Flacks in L.A. -- The old battle between publicists and journalists heats up

The truce between celebrity publicists and the media is often uneasy, but last week all of Hollywood was talking about a skirmish that threatened to explode into all-out war. The flash point: a story in this month’s Los Angeles Magazine, titled ”Flacks Fatales.” In the much-photocopied article, writers Ivor and Sally Ogle Davis charge that publicists have become dangerously drunk with power. Meanwhile, fax machines were humming with a list of ”awards” from a spoof group called Publicist United Kudos of Excellence (PUKE). Sent out anonymously, the list gave ”honors” in such categories as Publicist Most Likely to Eat Her Young, Publicist Most Likely to Breast-Feed a Star’s Pet Ferret, Publicist Most Likely to Stab Own Mother in Back.

In L.A., clearly, it’s open season on PR people. The nub of the problem is this: The phenomenal growth of celebrity journalism in recent years has made publicists, who control access to the artists, more powerful than ever. For most publications, the only way to get to the stars is through highly controlled press junkets. Only the top magazines and TV shows get highly coveted one-on-one interviews, but not before lengthy negotiations with the publicist over cover exclusivity, the choice of writer and photographer, and in some cases even approval of quotes and copy. The Davises charge that today’s publicists are ”rude, hormonal, power-hungry” people, mostly female, who are likely to leave reporters feeling ”threatened and harassed, bullied and browbeaten.”

Among those named in the article were some of Hollywood’s top publicists — Pat Kingsley (whose clients include Julia Roberts, Sally Field, and Candice Bergen), Andrea Jaffe (Warren Beatty, Tom Cruise, Farrah Fawcett), and Susan Geller (Kathleen Turner, Anjelica Huston, Dennis Quaid). Jaffe had no comment on the article. Kingsley, however, claims she’s protective of clients in response to changing times. ”In the old days, even Life magazine ran puff pieces,” says Kingsley. ”The current climate (of control) exists because the press has become very tabloid, right up to The New York Times, which 10 years ago wouldn’t have published the name of that woman (who alleged rape at the Kennedy compound) in Florida.” And there’s more than a hint of sexism, she says, in the antipublicist barrage. ”I don’t think my style is in need of repair. If I’m Mr. Kingsley, I’d be strong. If I’m Miss Kingsley, I’m a bitch.”

The Davises skewer Susan Geller by claiming she lost Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan as clients because of her ”strong-arm tactics.” Geller admits she’s tough, though she says the volume of requests for her clients is so ”staggering” that she can’t say yes to everyone. ”I’m forced to make tough choices,” she says, ”but they are strictly business decisions. Some writers take it personally as some kind of comment on their importance or the clout of their publication. Writers forget that my job is working for the client, not the writer.”

Flack-scarred veterans don’t see it that way. Larry Rohter, The New York Times‘ Miami bureau chief, left the Hollywood beat after a year because of publicists’ ”inflexibility.” ”Your average Washington congressman or press secretary understands the function of the press in a free society,” says Rohter. ”The average studio producer, executive, or publicist does not. It’s seen as an adjunct to the promotional mechanism for film and nothing more.”

Of course, it isn’t news that Hollywood excels at manipulating the media (cf., Ronald Reagan). And it isn’t news that the bottom line dictates what happens. ”It’s economics,” Kingsley frankly admits. ”A lot of magazines are not in great shape right now. What am I supposed to do, not take advantage of it? I’m going to make the best deal I can. In what business don’t you do that?”