Local EAA Coverage Buries The Lead

Note: Below is the first Media Rants Column, published in the August, 2002 edition of The Valley Scene. The column appeared on page 10. That month's online version of the paper included the following statement in italics from editor Tom Breuer. --Tony Palmeri

Welcome to the August 2002 edition of The Scene Online, your source for Fox Cities issues, arts and entertainment on the web. We've got another month of columns, articles, reviews and events listings ready for your online perusal. This month also sees the debut of Media Rants, a new media criticism column by Tony Palmeri, and a Guest Column from Barbara Hoffman. And don't forget to pick up a copy of The Scene newspaper too, available at hundreds of Valley locations! Only there will you find the ever-present News of the Weird, Jim Hightower and This Modern World, as well as a new incarnation of Scene Out, featuring the fantastic photography of William Glasheen. Finally, this month's Art Rave section features the Green Bay Community Theater -- only in our print edition! As always, enjoy your stay at The Scene Online and please send questions or comments to us here. Thanks for visiting! :)

By Tony Palmeri

Fox Valley news media are at their servile worst when covering the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). In the Valley, the press that British parliamentarian Edmund Burke called the Fourth Estate becomes the Fourth EAAstate. Especially during the annual fly-in, print and electronic media consumers get mostly inane puff pieces, EAA advertising masquerading as news (with headlines like "EAA benefits Oshkosh" and "Wittman's legacy lives on"), and cheerleading editorials. Want to know what it's like to experience déjà vu? Read a Valley newspaper on any morning of the EAA fly-in and then go to the EAA website that afternoon-you'll swear you've been there before.

This year the EAA puffery press reported that the Association, in cooperation with the Oshkosh City Administration, would be presenting the first annual "Key to the City" award "to honor distinguished aviation personalities for significant contributions to the promotion and support of EAA Air Venture, Oshkosh and the aviation community." In June came the announcement that actor Cliff Robertson, a long time EAA supporter, would receive the award. Not surprisingly, reporting about Robertson got reduced to the same EAA shill routine we've come to expect from the Valley Fourth EAAstate. That's unfortunate, because in this era of Enron, Worldcomm, and other corporate atrocities, Valley residents should know that Cliff Robertson 25 years ago almost lost his acting career after exposing Hollywood corruption.

The story begins in February of 1977. Robertson, by that time an established star with an Oscar and Emmy on his resume, received an IRS 1099 form reporting $10,000 in earnings from Columbia pictures. Knowing he had received not a dime from the company, Robertson instigated an investigation that led to ugly revelations.

The Los Angeles police and the FBI found that a $10,000 check made out to Robertson had been cut and his signature forged by Columbia Pictures President David Begelman. Taking advantage of a (even then!) corporate toadying Securities and Exchange Commission, Columbia put Begelman on a paid leave and launched its own "internal investigation." They found that Begelman's forgery was one of several "unauthorized financial transactions" on his part. Nervous about possible Wall St. panic, the Columbia Old Boy brass tried to keep the matter under wraps, even getting Robertson initially to agree not to talk to the press.

In December of 1977, the Old Boys reinstated Begelman as Columbia President, claiming that his embezzlement and forgeries were prompted by "emotional problems" that, "coupled with ongoing therapy, will not impair his continuing effectiveness as an executive." Robertson and his actress wife Dina Merrill were outraged and wondered how, especially in the immediate post-Watergate era, a crook could maintain his position of power.

Columbia pictures put pressure on Robertson to remain silent. The experiences of generations of actors proved that speaking out against the Hollywood hierarchy was not the best career advancement strategy. But Robertson, aided by Dina Merrill's friendship with Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, finally decided to blow the whistle. He told the Post "There is a spreading cancer of corruption in Hollywood, of which the Begelman incident is but one example." He told the Associated Press "Wealth and power create a kind of atmosphere of fear. I think they begin to believe that they are above the law."

By early1978 Hollywood gossip columnists Rona Barrett and Liz Smith exposed the story to a mass audience, with Smith coining the affair "Hollywoodgate." Producer Ray Stark called Robertson and told him that if he continued talking to the press Begelman would be driven to suicide. Robertson said that he would do "what a citizen should do in this situation."

The Robertson story is told in David McClintick's 1982 bestseller Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street (New York: William Morrow and Company). A movie version will be released in 2003, with James Woods as Alan Hirschfield, the Columbia executive whose attempt to fire Begelman was rejected by the company's Board of Directors.

Begelman, who did eventually commit suicide in 1995, received legal and industry slaps on the wrist for his embezzlements. Shortly after Hollywoodgate he was back in the executive suite, running United Artists for MGM. Of the whistleblower, McClintick writes, "Cliff Robertson was blacklisted for four years after reporting David Begelman's forgery."

With whistleblowers like Sherron Watkins of Enron and the FBI's Colleen Rowley in the news, it's too bad the Valley Fourth EAAstate could not see fit to make more of Cliff Robertson's brush with corrupt movie moguls. Robertson himself recognizes the importance of his role in Hollywoodgate. In 1984, he told Soap Opera Digest that, "Hollywoodgate is something that has changed the whole industry; it showed that you could confront high-level corruption and still exist. For many years there was an unwritten rule in this town, `Thou shalt not confront top moguls on corruption or thou shalt not work.' Fifty hears from now it won't be my Oscar or anything else I might win that I will be remembered for, but probably this . . . I think there are a few people who wish Hollywoodgate would blow away, just as there are those who wish Watergate will blow away. Neither will."

Writing about Cliff Robertson without mentioning Hollywoodgate is like omitting Watergate in a story about John Dean. We need to demand more from the Valley Fourth EAAstate.

Tony Palmeri is an Associate Professor of Communication at UW Oshkosh and Co-host of "Commentary," a campus public affairs program.

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