The July issue of Los Angeles magazine (not online) has a piece by Kim Masters on Paramount's Brad Grey and by David Ferrell on the giant Rose Hills cemetery. Steve Oney's piece on crisis PR mogul Michael Sitrick, however, is the one being emailed around town. Sitrick's backstage orchestration of the recent New York Daily News' expose on Page Six reporter Jared Paul Stern is detailed—followed by Sitrick ghosting a Wall Street Journal op-ed that ran under client Ron Burkle's name. Sitrick's clients in the Pellicano case alone include lawyer Terry Christensen and Michael Ovitz, and Sitrick says he has offered to help out Hollywood super-lawyer Bert Fields. He has also saved the butts—or tried to—of Cardinal Roger Mahony, Rush Limbaugh, Marvin Davis, Roy Disney, Halle Berry, Tommy Lee and the Dodgers, among many others.
The piece traces the role that friendly WSJ reporters, in particular former Los Angeles bureau chief Stephen J. Sansweet, played in Sitrick's rise. He's a multi-millionaire who drives a rare 1971 Mercedes 280 SE 3.5 convertible, uses automatic "watch winders" to keep his collection of wristwatches accurate, and takes pride in all the reporters he has bamboozled. He's also "the meanest son of a bitch I've ever worked with," says Wendy McCaw, a former client who owns the Santa Barbara News-Press.
Sitrick insists he has never lied to a journalist, though Oney writes:
There is, however, an opposing view. It holds that Sitrick is unctuous, slippery, and meddlesome. Although no one accuses him of dealing in misinformation, there's a strong feeling that he's happy to throw journalists off track...A standard Sitrick maneuver is to envelop writers in a fog of meaningless details. When journalist Mim Udovitch was assigned by Radar to investigate whether the Kabbalah Center was a cult organization, Sitrick and Company inundated her with material. Indeed, the publicist contends that his staff kept her occupied so long that the firm can take credit for the article's appearance in the relative oblivion of the magazine's online edition instead of in print as originally planned. "We just kept feeding her facts and facts and facts," says Tammy Taylor, who handled the case for Sitrick, "until basically she had so much information she couldn't get the piece done on time." Udovitch denies Taylor's claim.
More excerpts after the jump:
On Sitrick's style:
"The other guys who run big PR firms in Los Angeles are in it for status," says Carol Stogsdill, a former senior editor at the Los Angeles Times who worked briefly for Sitrick and is now executive director of media relations at UCLA. "They need to be at the table. Mike could not only not care less about being at the table, he doesn't want to be at the table. It doesn't move fast enough for him."
Adds Seth Lubove, the Los Angeles bureau chief of Bloomberg News Service, "Mike thinks of himself as a brawler. He's the Jew with a chip on his shoulder. Whenever he goes up against a news organization, he sees himself taking on the goyim. He's vicious, and he's proud of it. He's not literally a leg breaker, but metaphorically, sure."
"Mike is extraordinary," says Victoria Gordon, the newsmagazine's [60 Minutes] executive story editor. "He does a very difficult kind of public relations, and I respect him." Moreover, Gordon, like countless other news executives, covets the journalistic access the publicist can broker. "I'm working with him on several stories," she says, one of them being a possible first television interview with Rush Limbaugh, who-should he be willing to talk about his addiction to the painkiller OxyContin-would be, in the parlance of the business, a "great get."
On Sitrick and journalists:
"When reporters phone Mike," says Carol Stogsdill, "they always get the impression that he's been helpful. But then they hang up and realize that he's demanded that all their questions must be submitted in writing or by e-mail and that if they even hope to talk to his client they have to do it on his terms."
Unlike most other public relations practices, Sitrick and Company almost exclusively hires ex-journalists. "When I started the firm," he says, "I thought it would be easier to teach journalists what PR is than to teach publicists what journalism is." Among Sitrick's 50 employees are former senior-level staffers from the Los Angeles Times, The Orange County Register, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and such broadcast outlets as NPR and KCBS.
One of Sitrick's favorite gambits is "the Lead Steer." He frequently uses it when clients are besieged by negative pack coverage. His thinking is that if he can turn a single respected writer around, he can reverse the trend and maybe even start a stampede in the other direction. "There's an impression among a lot of publicists," says Sitrick, "that you want to deal with lightweight journalists. That's okay on a one-off story, but on a big piece you want a Mike Wallace." When the publicist was representing the actress Kim Basinger during her 1993 bankruptcy case, he says he used Judy Brennan, of the Los Angeles Times, as his lead steer. "She did a sympathetic article, and her piece reversed the way people thought of Kim."
On Wall Street Journal reporter Stephen J. Sansweet:
During the period the reporter covered Wickes, an assignment that in the end resulted in 19 front-page stories, he and the publicist spent countless hours together. In 1989, when Sitrick formed his own firm, Sansweet, who had become the Journal's Los Angeles bureau chief, smoothed the way. "I must have made half a dozen calls on Mike's behalf to Journal reporters and bureau chiefs around the country," Sansweet says. "I'd say, 'You're going to be hearing from this guy Mike Sitrick.' They'd say, 'Aren't you friends?' I'd say, 'You know me, if the story is negative, write it. But I think you can trust him.' In this way Mike became a known quantity around the Journal."
* Nikki Finke dumps on the piece: At her blog.