October 24, 2006

Beat the Press

The Borat media frenzy begs the question: Will reporters ever quit rolling over for studios?

By Lewis Beale

I was talking to a 20th Century Fox publicist last week about Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and the conversation wasn't about its alleged anti-Semitism or the way it picks on America's rubes and racists. No, I was wondering if actor/co-writer Sacha Baron Cohen was actually going to do interviews as himself rather than in character, as he's been doing for the past several months. The publicist wanted to know why I asked, and I responded that interviewing Cohen as Borat held absolutely no interest for me.

"It's shtick," I said. "And as a journalist, I'm not interested in promoting shtick. I'd really like to know why he chose Kazakhstan as Borat's home, why all the Jewish stuff is in the film and if he thinks that in many cases, the object of his satire is akin to shooting fish in a barrel."

Said flack was amazed I wasn't interested in a Borat interview; everyone else was dying to query the Kazakh buffoon. (If you don't believe me, read this. And watch a Borat "press conference" here). Which leads to my point: the toadying, craven entertainment press once again shows how it might as well be in the pay of the studios. Someone once said that the term "entertainment journalism" is an oxymoron, and these days, that's more often true than not. The competition for "stories" (I use this term loosely; it's really just a feeding frenzy for access) has become so intense that just about everyone has become a suckup.

Here's the thing: the film industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise with a global reach. The images it puts out not only define how we see ourselves, but how others see us. Not that you'd know this from most entertainment "reporting," which is obsessed with celebrity, box-office gross and the vapid coming and goings of studio heads and power agents.

Back in the early '80s, when I broke in as a stringer for the Los Angeles Times, things were a lot different. The entertainment section ran stories about how the Mob was reaping millions from Deep Throat; the ways in which the cocaine epidemic was affecting Hollywood; and how the paranoid M.I.A. movies of the period (Rambo and all those cheesy Chuck Norris flicks) were presenting a distorted image of the Vietnam War's aftermath.

Can you imagine stories like those in any arts section in 2006? It's not just that editors and writers seem to be uninterested in real reporting (under the mistaken assumption that readers don't care), there's also the fact that slowly but surely, they've allowed the PR machine to dictate what they write, and even how it gets played.

Don't believe me? Just check out the outlets who will willingly sign legal documents stating that the piece being written, or the photo being shot, can only show up in the publication, Web site, etc. that the interview was scheduled for. In other words: You want the interview, you have to promise you won't sell it to another outlet. You want the photo, you have no resale or syndication rights. In some cases, you have to promise specific placement before you get the access you want.

I don't know of any other beat reporters -- whether they're covering sports, politics, business or what-have-you -- who are forced to sign away their rights. But on the entertainment scene, well, you want disheartening, check out any junket where the Webbies, TV stations, second-tier papers and other alleged journalists blithely troop up to the sign-in table and happily affix their John Hancocks to these documents. It's truly, utterly disgusting (don't even get me started on the sycophantic autograph-seekers, picture-takers and gift bag freebie sluts).

Luckily, I work mostly for outlets who refuse this sort of blackmail. And even though their stance has occasionally cost them stories they haven't backed down. In the last several months, I've had two run-ins of this sort: an interview with a B-level actor was cancelled when the paper I was writing for refused to guarantee a cover, and photos of a 20-year-old semi-unknown were not allowed when the same publication would not sign away their rights. Good for them; it's nice to know there are still some papers with ethical standards.

Which leads me back to Borat. Interviewing an actor in character has as much relationship to real reporting as the Oakland Raiders do to a good football team. It's blatantly crawling up the ass of the studio and giving it a big rimjob. You want to do it? Great. Have a fine time. But don't ever call yourself a reporter, my friend.

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Comments (34)

Seriously though, you're making this stand on Borat? I totally get your point, but what makes you think that interviewing Cohen would have unearthed any of the stuff you wanted anyway? If Cohen was going around doing junkets as Cohen, he'd just be another fool promoting a movie. This is pure marketing genius, just look at the pub he gets expressly BECAUSE he won't break character.

If you want to take a stand, do it with one of these self-righteous fools who tell us how great Grudge 2 or The Marine is going to be. Or ask some real questions to Robin Williams about what point he made with "Man of the Year."

I think Cohen should be applauded for doing something original.

I agree completely with Jeremiah.

You make some really vaid points. I have to say until I read your piece I really didn't realise that entertainment reporting was more than face lifts, diets, flab, baby's (own and adopted) etc. I would like to see more of your suggested style of journalism.

You are being really harsh on Cohen.

I think that you realised it from the name, however Cohen is Jewish. I think what he is trying to do is parody the Kazak government who has a history of anti-semitism.

Perhaps it is a British/Australian thing however in this type of humour the character is real e.g. Dame Edna. Believing that they are real and who they are is apart of the whole entertainment. This is not your 2 minute Will Ferrel dress up like a red neck idiot humour. Its deeper than that.

I too would like to hear what Sacha has to say about this. I hope you get the interview.

Uh, did you research Cohen at all? The "anti-semitic" content of the film is satire. Cohen himself is Jewish (the name COHEN should have tipped you off to that, genius). He has the character express anti-semitic attitudes to gauge how the people around him respond.

And why on earth did you demand a 'straight' interview? Did Andy Kaufman ever give an interview like that? Of course not. If you had any creativity, you could have created your own faux-'fawning reporter' persona to do battle with Cohen.

You're right about one thing, though. No one cares about 'entertainment journalism.' Get off your soapbox and write about something that matters instead of picking at targets that you don't understand.

Why not match wits? Do the interview, don't play along. Try to get him to break character?

I won't knock Cohen for doing his interviews in character. That's his choice, and sure, it's great marketing for his film. But I completely agree with the point of the article: that entertainment journalists today are a bunch of suck-up wannabes. The most painful year of my life was spent writing for one of those second-tier (make it third-tier) papers. It's an interesting sensation, feeling your soul physically shrivel inside you just a bit more with each story you file -- and the pay was crap. Quitting that business was the best thing I ever did.

"and as a journalist, I have no interest in promoting schtick"

Did Paris Hilton have the night off ? Save your hard-hitting journalism for Tiger Beat, or the next Hillary Duff premiere. Oh and good luck filling the shoes of Mike Wallace.

Vincent Kane,

1. Beale didn't say that Cohen was anti semitic.

2. The fact that he's Jewish doesn't mean he can't be.

3. You are mssing the point of the article.

4. You're retarded.

You could have interviewed Larry Charles, who directed the movie. He would have answered these questions with at least as much insight than the real Sacha Baron Cohen. Actually, the point should not be whether you can interview Cohen out of character or not. It should be why nobody is interested in interviewing somebody else than Borat.

Awww, Lewis, that's cute. So that 15-minute interview you'd get with Cohen as Cohen would be the real deal, the stellar piece of journalism that would answer all your questions? Please.
The reporters who interview Borat as Borat are simply the ones who are more comfortable with the fact that they are entertainment journalists. No film-promoting hotel room sit-down is going to reveal any greater truth no matter how earnest the person schlepping the notebook is. American reporters, particularly those who cover areas like entertainment, need to get down off their high horses and admit that we work in an industry that's simply always going to have to be a little filthy. It's entertainment journalism, for christsakes, not a religious order.
Face it, if you wanted to be a real reporter you wouldn't be covering entertainment to begin with.

Rubes and Racists? The first comment proves you to be the second.

Who's Lewis Beale?

I think this is a great article. Cohen's comedy is consistently political, but at the same time his refusal to ever be seen to take an issue seriously or to ever allow respect or empathy to those he interviews undercuts any kind of statement or commitment, and, to my mind at least, reduces the whole thing to a wearying wholesale cynicism, or worse, to a string of cheap jokes embraced by audiences who don't have Cohen's intellectual agility and are liable to miss the finer points of his satirical project (if indeed it is postmodern irony writ large, which I sometimes doubt) and simply buy in to the more obvious message that 'jews and foreigners are funny'. I, for one, would love to see a real interview with Cohen.

You take yourself and your job WAY too seriously. You report on Entertainment News. You're not saving lives. Get over yourself.

I'm kind of amazed by some of the responses here - particularly those of the Vincent Kane/expat "if you wanted to be a real reporter you wouldn't be covering entertainment to begin with" kind. What, so a film industry worth billions, one which represents the dominant pop-culture paradigm of the present day, is somehow not considered either worthy or deserving of serious scrutiny? Er, who decided this?

I happen to think Borat is an extremely funny film - though some of its targets are, yes, a little on the soft side. But it's also a work deserving of analysis, not merely unquestioning adulation.

As a former journalist, one who's attended all of the major film festivals for over a decade, and sat on more than fair my share of round-table interviews, I am consistently dismayed (and frequently disgusted) by the servile, star-fucking mentality of most "entertainment reporters", who would pose the most inane questions imaginable, and smile and nod and laugh on cue like obsequious buffoons, for the dubious privilege of sharing 15 minutes with Tim Robbins or Lindsay Lohen or whoever, along with 10 to 12 other similarly sweaty, indentured hacks.

Now, there are reasons for this – in particular, the question of access, and the attendant "privileges" accorded by studio publicists, who rank their journalists according not only to the importance of their outlet, but their willingness to be co-opted, and which can be turned off instantly, casting said hack into the bleak midwinter. But when these same journalists clamor, at the end of their allotted time, for autographs from (and photos with) their famous subject, we're in real trouble.

It's this situation Beale is describing, and he's right -- it's a long way from the days he describes, of exposes about Hollywood corporate misfeasance, or serious analyses of political and social trends evident in the movies. We should, as readers and consumers, be getting this kind of analytical journalism; we're entitled to it. Hollywood -- yes, even as manifest in a trifle like Borat -- is no different from Big Oil, or Big Pharma, and touches as many of us at a daily level. But we're not. The studios are more powerful, and the media (frequently owned by the same multi-nationals) more easily co-opted.

And "expat": whether or not Beale would have gotten the answers he sought from Cohen, is not the point ... at least he would have tried. Which is more than can be said for your sweaty junketeer, prepared to roll over and have his soft tummy tickled by the powers-that-be at Fox or Warners or wherever. What you seem to be advocating, for god knows what reason, is a kind of willed silence -- one which avails the consumer, and the reader, not at all.

I love entertainment and I love reading about it. But I hate the fluff pieces which is basically all you can find now. I can't stand the ET or Access Hollywood anymore.

I love what you wrote and I'll be on the lookout for more of your pieces.

This is why American media is so damn boring.... Take a cue from British media and learn how to keep people interested...

it's dumb and it's funny -- much funnier than shooting fish in a barrel. are you really going to investigate anti-semitism in something as stoopid as this? lighten up.

"Begs the question" does not mean "raises the question" or "suggests the question."

Dear "benny,"

I never commented on whether or not Cohen was anti-semitic (though it seems rather paranoid on your part to suggest it). I was merely describing anti-semiticism being used a satirical tool in the film. If you want to comment on what someone says, be sure you actually read it all the way through.

And I didn't miss the point - I'm presuming you're talking about the whole belabored "entertainment media whores itself for the studios" thing. That point is aimed at the wrong target. Getting angry at a satirist is not only misguided, it shows that the journalist is a rather humorless fellow. Ever thought that Cohen might be using the publicity machine to his own satirical ends?

Finally, calling me "retarded" only shows your lack of maturity. It's very kind of you to poke fun at the mentally handicapped. Is this YOUR idea of satire?

Reading these comments has made me realize that not just the media outlets, but their readers as well, are completely on Cohen's jock - as if it's an insult that you'd want to speak with the creator of the character rather than the character himself.

The truth is that Cohen is a smart, funny, and engaging guy. Why wouldn't you want to interview that guy instead of Borat? Oh yeah, because Borat is so funny! And his shtick never gets old! And Sasha is so cool and you're so mean!

Jesus. Look down at your feet, Vincent Kane - you're standing on something too. And saying even less.

I agree with Chucky.

And speaking as a writer, I think Lewis is absolutely right to not want to interview "Borat." I mean, going into the interview, you already know what you're going to come out with, not to mention that you as a reporter aren't going to look too smart. It's fucking annoying to ask intelligent questions and have them twisted into stupidity.

The only way to come out of the interview with anything interesting would be to invent a character of your own that's insanely dumb and interview Borat as that character.

I get the feeling that if Cohen wasn't doing press as Borat, he wouldn't be doing press at all as he doesn't want to 'draw back the curtain' as it were on what he's up to. Look at actors who are out there in the press - like Lindsay Lohan or Ashton Kutcher or Tom Cruise. When you see their movie, you're bringing that baggage in with you. While Cohen is hardly someone you'd see on the cover of US Weekly, you'd imagine that he - like, say, Billy Crudup - wants audiences to judge him by what's up on the screen, not by some interview they read explaining all his tricks a few days earlier. It's why Woody Allen refuses to do director commentaries on his DVDs.

I have actually interviewed Cohen out of character, and it hardly shed the profound light on his comedy you're demanding. He chose Kazakhstan because this a place few Americans know anything about, so they wouldn't question Borat's ridiculous behavior. And the character's racism is meant to EXPOSE racism, not promote it. Besides, what's wrong with finding Borat funny and writing a story that informs readers about a movie they're looking forward to seeing? Just because it's a movie doesn't make it crap. Just because it's from a studio doesn't make it worthless. Cohen is a helluva lot funnier and more creative than most journalists I know. This article sounds like sour grapes to me. The author should get ouf of the newsroom and create something funny himself.

Mr. Beale:

Thank you for reading regurgitating our "Hollywood,Interrupted" media thesis.

- Mark Ebner

If you really think there's a story, dig. I think there is one. I suspect Cohen's family was persecuted (or worse) in that part of the world and it's payback time. Ingenious. If he were to talk about it, it would completely kill it. So you, as a journalist, have a responsibility to do some research. It's absurd to give up because the story doesn't come easy to you. Drop the self righteousness and do your job. If you do it a quarter as well as Coehn, your next article may be worth reading.

I agree with Lewis that the film promotion journalistic merry-go-round has gotten out of hand, but singling out Sacha Baron Cohen for giving interviews in character is an odd place to make a stand. He has a legitimate claim to be doing performance art in both the movie and its campaign. Vince Vaughn or Scarlett Johansson can't say the same. And all those toadying waivers and disclaimers are a shame, but was there one requiring journos to do Borat in character? If not, it's not fair to use Borat to "lead in" to the press-rolls-over point.

I suspect that the reason most interviewers are delighted to talk to "Borat" instead of Mr. Cohen is that he's hilarious and will generate some outrageous copy for the paper or show. It's not like they demand Julia Roberts to act in character from Notting Hill. Although she may be doing so anyway.

"Face it, if you wanted to be a real reporter you wouldn't be covering entertainment to begin with."

Entertainment is news. I hate that pretentious old-school reporter view. Those days are gone, doll. I've done both: investigative and entertainment reporting. If you can't do it all, you shouldn't be in the business. Period.

Aside from that, the article made some good points. Many entertainment reporters are starf***ers.

I've never liked Cohen, as Ali G or as Borat, I can't see the fuss, never could do. The odd oneliner ellicits a smile or a giggle, but that's it. All his characters are irritating in the extreme.

Having said that, I can understand why someone would want to interview him as himself. He appears though to be 'funnier' and far more outrageous in character. The sign of a deeply personal and possibly shy man to my mind, but an interview with the 'real' Sacha Baron Cohen would end up to be rather boring, probably...

And this is different from what's going on in the world of hard news how?

"Quid pro quo" Claris. Access in exchange for an outlet for spin. That's the world we've made for ourselves.

Lewis... you're an idiot. No wonder you write for a crappy internet site.

Why Kazakhstan? Perhaps, as with most of the third world, and beyond any actual history of anti-semetism or other oppression, it's simply a country American audiences know nothing about.

Why all the Jewish stuff? Probably for the same reason there's all the women and black stuff. It's all provocative and forces a reaction.

Why no out-of-character interviews? Beats me. Perhaps he's willing to risk the random critism from a true journalist writing to his dozens of readers in exchange for the coverage of the broadcast rim-jobbers to their millions viewers of his inspired "press conference" in front of the Kazakh embassy and delivery at the White House gates of an invitation to "Premier Bush."

If these aren't the true answers, sorry. I for one will be too busy busting my gut watching Borat shoot a gun at the fishes in the barrel on opening night of his surely excellent movie film!

i think your story is good. the ass/rimjob comment at the end sort of blew the whole thing to pieces, but i don't really think a press conference is a place for a an acting performance.

borat is a brilliant movie though. it's entertainment. i dont think there's anything seriously offensive or wrong about it. but the borat press conference, yes pretty stupid.

This is a problem with the entire press not just the entertainment press. If it were only the entertainment press it wouldn't matter quite as much, but it is a system that is constantly bowing to power to obtain "access".
The same system. or standard operating procedure, that protects The Wizard of Borat also protects The Wizard of the White House.
No, we can't look at the frightened little man behind the curtain. We were once told to ignore him to suspend disbelief. Now we hardly get a peak. I only hope we can walk away with a heart, some courage, and a brain after the encounter.

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