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Equal parts scourge and high-wire act, the L.A. Weekly’s Nikki Finke gives the industry what it deserves
WHEN I FIRST CALLED L.A. Weekly Hollywood columnist Nikki Finke to say that I wanted to profile her, she instantly asked what took me so long, and then declared almost as instantly that nobody would want to read about her. Why, she proposed, wasn’t I writing about the right wing takeover of the Los Angeles Press Club, for God’s sake? Then, after a lengthy negotiation—which culminated in a request that she not be photographed—she hit the antigravity button. In a span of a few hours, Finke sent me nine e-mails, which included recommendations on who to contact, a list of her favorite TV shows, and her prediction, only half in jest, that the piece might force her to move to Tahiti. After she canceled our sit-down interview, she offered to meet me 1,500 miles away, where I was going on vacation (the answer was no), and then begged me not to do the piece at all. In between she was checking out whom I was talking to, letting me know she knew what I was asking, and hurling my questions back at me: “What do you mean, ‘Is she a recluse?’ That’s absurd!”
Nikki Finke can’t possibly be for real. Still, by writing the Deadline Hollywood column for the L.A. Weekly, a publication with zero profile in Hollywood—which means, why should anybody return your calls?—Finke has become essential reading for those who follow the Industry. Just in the last few months she has scored a pair of journalistic scoops. She was the first writer to declare that Ronald Reagan was gravely ill, reporting the news the day before he died. That was a blip—albeit a blip that L.A. Observed and The Drudge Report turned into an event when they, in turn, posted Finke’s item.
It was another recent Deadline Hollywood that perfectly encapsulated the Finke effect. In May, on the pages of the Weekly and on its Web site, Finke reported that The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times were combing Hollywood for the same story—that Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter had profited personally from business arrangements with Hollywood studios. Finke then announced that The Wall Street Journal was also pursuing the Carter story, though it soon dropped out. Her coverage forced the two papers to rush into print what they knew rather than wait and pursue leads that they hadn't yet harvested. After all the hype—generated by Finke—both stories delivered far less than had been promised. Which, of course, Finke pointed out in her column.
Talk about a postmodern echo chamber. Just consider: Here was a journalist reporting on journalists who were reporting on a journalist whose journalism was being called into question. Finke's stories were linked to a pair of Web sites that journalists look to every day—Romenesko and LA. Observed. As a result, the behind-the-scenes story, which in a previous era might have passed as gossip, was suddenly a story scrutinized by the national media elite.
"The Carter thing made me personally insane," says The New York Times' Sharon Waxman, who cowrote the paper's story with David Carr. "That's what she does. But I know that even inside the Times people were asking, 'How does she know that?' Apparently there are plenty of people who will say bad things about her, but I'm constantly amazed at how influential she was and continues to be from a relatively low-profile perch at the L.A. Weekly."
In her two decades covering the Industry—writing for the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine, The New York Observer, Vanity Fair, the New York Post, and anybody else willing to put their head in the hornet's nest—Finke has accumulated a reputation as a, um, difficult person and an intrepid journalist.
She was a leading explicator of the rise of agents in the '90s and a scourge to super-agent Mike Ovitz. She exposed Miramax's Oscar lobbying tactics and landed the first interview with madam-to-the-Industry Heidi Fleiss. In early 2002, she lost a freelance gig at the New York Post after she reported on Disney's battle over the Winnie-the-Pooh royalties. Disney officials had complained to her bosses about her coverage, and in a subsequent lawsuit Finke charged the Post with bending to Disney's wishes and smearing her name. (The parties are currently in settlement discussions.)
This feature originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Los Angeles magazine.