones says that what scares the studios is that Net journalists often write under pseudonyms and can trash a movie without culpability. Plus, publicists have something tangible to show bosses when their star makes the cover of Vanity Fair or has a taped TV appearance -- Web printouts just don't measure up.

Variety.com's Smith sees positives and negatives while considering online entertainment sources.

"There's an onus on the consumer of [online] media to determine how reliable the information is," Smith said. "The fact is, most (but not all) online news sites lack the experience, the fact-checking layers, or the long-term commitment to editorial quality that is present at more established media orgs. Yet, they can look quite professional. Of course, any media, online or not, is only as good as its reporters, and reporters are fallible, foolable and work under crazy deadlines."

Fox's Cundiff is one of the few studio publicists who "gets" the Net, and understands how important a good online marketing campaign can be. Cundiff says that Fox honcho Tom Rothman has shown great interest in their online campaigns as well as the readerships and demographics of various entertainment sites. 

While Poland and Jones were generally pessimistic about the current state of affairs for online showbiz journos, Poland says things could change with more accountability for Net scribes. "If we are to be taken seriously as journalists, we need to do what journalists do," he told me. "We need to have strong relationships with studio publicists, we have to meet embargo dates [not writing about films too early], and meet the standards that other journalists live by."

While some sites try harder to meet those standards, the vast sea of gossip online seems hard to conquer -- even for a master and commander. "Of course, there will never be an end to online gossip," Smith says. "Online or off, fame and gossip go together like Siegfried and Roy."

[Note: After being apprised of its errors, IMDb did run a correction on the Crowe and Fishburne items that were sourced to WENN.]

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Related Links
Ain't It Cool News
BBC: The Master of Disaster
E! Online
EW.com
IMDb: Correction on Internet bans
IMDb: Fishburne Refuses To Talk to Internet Hacks
Showbiz Networks
The Hot Button
Toronto Star: Ain't it crass news
Variety.com
World Entertainment News Network
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Anderson Jones: "The Net is the Wild Wild West. The studios don't know how to deal with it."

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