Soraya Roberts | Longreads | November 2018 | 11 minutes (2,670 words)
“I play with my breasts, not to show off but to demonstrate a kind of revulsion. I simply transform myself into a voice for all the tormented souls of this world.”
That’s Courtney Love in 1996 in SZ, the magazine belonging to one of the largest newspapers in Germany, Süddeutsche Zeitung. It sounds a little crazy, but then, she’s a little crazy. And anyway, Tom Kummer, the Swiss journalist who attempted to style himself after Hunter S. Thompson, always filed outlandish exclusives and cover stories like this from Los Angeles — Pamela Anderson on her aching implants, Mike Tyson on eating cockroaches, Bruce Willis on immorality. From the mid-nineties to 2000, he was kind of a celebrity himself. Beloved by editors, he also wrote for the German magazines Der Spiegel and Stern and Switzerland’s Die Weltwoche. In fact, it was in the latter that, roughly two years before the Love interview, he wrote, funnily enough: “She plays with her breasts not to show off but to demonstrate revulsion. She wants to embody the voice of all tormented souls in the world.”
Tom Kummer had been flagged for fabrication before, but it wasn’t until an exposé in Focus magazine in 2000 that it was confirmed: he had never interviewed Love, or Brad Pitt or Sharon Stone or Kim Basinger, or anyone really. SZ followed with a breakdown of his deceit, like The New York Times would with Jayson Blair in 2003; it published an apology for the “falsified” stories and fired editors Christian Kämmerling and Ulf Poschardt. You would think Kummer would at least nod at contrition — like Janet Cooke in 1982, like Stephen Glass in 1998 — but he took the Jonah Lehrer route instead and talked boundaries. He even had a name for his approach: borderline journalism. “I wrote impressionistic, creative, literary descriptions of the life of stars in the form of so-called interviews,” he told The Guardian in 2011, adding, “Everybody loved my stuff and I guess they were addicted to some kind of illusion that stars should talk like I made them talk.” He claimed he was never asked for proof, that his editors had approved of his methods. As Stern’s publisher told the Times, they — Kummer and his editors — “appeared to have a different idea of journalism.”
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Germany’s celebrity journalism has occupied an esoteric space in the past few decades, a fact which acquires particular significance in the fake news/post-truth world. In 2000, Die Zeit newspaper hosted a conversation between German Journalists Association chairman Siegfried Weischenberg and Markus Peichl, the founder of Tempo. Tempo was a German lifestyle magazine created in 1986 and modeled on the UK’s The Face and New York magazine as an artsy anarchic pop-intellectual alternative to the mainstream press. It only lasted a decade, but in that time the publication that lionized America’s New Journalists inspired a generation of reporters, including Tom Kummer, to go gonzo — knowing reality could not be reproduced, they created a more sensual one. “We wanted to counteract this traditional and hypocritical objectivity journalism with an honest form of subjectivity,” Peichl said in Die Zeit. The m.o. of the fact-indifferent Tempo contingent has since infiltrated traditional media like Süddeutsche Zeitung, Der Spiegel, and Stern, relaxing long-established rules which were only further stretched by the local media’s inexperience covering Hollywood. An unfortunate side effect of this influx is a burst in the fake news-adjacent journalism that has emerged (though perhaps less prevalently) all over the world and is notable for its brazen manipulation. These interviews are not conducted with obscure individuals, but celebrities as big as Beyoncé (German magazine NEON had to issue an apology in 2010 for the “fabrication” of a Beyoncé interview by freelancer Ingo Mocek, who it turned out had also forged conversations with Slash, Christina Aguilera, Snoop Dogg, and Jay-Z).
In one of the earliest examples, Tom Cruise filed a $60 million lawsuit against the German magazine Bunte in 1996 for reporting that he had a “zero sperm count.” The suit claimed that the story would undercut his bottom line and that, in fact, he had a “normal sperm count,” thank you very much. Bunte’s publisher, Hubert Burda Media, explained how this could have happened: during the publicity tour for Mission Impossible, Cruise vaguely referenced his “known condition” in response to whether he wanted more children (after retracting the story, Bunte admitted the actor never said that). Based on reports in other German publications, the publisher claimed, the journalist assumed that meant Cruise was in fact incapable of having children. “Mr Cruise never stated that he was sterile or that he had a zero sperm count,” Burda Media said in a statement. Two weeks later, after Bunte retracted its story and fired its writer, Cruise dropped the lawsuit. But the incident heralded a growing nebulae of questionable celebrity coverage.
In Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, Ty Burr writes that fan magazines were “déclassé” in the decades following the Second World War but returned to prominence among the middle class following the arrival of People magazine in 1974. In the eighties and nineties, the proliferation of magazines like Entertainment Weekly and Premiere and shows like “Entertainment Tonight” bolstered the popularity of celebrity coverage. “The magazines confirmed personas, created public narratives, represented public judgment in times of scandal,” he explains, “and dispelled the primal movie mystery by replacing it with an illusion of access and knowledge.”
The illusion looms particularly large in the international press, which has always had less access to Hollywood, which is also the reason the illusion can be so readily maintained; though social media has increasingly allowed for wider dissemination of foreign media. The popular German women’s magazine Freizeitwoche, for instance, published half a dozen fabricated interviews with Sandra Bullock over a 10-year span starting in 2005. “I like eroticism, I think it’s important in life,” she is quoted as saying. “When I have a boyfriend and am happily in love, I flourish. It’s then that I am deeply aware of my femininity.” The actress took legal action (seeing those quotes, I would too), and the magazine was forced to black out the entire interview online (despite denying Bullock’s claims, a judge ordered the publisher to pay her 50,000 euros). In the report that blew the whistle, Übermedien, a magazine specializing in media criticism, confirmed that exclusives with Roger Moore, Sean Connery, and Catherine Deneuve were also fake. Deneuve’s spokesperson conjured Kummer when they noted that her feature consisted of a mix of old interviews along with some healthy invention.
The excessive number of counterfeit Bullocks makes sense when you learn that in 2007, Forbes reported that she was the most-liked celebrity cover subject. “Brand loyalty isn’t what it used to be in terms of celebrity magazines,” Star editor in chief Candace Trunzo told Forbes. “Each week, people decide on what they are or aren’t going to buy based on the cover, and if you don’t draw them in with it, you lose that undecided portion of your audience.” These days this anxiety is absorbed by the writers themselves, who, aware of the pressure on their editors to publish viral content, pressure themselves to deliver it despite dwindling access.
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Last week, Playboy Germany pulled a fabricated Q&A with composer Ennio Morricone, who won an Oscar in 2016 for the score in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The 90-year-old composer is reported to have said of the filmmaker, “The man is a cretin. He just steals from others and puts it together again.” According to IndieWire (via Google Translate), he also called Tarantino’s films “trash” and said he drove him “crazy” by hiring him at the last minute. Morricone released a statement soon after in which he said he had “never expressed any negative statements about the Academy, Quentin, or his films” and had asked his lawyer to take action. Playboy Germany, via the publishing house it shares with Bunte, stood by the article. But a day later, the magazine’s editor in chief, Florian Boitin, pinned the blame on writer Marcel Anders. “Up to now, we have considered the freelancer who conducted the Ennio Morricone interview on our behalf to be a renowned print and radio journalist,” he said in a statement, adding, “Based on the information now at our disposal, we must unfortunately assume that the words spoken in the interview have, in part, been reproduced incorrectly.” Anders subsequently admitted, per another statement by Boitin, that he made “terrible mistakes,” mixing misquotes from the Morricone interview with older press statements by the composer. To avoid a repeat of the “deplorable episode,” Playboy Germany‘s editor in chief plans to file a criminal complaint against the freelancer.
The sham Morricone story came only a month after EgyptAir yanked the October issue of its inflight magazine Horus over a frankenfeature on Drew Barrymore. The article was posted to Twitter by passenger Adam Baron who called it “surreal” (an understatement). “Despite being unstable in her relationships most of her life, despite the several unsuccessful marriages,” it opens, before hazarding a psychological explanation for the actress’ 17 failed relationships (answer: no male role model). The interview had Barrymore comparing raising her daughters to “growing a small plant waiting for its ripe delicious fruits” and saying of her post-baby weight, “I find this a great opportunity to encourage every woman who is overweight to work on regaining her beauty and body.” Egyptian journalist Aida Takla-O’Reilly, who was, disturbingly, once the president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, was credited with the mess and responded to Baron on Twitter: “the interview with Drew Barrimoor which took place in New York is genuine &far from fake.” It seems Takla has almost as fluid a definition of interviewing as Kummer — after Barrymore’s people inquired about the article, it emerged the quotes were taken from a HFPA press conference, and the intro was written by someone else entirely. EgyptAir claimed Al-Ahram Advertising Agency, which edits Horus, was “totally responsible” for the errors. Al-Ahram blamed the translators, explaining that Takla filed in English and the copy was then translated into Arabic and then back into English, apparently losing much in translation. “We apologise for any misunderstanding that might be interpreted as an offence to the great artist,” the agency said in a statement.
But what is a Middle Eastern celebrity journalist to do? What are we all to do? The celebrity profile is a dead art, at least according to the Times’ Joe Caramanica’s recent pronouncement. With social media giving them direct access to their public despite the viral death hoaxes and fake split gossip (vote now!) and with the media bleeding money and power, stars no longer need journalists as their conduits. When they do make an exception, it is on their own terms — collaborative art with Beyoncé, texts from Paris Jackson, interviews with each other. “And so as the power dynamic tilts in favor of the famous over the press,” concluded Caramanica, “publications — weakened, desperate, financially fragile — have been forced to find ever more contorted ways to trade, at minimum, the feeling of control in exchange for precious access.” Which includes outsourcing.
Two years ago Hello! magazine published an “exclusive” interview with George Clooney in which he was reported to have said, “Everything about [Amal] attracted me to her. The thing which really impressed me the most about her was how incredibly smart she is, and I’ve never had so many great discussions as I’ve had with her.” The interview was syndicated and appeared in more tony publications like Vanity Fair. Clooney was not happy. “I have not given an interview to Hello! magazine and the quotes attributed to me are not accurate,” he said in a statement. “In my experience, being misquoted is not unusual but to have an ‘exclusive interview’ completely fabricated is something new. And a very disturbing trend.” Hello! claimed it had bought the interview “in good faith” from an independent agency it had used for many years called Famous, which instead of delivering a one-on-one sit down, had pillaged previous interviews and culled quotes, many of which were not made by Clooney.
The Famous Pictures and Features Agency website explains that it “provides A-list celebrity interviews and showbiz gossip to international newspapers and magazines, offering a fast and efficient service to news and features editors while maintaining the highest editorial standards.” The site adds that the company “is also happy to submit your questions to writers with pre-arranged interviews or commission features on your behalf.” A number of these syndication agencies offer their services to the British press, including HOT Features and Viva Press, which both list Hello! as a client. HOT boasts more than 50 writers internationally, while Viva employs journalists in New York, Los Angeles, and London. The latter, which also counts The Sunday Telegraph, Elle, Cosmopolitan, and Grazia among its clients, claims, “unlike other syndication agencies, our content is most often exclusive and not previously published.” It is unclear how these agencies vet writers or handle their work once it is filed, and with none of them responding to requests for comment, I can only hazard a guess. Considering how common it is in the 24-hour news cycle for even mainstream publications not to edit or fact check articles, we can probably assume this lack of oversight is de rigueur for a content factory whose value is dependent almost entirely on pace and volume.
In a political climate in which there are true ramifications to fake news, phony celebrity interviews may read as insignificant, except when you consider that the president is himself a celebrity. With Donald Trump’s perpetual equivocations, the norms of fraudulent celebrity coverage waft perilously close to political coverage. Then there is the widespread stress on journalists who are expected to deliver more with less – which transcends beats – particularly when those journalists are marginalized. Back in the early ’80s, Janet Cooke was a rare woman of color in the Washington Post newsroom when she won the Pulitzer Prize for her fabricated story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. She told Phil Donahue two years later that her judgment had been compromised by pressure. “I spent two months looking for (Jimmy) and if I did not produce a story, then how was I to justify my time?” she said, adding, “I simply wanted to write a story that I had been working on so that I would not have to go back and say I cannot do it.” Her words are especially poignant when you consider how her race and gender are underrepresented in the media.
In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, ex-Post staffer Howard Kurtz said Cooke relinquishing her Pulitzer “was the moment that public trust gave way to cynicism.” But Cooke’s ambitions were different from those of entitled reporters like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, whose excuses were that they wanted to be the best, or from Jonah Lehrer, who never really apologized for self-plagiarizing in The New Yorker or making up Bob Dylan quotes. In 2014, Rolling Stone published “A Rape on Campus,” in which Sabrina Rubin Erdely reported a group sexual assault at the University of Virginia. The feature, later withdrawn and systematically dismantled by the Columbia School of Journalism, was the most popular ever published that wasn’t a celebrity interview. In the end, Rolling Stone saw no need to change their editorial process (managing editor Will Dana did, however, leave four months after Columbia’s findings were released). But in a break from our editorial process, we are electing to be more transparent just this once to say: Longreads had two editors look at this piece and one fact-checker.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.