Los Angeles magazine is usually pretty boring, but R. J. Smith has a highly enjoyable piece in the current (September) issue about the L.A. Weekly’s Nikki Finke, Hollywood’s most histrionic showbiz columnist. The well-connected but famously difficult Nikki has been bouncing around the media world as a freelance Hollywood correspondent these past few years–from The New York Observer to Salon to New York to the New York Post “and anybody else willing to put their head in the hornet’s nest,” as Smith noted–before landing at the Weekly two years ago.
So far, it’s been a perfect fit, maybe because the L.A. outpost of The Village Voice chain allows Nikki a soapbox for her knee-jerk leftist politics along with a hometown outlet for behind-the-scenes entertainment reporting. Nikki is endearingly tactless about her employer (as she is about most things), telling Smith that “the only time I see people reading it is when I go to the car wash…I call it the official paper of the valet parkers. And they’re reading the massage ads.”
But by e-mailing selected pieces to her media contact list, Nikki’s brought attention to the low-profile Weekly. In May, she reported that the New York Times and Los Angeles Times were preparing pieces about Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s conflict-of-interest business deals with Hollywood studios, forcing both papers to rush their stories into print before they were ready. The next month she had another scoop, the day before President Reagan died, that his health was failing.
These were enterprising columns. But I like it best when Nikki whips herself into a rattle-headed political fury over what’s going on in Hollywood. After the Super Bowl/Janet Jackson’s breast incident–which Nikki argued might encourage violence against women–she decided that CBS chief Les Moonves should resign, and called up CBS spokesman Gil Schwartz to ask if he agreed. (Schwartz’s predictable response: “It’s an outrageous and moronic question not worthy of an answer.”)
Fond as I am of the rude and inappropriate question, I have to say I was initially with CBS on this one; Moonves is not an elected official, and presumably neither Nikki nor many of her readers are Viacom shareholders. I can’t see why she thinks most of us should care about personnel matters in Big Media.
But then I read Nikki’s list of Moonves sins: He’s a “former child actor who…repeatedly plays himself on TV.” He’s a “show-biz insider who pals around only with others of the industry.” And–you might want to be sitting down for this one–he’s a “bicoastal philistine who used to live in a Brentwood mansion and is right now looking at opulent Malibu beach houses.”
Looking at them right now? After all this? Couldn’t Les at least have shown some shame and limited himself to unopulent houses? And since when did Nikki become such a bleeding-heart pushover? Resign, bah; obviously, the man deserves the chair.
Last month Gawker reprinted an e-mail fit between Nikki and an unnamed GQ editor, who’d suggested she might want to plug GQ’s anonymous, as-told-to Hollywood-agent story (in the September issue) in her Weekly column: “I have 300 interviews with real live Hollywood agents ON THE RECORD talking all about stealing clients,” Nikki fumed in response. “But do you people ever think to actually call me to do an article for you? Nooooooooooo…Because I’m not 24 years old. Because I’m not making stuff up. Because I don’t live in New York. Because I don’t kiss up to the idiots who decide which stars magazines like GQ can and can’t put on their covers.”
I was actually on Nikki’s side here, until she veered over into hysteria. Then I was on the GQ editor’s side, until he (she?) foolishly accepted Nikki’s invitation to get ridiculous.
Nikki and I have had a testy relationship ever since I described her as “semi-sane” in a media column I wrote in the ’90s for the old Buzz magazine; at the time, she’d just left her staff job at the L.A. Times. She complained to my editor that she was offended because she’d written serious articles about the serious problem of schizophrenia, so as I recall we had to run an apology.
Now for the record, if anyone called me semi-sane in print, I wouldn’t send a letter like that. I’d send a jagged piece of broken mirror in an envelope with “I AM NOT SEMI-SANE” scrawled on it in lipstick or blood, but I guess we all have our own style when it comes to handling these things.
Still, we had lunch now and then over the years, during which she’d give me background information for various stories, in between expressing amazement that I wasn’t tape-recording but merely taking notes. (“I guess it’s just that I’ve spent so many years as a real reporter, Cathy–but that’s O.K. You do it your way!”) Three years ago, she had a short-lived stint as editor of a local L.A. weekly called the Downtown News, where she tried to assign me a complicated, intensely reported media piece. For $100. Chop!
I mentioned that incident on my blog recently, and got a huffy e-mail from Nikki claiming that not only had she never had lunch with me, but that she couldn’t recall our ever having met. Now it’s a standard offended journalist’s insult to (a) accuse you of getting your facts wrong, and (b) imply you’re far too unimportant a person to remember. Sometimes they toss in that they’ve never read anything you’ve written either. But this was really a stretch.
As I reminded Nikki, the last time we met was for lunch at Joss on Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood, where (this is what made it particularly memorable for me) she ordered an extra chicken salad to go for dinner later, since the lunch was on my tab.
“I’ve heard of senior moments,” I told her, “but this is ridiculous.” Return chop!
I was amused to see that Nikki made an oblique complaint about me in the Los Angeles piece, demanding of Smith in their first conversation, “Why… wasn’t I writing about the right-wing takeover of the Los Angeles Press Club, for God’s sake?”
It’s actually rather hard to make a rational case for such a right-wing takeover, when practically the entire board (except for syndicated California political columnist Jill Stewart, who’s center right) is so hard left that entire meetings are often taken up with Bush-bashing instead of L.A. Press Club matters. What Nikki was referring to was the parties that two other freelance journalists and I organize for the Press Club, which occasionally–gasp!–allow libertarians like Virginia Postrel or John Stossel to be the guests of honor, along with plenty of non-political types. But my co-hostesses are definitely anti-Bush and left-of-center.
What’s going on here, I suspect, is a new twist to the old one-drop rule. True believers regard any right-of-center politics with the same horror that old-south racial purists regarded a drop of African blood; someone who was, say, one-eighth black was considered not quite white but an octoroon or whatever.
So now because exactly one person involved with the L.A. Press Club (me) is a genuine right-winger, suddenly the entire organization has been tainted with the frightening vision of a “right-wing takeover,” an idiotic description that I’ve heard other media types in L.A. use, some of them even saner than Nikki.
But I salute her for, once again, getting it first in print.
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.