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The N.Y. Times and HBO Get a Bit Too Cozy

With a documentary in the works, the paper’s website has run 17 articles about HBO since mid-May.

Years ago, as publicist for a TV station, I got a call from one of the town’s top newspaper TV critics.

The call wasn’t unusual, but its purpose was.

The big news was that our entertainment reporter had just quit. And this critic, who’d spent years tsk-tsking us in columns for every misstep, wanted me to let management know he was available for the job.

Of course, that occurred in prehistoric times. These days, not only would the departure of a local TV reporter maybe merit an item, but what station has a publicist and what newspapers still have critics?

Flash forward to recent times. I’m handling a well-known news operation and get called by a media critic and longtime friend. His newsroom is heading into another round of massive layoffs and he’s decided he wants to do his job at our place. Can I get him a meeting?

Since I believe in candor, I point out that (a) I don’t recall he’s ever had a kind word to say about our programming and, despite my efforts, has mainly ignored us, (b) someone’s been doing that job for five years, which he doesn’t know because he ignores us, and (c) two weeks earlier, he’d publicly slammed the very same person he now wants to pitch for employment.

I think my suggestion was to wait a few weeks longer.

The essentially dangerous yet endlessly titillating relationship between media organizations and the media who cover them — professional sexting with clothes on — has heated up lately.

Not just because it was time for another round of bashing Howie Kurtz for his Washington Post/CNN media critic roles.

This week, John Koblin of the New York Observer reported that the New York Times media-beat staff are currently being trailed by a camera crew for a possible HBO documentary about them.

To be accurate, the Times deal is with documentarian Andrew Rossi. But Koblin noted that Rossi has a development deal with HBO, which is heavily invested in the genre, and “(Rossi) told the Times media team in a meeting that the network had expressed interest in the project.”

(Koblin’s story was subsequently reported out to death, a phenomenon summed up by the Los Angeles Times’ Joe Flint on Twitter: “Media watching media report on media. Oh barf!”)

On the New York Times website, I found 17 articles about HBO since mid-May — six news or features, one positive critical analysis of its new programming direction and 10 reviews of docs and scripted series. Six stories ran after Sept. 1, as recently as Nov. 1. Rossi’s deal with the Times was likely initiated, negotiated and completed during the fall, if not earlier, and routine preproduction takes weeks. 

In my admittedly cursory re-reading of those articles, I didn’t find any disclosures of this relationship.

For the birthers, teabaggers and other fringe types convinced there’s a vast media conspiracy, we gift you with your newest example.

For the Times, suffering everything from revenue troubles to that embarrassing "Daily Show" piece, good PR from a polished doc would be nice.

For the media obsessed with covering the media — and with offering opinions of the media to other media — this is the gift that’ll keep on giving.

But for HBO’s competitors who are covered by the same Times staff, particularly the PR people stuck in the middle, it’s a little messy.

Competing executives and producers soon will start finding hints of bias, particularly since thin skin is an industry prerequisite. There will be concerns that the Times might pass on discretionary stories, if just to avoid conflicts. And publicists will be reluctant to make waves.

One of the toughest jobs is being the media critic for a media organization. They walk a tightrope, demanding endless objectivity, fairness and self-reflection, when covering competitors, corporate partners and often their own tattered employers. With very few exceptions, I’ve found these journalists to be the most thoughtful about their roles and obligations, the most diplomatic and the most fun to drink with.

Many smartly raise their own visibility through self-promoted appearances on the same networks they cover. And these days, some are eyeing PR jobs just in case and making their interest known.

But the Times situation is different because it’s got corporate sanction.

The Times management can easily make this right: Get HBO to commit now to the documentary, so there’s no prolonged gray area. Disclose the relationship in all relevant articles. And write a policy so it’s clear how the industry will be covered because of this association.

Back when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert had their Disney-syndicated weekend TV show, the studio’s theatrical executives were convinced that the two critics repeatedly gave thumbs-downs to Disney releases just to show their independence. Legend has it that this mounting problem between the film and TV divisions came to a head when Jeffrey Katzenberg finally lost it at a group meeting after a negative review of a Disney animated classics special edition and yelled, “They even trashed Snow White!”

In our new reality, media critics are going to wind up appearing on, being featured by and maybe even working for the media organizations they cover. Let’s get over it. But the Times needs to figure out just where it stands with this HBO PR opportunity and, then, let the rest of us know. 

Because no one’s Snow White any longer.

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.