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Peter Bart Suspended as Editor of Variety

Hollywood: Action is in response to magazine report of unethical behavior and use of slurs.

August 18, 2001|DAVID SHAW and RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Peter Bart, long one of the most powerful and controversial figures in Hollywood, was suspended Friday from his job as editor in chief of Variety, the dominant trade paper in the entertainment industry, pending an investigation of charges that he has behaved unethically and frequently used racist, sexist and anti-gay language.

The suspension, announced by Tad Smith, president of the media division of Cahners Business Information, Variety's parent company, was announced in the immediate aftermath of the publication Thursday of a cover story on Bart in Los Angeles magazine.

That story--titled "Is This the Most Hated Man in Hollywood?"--says Bart wrote and tried to sell at least one movie script during his tenure at Variety, a violation of the paper's conflict-of-interest policies. The story also says he inserted quotes in his reporters' stories, changed their facts and gave favorable treatment to friends, many of whom he came to know in his two decades as a studio executive before joining Variety in 1989.

"People who have worked with Bart say he would call his favorite sources . . . and vet stories that mentioned them, letting them make adjustments," the Los Angeles magazine story says.

The news of Bart's suspension hit Hollywood like a thunderbolt, coming less than five months after Anita Busch, editor of the Hollywood Reporter, quit her job in protest, and less than three months after Reporter columnist George Christy was suspended and subsequently made the subject of a federal grand jury investigation of his behavior. (Busch quit after the Reporter refused to publish a story about Christy's activities and Publisher Robert Dowling publicly criticized the reporter who wrote that story.)

As both the editor and the most important columnist at Variety, Bart has for more than a decade had unparalleled clout in the entertainment community. Daily Variety's circulation is only 36,000, but it's read by virtually everyone in Hollywood, and the surprising news of his suspension rocketed from office to office by phone, fax and e-mail, often among people who still hadn't seen the Los Angeles magazine story.

Paramount Chairman Sherry Lansing spoke for many in Hollywood when she said she was shocked to hear of Bart's suspension. Pat Kingsley, publicist for such stars as Tom Cruise and Jodie Foster, called Bart "an institution."

Always Talked About, if Rarely on the Record

Bart has long been a provocative player in Hollywood--admired, reviled, feared and always talked about, if rarely on the record. Even the most powerful studio executives, agents and producers courted Bart, but almost all were reluctant to attach their names to any criticism of him.

In a memo addressed to "All Cahners Employees," Smith said the magazine story had caused him "great concern" in that it contains "statements allegedly made by Peter together with allegations made by unidentified third parties about Peter that suggest his conduct may have been inconsistent with our company's values and standards of conduct."

Smith's memo said Bart "denies the accuracy of the article's quotes and allegations" and said the company's values "require us not to prejudge Peter based on unsubstantiated allegations."

Amy Wallace, author of the magazine piece, and Kit Rachlis, the editor of the magazine--both former Los Angeles Times staffers--said they stand behind the accuracy of the story.

"Amy has copious notes . . . and multiple sources for every element of the story," Rachlis said. "The piece was fact-checked thoroughly, and the head of fact-checking reviewed the facts with Peter Bart over several hours."

Wallace said Bart called her Thursday after reading the story but "did not dispute any of the facts of the story, nor did he deny saying any of the quotes. He did not ask for a correction."

Ironically, Wallace says, she had already begun researching a story on Bart when his publicist sent a letter to the magazine suggesting just such a story on "the most powerful person in Hollywood." She says she spent five months following Bart around and interviewing almost 50 people.

Story Intended as 'Complex Portrait'

Rachlis said the story was not intended as "a hit piece" but as a "complex portrait of a very complicated, very powerful, very brilliant guy in Hollywood."

Indeed, Bart's complexity--he's "confounding," Wallace writes--is the major theme of the story. Wallace quotes him using the word "niggers," for example, and says, "According to more than half a dozen people, he peppers meetings at Variety with derogatory terms: 'fags,' 'bitches' . . . 'nips' " and a vulgar term for the female genitalia. But Wallace not only quotes Bart as denying having made such remarks, she also credits him with treating ill gay employees well, promoting women and trying, "with limited success, to diversify Variety's mostly white staff."

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