Moore gets attention at convention

Media

September 01, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Celebrity director Michael Moore, who was hired as a guest columnist by USA Today to write about the Republican National Convention, inspired headlines Monday night even before he had written a word. In so doing, the liberal documentarian made the kind of news the paper would have liked to avoid.

During a prime-time speech televised Monday night on all the major networks, Arizona Sen. John S. McCain singled out Moore, referring to him as "a disingenuous filmmaker." Moore is the creator and director of Fahrenheit 9/11, a documentary in which he offers a blistering critique of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq.

Delegates interrupted the speech to boo Moore, who was sitting in the press gallery above the convention arena floor. In an exchange captured by television cameras, the filmmaker smiled broadly and flashed his thumb and forefinger at the delegates in an "L" - a gesture popularized in the movie Jerry McGuire that means "loser."

Republicans present in Madison Square Garden seemed to relish the moment, and McCain repeated the line to rousing cheers. But USA Today editors yesterday chose to defend in print their decision to hire Moore as a commentator and held a staff meeting in New York to discuss the flap with employees.

The newspaper initially had hired two guest columnists to offer commentary about each political convention from a dissenting point of view. Ann Coulter, a well-known conservative writer whose work is distributed by the Universal Press Syndicate, was to report earlier this summer on the Democratic Convention in Boston. And Moore, who created a buzz this year when his documentary won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, was to offer observations from New York City.

Neither idea panned out as planned. Coulter angrily withdrew from the arrangement before her first piece was published by USA Today because of disagreements with the paper's editors.

Brian Gallagher, the editorial page editor, wrote yesterday that he hired Moore, a committed critic of Bush, to offer a pointed counterpoint to the Republicans because political conventions "devolved long ago into little more than commercials." After Coulter's abrupt departure from the paper, Jonah Goldberg, of the conservative National Review, performed the same function from Boston about the Democrats.

From the get-go, Moore's presence at the convention sparked such intense interest - from wary security guards and star-struck members of the media - that it interfered with the ability of other reporters to file their stories.

According to several witnesses, Moore was holding court with a gaggle of reporters Monday evening even before entering the arena. The presence of a several-member personal security detail also drew intense scrutiny from the guards hired by Madison Square Garden.

Further confusion occurred because Moore did not have a pass that would allow him to sit in the largely empty, unassigned seats high above the floor. Guards instead directed him to sit in the press gallery, where USA Today reporters and their peers were working. As television crews raced to get footage of a left-wing critic inside the Republican convention, the media scrum surrounding Moore grew.

Because of the commotion, security guards prevented some credentialed reporters from reaching the press area, said Sandy Johnson, Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press. "When Michael Moore and his entourage of a dozen New York City cops showed up, it was terribly disruptive," she said. "Don't put him in the small amount of space set aside for the working press - which he's not."

USA Today editors said they did not intend - or expect - such a fuss.

"We would have discouraged Moore from going in [to the convention hall] if we had recognized that he would be a subject of controversy," USA Today Editor Ken Paulson said yesterday. "Our plan was to have him seated far from the podium and away from the camera lights - discreetly taking notes. You can never underestimate the power of celebrity."

Of all newspapers, USA Today should understand the power of celebrity's heat and fame, as its focus on the world of entertainment over its 22-year history has helped it become the nation's largest circulation daily. The predictable headline from yesterday's New York Post: "McCain rips Moore as celluloid zero." The New York Daily News: "McCain Mauls Moore." On Jim Romenesko's media Web site for the Poynter Institute: "USAT Guest Columnist Moore Comes Close to Disrupting RNC."

Moore did not return messages left for him with associates yesterday. But he told others that he would be a no-show at the convention for the rest of the week.

"He probably will not be there, given what happened [Monday] night," said Mark Benoit, a press aide to Moore. "It was a security and logistical nightmare."

Owen Ullmann, the deputy editorial page editor, said the decision not to return belonged to Moore. "He just said, in light of what happened [Monday], he thought it made sense to cover the convention without having to set foot in the hall," Ullmann said yesterday. "I don't think he would be the first person to do that."

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