Is Michael Cieply The Worst Reporter Ever?

Sure, there are a lot of reporters who could qualify for the title "worst reporter ever"? Judith Miller, Wolf Blitzer, Tom Friedman, David Broder...there is a large class of people who claim to practice journalism but seem to be caught in the grips of gullibility, conventional wisdom, their own ideology or simply the desire to kiss up to the rich and powerful. But, for my money, the person who really sets the current standard today is Michael Cieply.

Cieply covers Hollywood for The New York Times. His stories on the Writers Guild of America's strike have repeatedly concocted plot lines where they don't exist, given the Big Media executives a free ride and, at the very least, have shown an incredible ignorance about labor.

An admission to begin: I'm a partisan. I think the WGA strike was absolutely necessary and applaud the leadership and the members for taking to the streets. Not because I like to see workers strike--no one wants a strike and it's a challenging experience for those who do have to walk out. Rather, this strike was about trying to control one of the most powerful industries on the planet and set a standard for fairness for writers, and other creators, for generations to come.

I'm just going to give three examples of The Cieply Treatment but you can find a host of others.

Cieply has continually tried to drum up the specter of deep internal divisions within the WGA. He did so most recently when he wrote about the tentative deal reached between the Directors Guild of America and the producers:

Patric M. Verrone, president of the West Coast writers guild, said he planned to thoroughly review the directors' contract.

"Ultimately, the membership will weigh in, too," said Mr. Verrone, who has been struggling to maintain the writers' solidarity. To dismiss the directors' settlement out of hand would risk an open rebellion in his ranks.

And...

On Monday, a group of prominent writers met with two members of the writers guild negotiating committee to discuss the ramifications of any deal by the directors. According to two people who were briefed on the meeting but requested anonymity to avoid conflict with guild leaders, the group stopped short of making an overt break with the union leaders.

Nothing new on Cieply's perspective there since he has continually repeated that theme in numerous stories. As I said before, this is prose looking for a story. I've been around a lot of strikes. There is always debate within a union during a strike about developments that happen. But, Cieply either has never been on another picket line in his life and/or is simply lazy to write this consistent rubbish. I've been around strikes where half the membership is up in arms, picketing the union hall or suing the leadership or abandoning pickets lines. In this strike, none of that is happening. I've been to the WGA picket lines dozens of times and, even now, weeks after the strike began, the turnout is huge, including among the "show runners"--the writers who are the headliners for the big hits. I worried, frankly, that after a week, the adrenaline of being on strike would wear off and people would stop coming. But, each rally brings out consistently big numbers--those are my observations from the New York City pickets but I understand the same thing is true out in Los Angeles. Who, exactly, is Cieply talking to that are the unnamed sources? I'm sure some writers are unhappy--maybe even a few of the "prominent" writers. It would be unnatural for 100 percent of the people to be completely happy. But, there is a manufactured drama of internal dissent that would make--since we're talking movies here--for a great fictionalized movie (you know, one that says "based on the story..." which can often mean there are two sentences that are true here) but would flunk the basic smell test for a documentary.

Don't believe me -- check out what Paul Haggis says:


I was asked about this schism Thursday by two reporters. I was embarrassed to say that I didn't know anything about it. I hadn't been approached, even in the most oblique way, to join with the "top screenwriters" who are going to pressure the guild to accept the deal, or else.

I can only assume that this is because my film failed so sensationally this year that I quickly fell off the list. I guess even secret screenwriter cabals judge you by your last picture.

But then I realized that no actual top screenwriter I know has been approached to join either. And none of them know anyone else who has. So I asked these two reporters if they had spoken to any writers who had indicated, even off the record or on deep background, that they were going to pressure the guild or go financial corps. Neither of them had. And neither of them knew any other reporters who had actually spoken to writers who said they would do any such thing.

Curious.

Yes, we have had one writer publicly declaring financial core status, but this can't be what the press is referring to, can it? Because they surely wouldn't describe one or two writers out of seven thousand active members as a major pressure group. At least so one would think.

Even if these reporters had found and interviewed a couple of other writers who were threatening to do the same, surely they would have reported it as "a couple of mid-level writers are going to pressure the guild." But no, that can't be it because a few writers isn't a schism. Journalists and editors don't just throw around terms like that.

Second, Cieply seems to have an unwillingness to recognize, or even point out in passing, that the executives who run these companies make massive amounts of money. I couldn't find a single story where he reports on what is publicly available information, which I easily assembled:

Time Warner:
Revenues--$44 billion
Profit--$6.53 billion
CEO Richard Parsons' 2006 pay: $12. 95 million. Five-year pay haul: $45.36 million. Stock options value: $14.2 million (at April 2007 prices)

Disney:
Revenues--$35 billion
Profit--$4.34 billion
CEO Robert Iger's 2006 pay: $29.93 million plus $8.8 million stock options

News Corp.:
Revenues--$26.74 billion
Profit--$3.34 billion
Boss Rupert Murdoch's 2006 pay: $25.91 million. Five-year pay haul: $86.42 million. Stock: since he owns the company, his stock is worth $8.7 billion

CBS:
Revenues--$14.32 billion
Profit--$1.66 billion
CEO Leslie Moonves 2006 pay: $24.86 million. Five-year pay haul: $63.43 million. Stock options: $30 million.

In fact, Cieply goes out of his way to denigrate the WGA's factual description of the nature of the companies that employ WGA members. Here, for example, is a Cieply comment in his Dec 1st story:

Guild leaders have fought to assert their hold over larger swaths of what their letter described as "multinational conglomerates,"...

Well, Michael, are you doubting these are multinational conglomerates or simply trying to undercut that fact by making it sound like its something the WGA came up with on its own as part of some rhetorical rant?

Third, and maybe the most important point, Cieply consistently lets Big Media's CEOs off the hook for a critical bottom-line point: they provoked a strike, and prolonged it, for really small change. As the WGA pointed out:

Our entire package would cost this industry $151 million over three years. That's a little over a 3% increase in writer earnings each year, while company revenues are projected to grow at a rate of 10%. We are falling behind.

For Sony, this entire deal would cost $1.68 million per year. For Disney $6.25 million. Paramount and CBS would each pay about $4.66 million, Warner about $11.2 million, Fox $6.04 million, and NBC/Universal $7.44 million. MGM would pay $320,000 and the entire universe of remaining companies would assume the remainder of about $8.3 million per year. As we've stated repeatedly, our proposals are more than reasonable and the companies have no excuse for denying it.

So, really, Michael--why not consistently point out that the rich CEOs, who are reaping even more money every year, are the ones that are causing the hits to the business? I know this may seem like a stunning thought, but if you just asked the four CEOs mentioned above--Rupert Murdoch, Leslie Moonves, Robert Iger and Richard Parsons to accept the humbling salary of $3 million a year (and I'll be generous and let them keep their stock options), you would save $80 million which would easily pay for the entire package.

Let me underscore that: FOUR PEOPLES' salaries in Big Media could underwrite a settlement that would put thousands of people back to work.

Bottom line: I can only imagine that there are two reasons here for the woeful coverage. First, Cieply is simply dim when it comes to labor. That would put him in good company. Cieply's background is basically in covering business, not labor. Most labor coverage--to the extent it ever happens--is generated from the business editors of traditional media organs, and most of those editors have a deep-seeded bias against organized labor. I did a study of this, egads, almost 18 years ago--and the situation has only gotten worse.

Second, this might also a career move. Some of this may be subconscious but Cieply is either making sure he can continue to get access to Big Media's big players or perhaps thinking that he'd like to get paid a lot more some day for a script he's got sitting on his hard-drive. On much thinner self-motivations have kingdoms risen and fallen.

Since we are in the world of Oscars and Golden Globes, I'm thinking that we should create an award for poor journalism coverage. And, of course, let's call it The Cieply.