Can Mel and the New York Times share lunch in Hollywood?

According to Variety, there is an interesting dance going on right now between the New York Times and some sources in the Hollywood establishment. The heart of this controversy is, of course, "The Passion of the Christ." The Times has been the point on the spear in all attacks on Mel Gibson and his film. And, in a Feb. 26 piece, reporter Sharon Waxman said that the film is seriously damaging Gibson's standing in Hollywood -- especially with Jewish executives. These are fighting words on both sides.

Hollywood is a close-knit world, and friendships and social contact are critical in the making of deals and the casting of movies. Many of Hollywood's most prominent figures are also Jewish. ... Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, the principals of DreamWorks, have privately expressed anger over the film, said an executive close to the two men.

And those major players are not alone, according to the Times. But there was a problem. The Times quickly ran this note, concerning the anonymous quote about the anger of Geffen and Katzenberg:

The Times should have checked directly with both men and given them an opportunity to comment on the executive's statement. Mr. Geffen said yesterday: "Neither Jeffrey or I have seen the movie or have formed an opinion about it."

Now Variety (subscription required) has noted that the timing of the original Waxman article was interesting, to say the least. It came the day after the Times announced a new policy -- fallout from recent newsroom scandals, no doubt -- clamping down on the use of anonymous sources. Variety reported that the Times policy memo stressed:

"We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack. ... If pejorative opinions are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor."

The policy was to take effect on March 1. A spokesman for the Times has since stated that the report about Gibson would have even been acceptable under the new policy -- since the attack was not personal enough, or was not specific enough, or something. Thus spake the Times:

"Ms. Waxman's story does not contain any directly quoted pejorative opinion from an unidentified source. The comments are from an unidentified source about that source's own intentions. They are not about the character or behavior of Mel Gibson."

I think it is safe to say, concerning this controversy, that a sequel is expected.

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