The Cieply Scenario

Written by David Blum on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


Last Thursday night, as Michael Cieply put the finishing touches on his gripping 1,260-word narrative for the next day’s New York Times, he felt a mix of exhaustion and exhilaration. His scoop on a possible endgame in the crippling three-month writers’ strike would, without a doubt, captivate everyone with its cast of characters. A little-known screenwriter who’d been brought in to jump-start the negotiations. A powerful agent who’d brokered the peace. A union representative who’d almost blown the entire deal with his obstinacy. Two Hollywood studio chiefs who went eye-to-eye with labor in search of a deal. No one, not even those whiny WGA leaders, could dispute that Cieply had put together a compelling insider’s tick-tock of the strike’s final days. This piece would, at last, earn him the industry respect he so clearly craved—not just for his reportage but also for his skills as a Hollywood-style storyteller.

For the previous three months, Cieply—the Los Angeles–based New York Times reporter covering the strike by the Writers Guild of America against the Hollywood studios—had been watching with increased disgust as the union failed to see the error of its ways. In Cieply’s view, the chief WGA negotiators had taken an excessively hard line on its demands, showing a lack of understanding of how Hollywood was supposed to work. He was annoyed by the strong-arm tactics of the union’s West Coast executive director, David Young, and the seeming intransigence of the WGA’s leadership in the face of management’s clear willingness to compromise.

Why couldn’t these labor leaders see how close they were to a deal? All they needed to do was to play ball with management. Executives like Peter Chernin (chairman and CEO of Fox) and Robert Iger (president and CEO of Disney) were reasonable men; he knew that, he talked to them all the time (off the record, of course), they wanted a peaceful resolution to the standoff and were prepared to give up some ground—provided the union was willing to stop making some of its unrealistic demands. Cieply [pronounced SIP-lee] had originally thought more highly of WGA West president Patric Verrone, but he was starting to wonder whether he or his colleagues truly understood the Hollywood way of working things out.

Cieply knew that way. He’d been bouncing around show business for more than two decades, and knew how it was supposed to be done. He’d made his name in journalism by being the first reporter to recognize the unique, sweeping packaging powers of a little-known CAA agent named Michael Ovitz; a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal in December of 1986 labeled Ovitz “the most powerful individual in Hollywood.” The story resulted in Cieply gaining special access to the corridors of power, and soon afterward he left journalism for a succession of studio development jobs. He worked for the likes of producer Ray Stark and Steve Roth. He met with writers at the Four Seasons Hotel lobby bar, where he bemoaned the sorry state of moviemaking and reminisced about his days in journalism. He missed the media world and eventually went back through the revolving door. In 2004 Cieply was appointed movie editor of The New York Times.

Cieply relished the power afforded by his job as a showbiz reporter for the most powerful newspaper in America. Studio chiefs returned his calls and shared their secrets. Top screenwriters and directors—always happy to see their names in The Times—gave him plenty of access, too. And as the Writers Guild contract negotiations spiraled into a full-blown labor conflict, Cieply was uniquely positioned to cover the front lines of Hollywood’s first strike in almost two decades.

And now, on this Thursday night in early February—five days after word first surfaced of a tentative deal between the WGA and the conglomerates that run Hollywood’s movie and television studios—Cieply was wrapping up a story that would seal his position as the foremost storyteller in the business, at least for a day. He had written a story so intricate, so persuasive and so knowing that it would be impossible to put down, or to doubt. And it was factually accurate, every word of it—as all his stories were. He had become a master manipulator of facts, shaping them into a narrative of his choosing without making demonstrable errors. This would be the final chapter in the Cieply Scenario, and it was his best story yet.

***

As a former development executive who still loved movies, Cieply had a special advantage over other reporters: He could always shape entertaining narratives to give his stories style and gravitas.

Well before the strike began, Cieply’s stories on the Writers Guild’s forthcoming labor negotiations seemed sympathetic to the writers. In April 2007, he wrote a favorable profile of Patric Verrone, the recently elected president of the Writers Guild’s west coast branch, with fawning descriptions of his shirts (“more Benchley than Bochco”) and his penchant for making miniature historical figures (like Barack Obama) for sale on eBay. Even in those early accounts, Cieply laid the groundwork for a battle to be waged in movie terms, perhaps in the mode of classic labor movies like Norma Rae. He described Verrone as “poised for a fight” and referenced his “insistence on big solutions” to the issues between union and management.

But by late June, Cieply had already changed course; he was starting to see the strike more in the mode of a standard Hollywood horror movie. In a June 27, 2007 story about the stockpiling of scripts in dread anticipation of a labor walkout, he described the industry as “unusually tense.” With significant amounts of information presented with no attribution to sources, named or unnamed—an increasingly regular feature of a Cieply story, despite strict rules to the contrary at The Times [see sidebar]—the reporter declared that directors “may find themselves out of work for a year or more.” With no specific quotes or examples to back that up, Cieply nevertheless achieved the goal of any ambitious horror movie director: He’d made his readers nervous.

The fretting would continue as Cieply worked the fear aspect of his story. In July, Cieply reported that management would be seeking a complete end to the residual system that had been, for many writers, a major source of income in lean times. For decades, the studios had been paying writers additional fees—called “residuals”—when their television shows or movies were rebroadcast or resold in new formats, like DVDs. [Disclosure: I’ve been a member of the WGA East since 1990.] The writers had already been angling for residuals that paid them for Internet use of their work, and this salvo from management meant the gulf between the two sides had just widened.

That meant more worry, and more readers.

By August, Cieply had honed his narrative even further; he’d begun to see the looming strike as a Braveheart-style conflict, a drama of epic proportions. The headline over his Aug. 27, 2007 news analysis said it all: “To Strike or Not? Hollywood’s Next Drama.” Again without attribution or quotation, Cieply spun a tale designed to play to his showbiz audience.

“Hollywood may as well keep the barbecues burning,” Cieply wrote rather inelegantly, but with his intentions clear. “Because every day is going to be Labor Day for a while.”

Cieply went on to lay out the lines of battle as though he were scripting it himself. He described ways in which the WGA “can inflict maximum pain,” but he countered that with the unattributed assertion that “it is far from safe to assume that producers are not prepared” for the possibility of a walkout. According to Cieply, the writers had “scoffed” at a management proposal to end residuals, while the producers had “brushed off” the union’s demands for more residuals. “Either way,” he concluded in a reference to his own painful metaphor, “it’s no picnic.”

***

It was in Cieply’s September 29, 2007 story that the reporter introduced a new story line—a subplot to the core drama—that would soon become a regular wrinkle in his accounts of the strike. Under the headline, “Movie Writers Eye Early Walkout,” Cieply for the first time found a fissure in the leadership of the labor union, between those angling for a strike and those seeking compromise. This would be an ongoing theme in his stories for months to come.

Cieply’s September story focused on the warring factions in subtle but dramatic terms: The union was divided, while the companies and studios were not. That would work to the advantage of a unified industry whose strategy would most certainly be to divide and conquer.

“The question at hand,” Cieply wrote, “is whether writers, in the event no deal is reached, can inflict maximum damage on their bargaining opponents by striking immediately.” With that sentence, the reporter had fully shifted gears from Hollywood reporting to war coverage. His story went on to assess (yet again with no specific attributions, except for one vague reference to “people involved in the talks” and a bland comment from an industry spokeswoman) the strategic implications of a strike, versus a more moderate approach that would allow the movie business to keep open. Cieply labeled movies in pre-production, with unfinished scripts, as “high-value targets by those at the Writers Guild who advocate an immediate walkout.”

The implication of that sentence was unmistakable; the union was split, with only a month to go before the expiration of the WGA contract. Cieply wanted a strike, and he was willing to fan the flames of conflict by manipulating his words to suggest weakness in the union’s position and firm resolve by the companies.
By mid-October, the battle was joined.

“In Movie Labor Talks, Past Issues Cloud Future” was the headline of an October 13 Cieply curtain-raiser on the prospects of all-out war. His language had shifted to terminology that left little doubt about his appetite for a fight.

“What began as a dispute…has unexpectedly turned into a brawl,” Cieply wrote. In his breathless account of the latest developments—yet again, with no attribution to sources, named or unnamed, except for quotes from lawyers on the sidelines and a Hollywood psychotherapist—writers “angrily rejected” a management offer while “producers recoiled” at union demands. He described the WGA negotiators as an “aggressive slate” of leaders, with no characterization of management’s lead negotiator, Nicholas Counter, to balance that assertion. He went on to describe the WGA brass as “managers with labor union backgrounds” that “ousted” its previous leadership as “too sympathetic” to management. “All of this,” Cieply concluded, “has contributed to a tone of personal animosity to exchanges between the sides in the current bargaining.”

With no references to management’s negotiating team, a reader could have no doubt that Cieply placed the blame for the current stalemate in the laps of labor. That was understandable. To properly prepare a dramatic story to sell to an audience, a writer always needs to single out his heroes and his villains. In Cieply’s narrative, it had been decided, the WGA negotiators would be the bad guys.

***

On November 3, Cieply reported that the strike was about to begin, and his account offered sweeping unattributed statements that left no doubt about his allegiance in the battle now underway and his desire to have the strike seen according to his own vision of the unfolding drama. To attribute his assertions would be to diminish the narrative impact of his breathless prose.

“Hollywood’s guilds, with their elite membership, have been seen by executives as a necessary, if sometimes pesky, adjunct in a business where many workers are employed project by project,” the story reported, as though stating demonstrable facts, not one writer’s sweeping, subjective assessment. “The unions help administer health and pension plans, sort through credits, and impose structure on the seeming chaos of movie and television production sets.” In those two sentences, Cieply (sharing a byline with reporter Brooks Barnes) reduced the WGA’s role in Hollywood to that of a band of highly paid handymen.

In the days that followed, Cieply continued to push the line that the WGA members weren’t like most other strikers—a writerly touch that added a dash of Technicolor to his evolving script. A front-page story written by Cieply (with reporting contributed by others) on November 6 described the first day’s picket line as “the curious spectacle of a glamour strike.” It had the “trappings of a union protest,” he wrote—the inflatable rat, Dunkin’ Donuts bags, chants and picket signs—but he couldn’t resist reporting that the striking writers “wore arty glasses and fancy scarves.”

In the strike’s first weeks, however, Cieply seemed uncertain how to reshape his story. On November 13, he published an oddly tangential takeout suggesting that if writers wanted a more significant piece of movie profits, they should shift their focus from management to Hollywood royalty like Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, whose profit percentages had eaten up much of the available pool of money the writers wanted. He pointed out that writer residuals had declined in recent years, while star profits had skyrocketed. “It is also not hard to see why the situation is especially galling for movie writers,” Cieply wrote, “who typically do not share in the most lucrative gross deals.”

True. But if Cieply harbored the fantasy that Will Smith would play the villain in his evolving story, he would quickly learn that such dreams never come true in an industry where heroes prefer to play heroes. Time for him to get back to his original story line, and his first choice for the bad guys: the WGA.

***

It was in Cieply’s November 21 story that he laid out the plot points for the rest of his narrative. He’d shifted genres yet again. It wasn’t a horror movie, it wasn’t an epic. It was a war movie, and the WGA was losing.

With a lead that faintly ridiculed WGA negotiator David Young’s fascination with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Cieply went on to report that television-show runners were “quietly” returning to work, and that the studios were ready to withstand a long, drawn-out strike. “The lights do not even flicker at General Electric,” he wrote, referring to NBC Universal’s corporate parent. He went so far as to say that studios and investors were “bullish” about corporate earnings prospects, despite the strike. “My guess is that during fiscal 2008,” he quoted Fox chairman Peter Chernin as having told analysts, “a strike is probably a positive for us.” He noted, too, that Young had previously led an unsuccessful effort to organize garment workers against Guess? Inc.

In other words, Young was an experienced loser.

On December 1, Cieply described the strike as having shifted to a “new and perhaps uglier phase.” No longer did writers reasonably negotiate with management; now, in Cieply’s war coverage, they “angrily rejected an elaborate package of new proposals just hours after it was presented.” He went on: “By [the next] morning, executives at the country’s largest entertainment conglomerates were privately expressing shock” that union negotiators “had dismissed without discussion the first phase of what the companies called a New Economic Partnership.” Cieply reported that writers “bitterly complained that the package was merely a public relations ploy.”

But how could it be a public relations ploy if The New York Times was reporting it as fact? He’d put the companies’ proposal in capital letters, as though it were exactly the partnership they described, and not just a bad counter-offer from management. The writers were beginning to recognize the harsh reality that their ability to concoct a story line for the strike had been compromised by Cieply’s own ambitions as a yarn-spinner. While Cieply acknowledged in the story that movie executives had “worked the telephones with reporters,” it was only, as he put it, to inform them about “a necessary struggle against union-imposed pay structures and restrictions that, if accepted, would keep their companies from operating effectively in a rowdy Internet world that has already badly damaged the music and news industries.”

In other words: The union was wrong, and management was right. If labor won this battle, a “rowdy Internet world” (Cieply’s most cinematic writing to date) would only get rowdier. What an amazing story this had turned out to be! Even the most casual reader could tell that Cieply was really enjoying himself with the twists and turns of this incredible saga. And Act III was about to begin.

***

What began in Cieply’s mind as a skirmish had evolved first into a battle and then into a war. Now it was nothing less than an ugly street fight, the kind of chaos moviegoers might remember from the rumble sequence between the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story. Only in Cieply’s view, the Sharks were reasonable, civilized gentlemen who only asked for what they deserved. The Jets were…writers.

For example, in a December 10 news analysis (under the headline “Screenwriters Dig In For Extended Brawl”), Cieply said that “only a death wish” would prompt management to go along with a WGA demand that writers be allowed to walk off their jobs in support of another union’s strike. “It’s kind of like saying, ‘Oh, while we’re in the middle of this knife fight, I demand the right to have a gun next time,’ a comment on a screenwriter blog, The Artful Writer, said.” Careful readers noted that Cieply was now quoting from writers themselves as they bad-mouthed their own union leadership. Divide and conquer, remember?

Cieply could no longer contain his glee over what he saw as the WGA’s misguided strategy; he seized every chance he could to portray the guild as the evildoers in his story line. Every time an ending seemed close, in Cieply’s view, the writers threw another log in the path of progress. “After days of haggling over complicated formulas for Internet pay,” Cieply wrote on December 10, “the latest round of talks blew up over the deeper issues that had been buried inside the writers’ contract proposals.”

In other words, the road to a happy ending had been blocked, yet again, by the writers’ sneaky subterfuge. Cieply went on to describe the breakdown in talks as “the failure of an effort by the companies to reboot the talks as a more tightly focused negotiation, despite earlier bad blood.”

Where this information came from, of course, was anyone’s guess; New York Times readers had long since become accustomed to Cieply’s lack of attributions and proper sourcing for his sweeping statements. Which is why, when Cieply concluded his analysis on this inflammatory statement—“And anyone who thought [the WGA] would simply surrender just was not listening”—it confirmed Cieply’s role as outside agitator. The sooner the WGA caved to management’s way of thinking, the sooner his powerful war story would come to an end. But Cieply wasn’t ready for it to be over. Not just yet.

***

By mid-January, after the Golden Globes disaster and the return of the late-night talk show hosts, Cieply needed something new to keep his story alive. With no talks in sight, he returned to a favorite early theme of his burgeoning war story: the divisions among WGA members that threatened to derail the strike from within. Never mind if it was true; such concerns rarely mattered to a reporter apparently not required by his editors to reveal to readers the sources of his sweeping assertions.

Cieply’s January 10, 2008 story, “In Writers Strike, Signs of Internal Dissent Over Tactics” asserted that the union’s “militant tactics may be creating fissures within the guild.” The tactics Cieply described as “militant”—at another point in the story, he said the writers “came out swinging”—included boycotting the Golden Globes, picketing studios and filing a legal complaint, which are all standard forms of union behavior in a strike.

And the fissures? Cieply quoted three writers in his story: one who wrote a mildly critical swipe on his blog, one unproduced screenwriter who wrote an annoyed email and one writer who had resigned from the guild in protest. That writer, John Ridley, remained the only guild member to do so over the course of a three-month strike, though the option was available to all without any financial consequence. The other approximately 12,000 members of the WGA weren’t quoted or interviewed, but that didn’t stop Cieply from boldly asserting that “some writers wonder whether they are actually doing more harm to themselves than their opponents.”

But Cieply’s story, as provocative as it was, didn’t advance the story line much— and as well as anyone, the former producer knew the need for a steady stream of plot points to keep the audience interested.

So it came as a relief when a week later, the Directors Guild announced that it had made its own agreement with the studios. That opened the door to a direct salvo from Cieply, seemingly designed to inflame the situation and push writers into caving to the companies. After practically ordering the Guild to capitulate on the issue of Internet residuals (“This is not the time to get hung up on new media,” the reporter opined in the first paragraph of the news account), Cieply wrote that a splinter group of writers had pushed the WGA negotiators to accept the DGA deal, but “stopped short of making an overt break with union leaders.” Yet again, Cieply’s obsession with internal dissent within the WGA—real or not—shaped his narrative, and led Times readers to think that the guild was weakening even further in the face of possible defeat.

The next day, in case a few readers had missed the message, The Times published Cieply’s devastating Page 1 profile of the union’s two top negotiators, Verrone and Young. The extensive piece repeatedly raised doubts about their ability to win gains for the membership—and about their wisdom in fighting for gains in Internet residuals.

But this January 19 story also raised a tantalizing new twist to the Cieply Scenario: Were these two men simply not “Hollywood” enough to know how to negotiate a contract between the writers and the studios? Cieply described the duo as an “odd couple, not invested in the clubby ways of show business.” Later, he wrote, “the word ‘Hollywood’ says nothing much about either man.” After describing Verrone as a ‘sporadically busy comedy writer” and Young as a “plumber turned hard-bitten labor organizer,” Cieply reported that they share “a deep suspicion of the conglomerates,” as though such a sentiment were inappropriate in the midst of a hard-fought labor negotiation.

This was a fun new angle for Cieply, and he made the most of it. Like any good storyteller, he knew that no good narrative existed without well-drawn characters facing long odds. Hence this fascinating, speculative paragraph buried in the middle of the piece:

“For Mr. Verrone and Mr. Young,” Cieply wrote, “those moves will add to personal journeys that have thrust them into the limelight—courted by agents, chased by the press, lionized by stars—but may send them quickly back in the shadows if they fail at what has usually been an insiders’ game. Even the most seasoned Hollywood observers are hard pressed to remember a time when such outsiders took the business on so wild a ride.”

With that new (and, as usual, unattributed) dimension, Cieply had set the stage for the final act of his own scripted version of the WGA drama, perhaps now only days away.

***

“With Hollywood writers on the brink of ending a three-month strike, they can thank this city’s time-honored way of getting things done: connections.”

That was the lead of the Michael Cieply story that took up four columns at the top of the business section last Friday. It launched a new narrative that gave credit to a screenwriter named Laeta Kalogridis for helping to broker the deal that ended the three-month battle. In this final chapter of the Cieply Scenario, the “militant” leaders of the Guild, David Young and Patric Verrone, had failed in the end to negotiate a deal despite face-to-face negotiations with two top Hollywood players, Peter Chernin of Fox and Robert Iger of Disney. Cieply asserted that splinter groups within the Guild wanted the top negotiators removed from the process after they’d refused the companies’ request that the union “bring in a deal maker” to help jump-start the negotiations.

By “deal maker,” of course, Cieply meant a Hollywood player who knew how to get things done. Even in his earliest stories, Cieply had hinted that no settlement could be reached until a classic Hollywood power broker stepped into the breach. In past negotiations, that power broker had been Lew Wasserman, the longtime head of Universal Studios. But Wasserman was now gone, and that left no logical successor. Earlier in the negotiations, CAA agent Bryan Lourd had briefly gotten involved—but to no avail.

According to Cieply, Kalogridis entered the talks at the request of her agent, Rick Rosen of Endeavor, who was also a longtime friend of Fox’s Peter Chernin. Her arrival came just as studios were considering what Cieply labeled a “doomsday scenario”—based on a feeling by the companies, less than two weeks ago, that the talks had failed.

“That the collapse was averted owes much to Ms. Kalogridis,” Cieply wrote, “and diplomacy that turned an icy standoff into the kind of hot-and-bothered bargaining in which Hollywood deals are forged.”

There it was: the final plot turn in Cieply’s script, the one in which the hero saves the world from imminent disaster. It was a classic twist, the arrival of an unknown character with no profile except her presence on a guild blog called UnitedHollywood.com and a job writing scripts for The Bionic Woman.

“Ms. Kalogridis, late last week, then found herself in the thick of a bargaining process that eventually won a handshake,” Cieply wrote. “Mr. Chernin, at one point, invited Ms. Kalogridis to communicate with him directly. And shortly afterward, he signed off.”

How did Cieply know all this? In the midst of a media blackout, who could his sources have been? As usual, despite his employer’s rules that reporters either identify their sources or at least characterize them (and explain the reason for their confidential status), he didn’t do either. Shortly after the story jumped inside the business section, Cieply revealed only that “interviews with more than a dozen people involved in the possible settlement described a process so fragile that Saturday’s meetings could derail it.” (He was referring to WGA membership meetings scheduled for the next day.) He gave no indication of the identity of those dozen people. And there was no indication of how they were involved in the possible settlement or what their biases might be.

But in the end, that was no different than any other story Cieply had written in the previous three months about the Writers Guild strike poised to end, at last, this week. With no sourcing to jam up the works, Cieply was free yet again to present his version of events as though it were indisputably true. Anyway, who was to say it wasn’t true? Who would ever doubt it, and why? He was, after all, Michael Cieply, a reporter for The New York Times, the most powerful newspaper in America.

SIDEBAR:

DID NYT REPORTER MICHAEL CIEPLY BREAK THE RULES?

Is a reporter for The New York Times allowed to write stories in the manner of this one—long, breathless narratives with no attributions or identification of sources? Apparently so, even though the paper’s rules expressly forbid it.

A reader of Michael Cieply’s coverage of the WGA labor dispute over the last year would at times be hard pressed to find attributions for his assertions of fact. Often, Cieply describes a series of events in an omniscient voice that suggests multiple sources; however, he usually doesn’t identify those sources by name or even let readers know he’s gathered his facts from interviews with interested, often biased, parties to the events he describes.

In a set of rules issued by The New York Times on March 1, 2004, The Times allowed the use of unidentified sources by its reporters, but cautioned: “When we use such sources, we accept an obligation not only to convince a reader of their reliability but also to convey what we can learn of their motivation—as much as we can supply to let a reader know whether the sources have a clear point of view on the issue under discussion.” Cieply often fails to convey such information to his readers, who had no way of knowing his sources. He has recently attributed narratives to interviews with people involved, but he doesn’t connect specific facts or statements to those people.

The Times’ policy also states that “the reporter’s duty” is to “conceal as little as possible. We should distinguish between high-level and lower-level executives or officials.” It goes on to admonish reporters not to use vague terms and modifiers—a rule that would presumably apply to Cieply’s attribution of his most recent story to “people involved.” Nowhere in The Times’ policy does it suggest that the number of unidentified, uncharacterized sources—such as the “more than a dozen” cited in Cieply’s Feb. 8, 2008 story—makes up for their anonymity or his lack of clarity about their connection to the narrative.

The Times’ guidelines on integrity state the following: “The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable.” It instructs reporters to discuss promises of anonymity in advance with editors whenever possible, exempting only beats “like criminal justice and national security” from that requirement. No mention is made of an exemption for show-business reporting.

Cieply politely declined a request for an interview last Friday. ”I appreciate, but will have to pass and let you do your work without me on this one,” Cieply said in an email message. “It’s just a little too difficult to discuss coverage while it’s still underway, and is very much underway at this point. Good luck with it, and thanks for asking.” Lorne Manly, The Times’ movie editor, referred a reporter to Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis. “Thanks for the inquiry but we are going to pass,” Mathis said in an email message, responding to a request last Friday to interview Manly.

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