Interview: Nikki Finke

After a distinguished and sometimes controversial journalism career that included stints at the AP, the LA Times, and the New York Post, Nikki Finke landed at the alternative LA Weekly.

After a distinguished and sometimes controversial journalism career that included stints at the AP, the LA Times, and the New York Post, Nikki Finke landed at the alternative LA Weekly.

JOURNALIST Q&A: Nikki Finke

After a distinguished and sometimes controversial journalism career that included stints at the AP, the LA Times, and the New York Post, Nikki Finke landed at the alternative LA Weekly. She now pens the famously acid "Deadline Hollywood" column that targets entertainment moguls, media, and mediocrity.

PRWeek: How and why did you first get into journalism?

Nikki Finke: I'd gone to small, private schools that didn't even have a student newspaper. When I got to Wellesley, I found that the most interesting people worked for the college newspaper, and I became editor-in-chief of the paper. But I still wanted to go into politics; I didn't want to go into journalism. My thoughts were perhaps to be a diplomat, which is really interesting considering how undiplomatic I am now. My first year out of school, I worked in the office of Congressman Ed Koch, before he became mayor [of NY]. And I saw how the politicians genuflected to the press. And I realized where the power truly lay. And I decided "You know what? I do want to do this." It was after Woodward and Bernstein, so everybody and their mother wanted to be a journalist. It was not easy, but I pounded the pavement and found a job.

PRWeek: Why did you decide to move to an alternative weekly?

Finke: Finke: I can't say I chose to go to an alternative weekly; it's what happened. But I do believe that things happen for a reason. And I think that this has been one of the best career moves for me at this time and place in my career. I've never experienced the thrilling kind of freedom that an alternative weekly gives me in terms of my opinions. I can write anything I want. I can say anything I want. I can take any stand I want. The controversy is encouraged, not discouraged. I always liked being provocative in my writing, but I get to take it to the nth degree at LA Weekly. Sometimes I liken it to taking a truth serum. I've always found it very hard, and frankly I chafed, when I had mainstream media's bit in my mouth about having to write about the entertainment business, the media business, the big media business in a non-controversial way. Because I think these are very controversial industries, filled with very controversial people, doing very controversial things, and I like exposing that.

PRWeek: What's your opinion on the current state of entertainment reporting in America?

Finke: Finke: Like any sector of journalism, there is good reporting and there is bad reporting. There is incisive stuff and there's hack stuff. The biggest problem isn't so much the reporters; the problem [is] the places that the reporters work for. There are constraints that are put on reporters that shouldn't be there. For instance, constraints about reporting on big media takeovers and big media usurpation of everything we see and think and feel. There's an incredible conflict of interest that exists for most of these reporters, because they're working for big media. And it's impossible for them, in many instances, to report honestly and accurately about what their bosses and their bosses' pals are doing.

PRWeek: Are there any media outlets you think do a particularly good or bad job covering that beat?

Finke: It's very spotty. You see a lot of the same reporting, you see a lot of the same talking heads, the same people being quoted, the same analysis. There's very little original thinking. Basically it's spewing, not truth-telling. I think Ron Grover at BusinessWeek is one of the best. But like everyone, he doesn't bat 100%, but I'd say he certainly gets 60%. I was very disappointed for years in Bruce Orwall's coverage of Disney in the Wall Street Journal, because it seemed to reflect almost exclusively Michael Eisner's point of view. And lo and behold, we find out during the trial in testimony that one of the only people Eisner spoke to all these years, and boasted about manipulating, was Bruce Orwall! That doesn't make Bruce a bad reporter, it just doesn't make what he wrote the truth.

The Los Angeles Times has always confused me with their coverage. I don't regard saturation as satisfactory. Whereas the New York Times errs in too little coverage. My standard for this tends to be "Am I reading something that I wish I had written?" And the answer to that is "very, very infrequently."

PRWeek: How do you interact with PR people?

Finke: I am every PR person's nightmare. And I say that with a great degree of pride. I promise you that my phone never rings, and my e-mail box is totally empty of PR pitches. In fact, the opposite happens; when I have to call a flack, there's this silent pause and small gasp...I've never understood the philosophy of some PR people, whether they're handling a huge corporation or an individual client, where the minute you get on the phone, before you've even gotten out a word, these certain PR people treat you like you're the enemy.

It sets up an adversarial relationship that makes you want to dis their clients. The best PR people treat journalists who they don't even know as their long lost best friend. They cozy up to you, they treat you with respect, they laugh with you, and by the time you're done with the phone call, you realize that you don't only like them, you like their bosses, you like their company, you like everything. It's just human behavior. And there are many times where a good relationship with a PR person will make you think twice before writing something damaging about their company or client, because any seasoned journalist knows the ramifications of that for the PR person. And you take that into account. There are a lot of people out there who are good at their jobs, and you want them to keep their jobs, and it's not necessarily their fault that they're working for a jerk.

I've always thought that the meaner the flack is, the meaner the press will be against the client. And I wish clients took that into account when they do the hiring. They may think they're getting a pit bull, but it's the press who's gonna bite them. Look at the greats in PR, the real old-time greats...these were people who were and are very engaging with the media. You actually got the feeling they liked reporters.

PRWeek: Have you seen a change in the types of PR people you've dealt with over the course of your career?

Finke: Yes. What you have with PR people now is, they don't represent their clients, they think they are the clients. The minute you get them on the phone, you already have four strikes against you. That you exist on this planet, that you are daring to ask a question, that you're trying to write any kind of truthful story, and fourth, that you're a miserable human being, and part of a race of mankind who should be wiped off the face of the planet. It's impossible.

PRWeek: Why do you think that is?

Finke: They all think that their world is so impenetrable that you will never learn the truth. They don't begin to understand that with someone like me, my phone rings 20 times a day just with people in top positions giving me little morsels of who did what to whom, and how, and why. From their offices, their cars, their cell phones. That this kind of information is constantly being passed to me, and there's no way any corporate flack can hide it. What they should be trying to do is not lie or even deny, but mitigate. That's when you use your winning personality, or you start to trade. "If you don't use this, how about I give you this?" These are what the best ones do. They can -- not manipulate a story, but they can really mitigate a story, or even set you off in a different direction than you intended. These things can be done. ... There is no adjective in the English language to describe dealing with Zenia Mucha at Disney. All of us journalists talk about it, all of us know about it, and it may very well be one reason why you've seen the articles you have about Disney in recent years.

PRWeek: Who is the biggest jerk in Hollywood?

Finke: Barry Diller. And the reason I say that is this: By jerk I don't mean stupid. Barry Diller can be somebody's absolute best friend. On the other hand, there are few people in the infotainment world who...treat so many people as if they're the stupidest person in the world.

Name: Nikki Finke

Publication: LA Weekly

Title: Columnist

Preferred contact: nikkifinke@deadlinehollywood.com

Website: www.laweekly.com

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