It’s your typical Hollywood story: In the late 1970s, a Jewish kid from Los Angeles answers an ad to work as secretary to a film producer. She wants to get in “the business,” but she doesn’t exactly have the pedigree. Dad’s an economist; Mom runs a bookstore. Growing up, she’d gone to what she called “a hippie school,” where students would sit on the floor and read Robert Penn Warren. All she has is ambition.
Ten years later she’s an executive at Columbia Pictures, developing films like “Groundhog Day,” “Awakenings” and “A League of Their Own.” A few years after that, she’s president of the company. Three times under her leadership Columbia has the highest grossing year of any movie studio ever. She is elevated to co-chairperson at Columbia’s parent corporation, Sony Pictures Entertainment. Today Forbes ranks her the 28th most powerful woman in the world.
And she has made her name on more than summer blockbusters. Throughout her career she has fought for more stories about women, like “Girl, Interrupted,” “28 Days” and “Sense and Sensibility,” and hired talented female creators like Nora Ephron, Amy Heckerling and Nancy Meyers.
She has also called for Hollywood to end gay slurs in films, reminding her fellow executives that “what the media says about your sexual orientation and the color of your skin and the shape of your eyes and your ethnicity...really sinks in. What we see teaches us about how to feel about ourselves and how to feel about each other.”
When polled by the Los Angeles Times writer Steven Zeitchik, people in the film industry said of her, “More than any studio chief, she has been willing to roll the dice on difficult films, the kind of films that make so many want to be a part of this hair-raising world in the first place.”
Then, according to the White House, North Korea hacked her company as retaliation for producing “The Interview,” and the life of Sony’s Amy Pascal became anything but that typical Hollywood success story.
Plenty of questions have been asked about “The Interview.” In what world does a film about assassinating a real-life world leader seem like a good idea? Would anyone be crying “free speech” if it were a comedy about two guys who murder President Obama?
But also, can anyone deny that America desperately needs films, ridiculous or otherwise, that consider its shocking-to-the-point-of-absurd willingness to assassinate people? In Pakistan today, drone strikes are so familiar that the media there have produced cartoons about a drone and its pal, a dengue fever-carrying mosquito.
Between leaked emails and public criticism from no less than President Obama, Pascal has been branded foul-mouthed, racist, sexist and a coward.
But for those familiar with her, little of this holds up. And that’s the part of the Sony story that has been missed. Trading on our instinctive inability to pass a wreck without slowing to look, online media sites with telling names like Gawker, Buzzfeed or dlisted have driven the story, posting every leak without context or hesitation, which the mainstream media then pick up. (Gawker created an entire site for the leaks.)
The Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Petersen recently opined that the role of journalists today “isn’t as gatekeepers, but as interpreters.” But a simple Google search reveals that most of these online “interpreters” are simply regurgitating one another’s information, even using the very same language, without fact checking or analysis.
And do any of us really want reality interpreted by publications whose headline articles include “24 Times Grindr Brought Awkwardness to a Whole New Level,” “Girls Explain How They Flirt” and “Which ‘Love Actually’ Couple Are You and Your Significant Other?” (These are all real headlines from Buzzfeed.)
Anyone who has worked in Hollywood will tell you Pascal’s emails are typical of the business. The media industry is a never-ending series of high-stakes, high-stress negotiations; writer/producer Judd Apatow aptly labels it “a game of chicken.” Ugly compromises are made; awful things get said. “Everyone is insulted, and at the end of the day we figure it out and we’re friends.”
That reality is not presented on these sites because they don’t make for clickable headlines. News equals Buzz.
So instead of being gatekeeper or interpreter, our press becomes more and more a circus barker, looking for the next bearded lady or three-headed goat to draw our attention.