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Regan was fired after slur, News Corp. says

December 19, 2006|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Media giant News Corp. took the unusual step Monday of releasing notes of a conversation between one of its attorneys and former book publisher Judith Regan to show that she made anti-Semitic remarks that led to her firing.

Regan, meanwhile, hired Hollywood attorney Bert Fields to deny the allegations and vigorously contest her dismissal. Fields said the firing was the result of a long-running feud between Regan and her boss, Chief Executive Jane Friedman of HarperCollins, a News Corp. unit.

In its account of the conversation between Regan and HarperCollins attorney Mark Jackson, News Corp. said Regan had declared that Friedman and Executive Editor David Hirshey, along with literary agent Esther Newberg, "constitute a Jewish cabal against her."

Regan also complained, according to the account, that Friedman had not given her enough support during the recent controversy over the aborted O.J. Simpson book and TV deal she had promoted, saying: "Of all people, the Jews should know about ganging up, finding common enemies and telling the big lie."

Regan was fired Friday, shortly after a phone call with the HarperCollins attorney to discuss a forthcoming "fictional biography" of the late baseball great Mickey Mantle, which had been drawing negative publicity for its salacious content.

Fields said Regan had indeed complained about a "cabal" formed against her within the company during the conversation. But he denied that she used the phrase "Jewish cabal."

"There's a big difference between those two statements," he added, "and we will demonstrate that in court." As for the other comment, Fields said, "I'm Jewish, and that statement to me seems in no way anti-Semitic."

Regan's rift with News Corp was sparked by reports that she had paid Simpson $3.5 million for a book and television deal. The book, "If I Did It," was billed as a hypothetical account of how the former football star might have carried out the 1994 slayings of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald L. Goldman. The TV project, a two-hour interview with Simpson conducted by Regan, was to have aired on Fox.

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch bowed to growing public protest and terminated the project after several television affiliates said they would not broadcast the program.

Fields, who said he had had a long business relationship and friendship with Regan, described her as "very angry and disappointed" about the termination and "the scurrilous charge" of making anti-Semitic comments, calling it "an attempt to smear her."

He said that her firing, which HarperCollins called "for cause," was a breach of her contract. "She has performed brilliantly for this company. She's brought in a great deal of money and she'll be suing for every penny that's coming to her."

Efforts to reach Friedman and Jackson for comment were unsuccessful.

Fields offered only a few details when asked for Regan's version of the phone call with Jackson, which took place with Regan in Century City and Jackson in New York.

He said, "Ms. Regan wanted certain records, and he wasn't willing to give them to her." Fields added that the documents Regan sought "are records of complaints that Ms. Regan made. She wanted to have copies of memos that have been written, and Mr. Jackson refused to give her those."

The attorney declined to discuss how much money Regan would seek in her anticipated lawsuit.

The real reason for the termination, Fields suggested, was that Friedman was looking for a reason to have Regan fired. The two have clashed over some of the books Regan has promoted.

"Long-standing friction is not a reason for throwing somebody out of a job that she has performed brilliantly," Fields said. Regan "has brought a great deal of money to this company, and Ms. Friedman was all too happy to take all the money from these books. Now, she has nominated herself to be the taste police and get rid of someone she doesn't like."

At least one author who has worked with Regan came to her defense, expressing shock that she had been summarily dismissed. "I can't believe she would ever say anything like that," novelist Jess Walter said of the anti-Semitic charge.

But Walter, whose novel "The Zero" was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award for fiction, conceded that Regan's hard-charging style was likely to get her in trouble with higher-ups one day. "As someone who ran her own imprint, Judith always found herself in all sorts of conflicts, and she thrived in seeing herself as going against the flow."

Meanwhile, publishing industry insiders were speculating about Regan's next move and whether she would remain in Los Angeles. In her weekly column, Publishers Weekly Editor Sara Nelson wrote that she doubted "we've heard the last of Judith Regan," speculating that she will land at a TV network, movie studio or another publishing house.

Others doubted a quick return to publishing, though. "Right now she's pretty radioactive for the book world," said an executive at a large publisher, speaking anonymously. "My guess is that she's not going to be linking up with a major house in the short run. But in the long run she could."

Both Walter, who spoke with Regan on Sunday, and Fields said the former publisher had not decided her next professional move. Nor whether she will remain in Los Angeles, they said.

"My guess is she's going to take some time off," Walter said. "She has a lot of decisions ahead of her. If she goes back into publishing, I'd expect her to do something small. She wants to break free from how publishing works, to be more nimble and to produce books faster based on news as it breaks."

josh.getlin@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Sallie Hofmeister contributed to this report.

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