West Wing Web War!

Political commentary and more.
July 3 2001 9:17 PM

West Wing Web War!

Come with kausfiles on an anthropological expedition into the heart of Hollywood ...

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Background: Last week, Bernard Weinraub of the New York Times wrote a piece making John Wells, producer of the hit NBC show The West Wing, look like an ogre for denying the show's writers the raises promised in their contracts. Wells seemed a hypocrite too, since he's also president of the West Coast branch of the writers' union.

Weinraub added that Aaron Sorkin, the show's creator--who "has a four-year $16 million deal with Warner Brothers"--has "stirred some enmity among writers, partly because he takes credit for every episode and partly for an incident during his Emmy triumph last September" in which Rick Cleveland, who had co-credit with Sorkin on the winning script, "was not given an opportunity to say a word."

Last Friday, Wells and Sorkin responded to Weinraub's main charge in Daily Variety, basically arguing that since Sorkin writes all the teleplays for West Wing, "the writing staff doesn't really function as a writing staff," as Wells put it, and didn't merit the raises (or "bumps"). The executives said a budget crunch meant that the alternative to denying the raises was cutting writers' jobs.

Directions: 1) Go to the site www.mightybigtv.com. 2) Use the box at the upper right to go to the forum for "West Wing, The." 3) Click on "General Gabbery." 4) Click on "West Wing in the Media." 5) Scroll down (currently it takes about 20 screens) until you get to the post from "Benjamin."

Why do we care about "Benjamin"? "Benjamin" is pretty clearly Sorkin. (Sorkin's office confirms that this is the case.) In the thread, Wells has just been attacked by a poster named "mjforty," on the basis of Weinraub's story, and "Benjamin" intervenes to defend Wells and himself.

What does "Benjamin" say? 1) "I write the scripts." 2) But he gives his writers "Story By" credit on a rotating basis "by way of a gratuity." 3) The writers were told if they didn't give up their "bumps" the producers would exercise their contractual option not to renew their contracts. (The key point, which he doesn't make clearly, is that the raises were apparently promised in the writers' individual contracts, not the union contract. Weinraub sleazily, or just lazily, leaves the impression that Wells, the union head, violated his own collective bargaining agreement.) 4) "Benjamin" charges that "Bernie Weinraub, it would seem, is very casual about the truth." 5) Defending his Emmy behavior, "Benjamin" is extremely nasty about Cleveland. He claims "I threw out Rick's script" for the award-winning episode and makes other highly unflattering claims regarding Cleveland that you'll have to look up yourself.

Why is this interesting? Do you care if West Wing's writers get their contractual "bumps," or if Aaron Sorkin's a good guy or a bad guy? I don't. It's not welfare reform! If you make your money in TV in Hollywood, the West Wing fracas is a reasonably big deal. For the rest of us:

1) How weird is it that a big celebrity macher like Sorkin bothers to defend himself (and attack others) on what is basically a fan site? This is a man who has a lot going on in his life already: Sorkin recently made national headlines when he was busted for possession of illegal mushrooms and cocaine at the Burbank airport. (He's agreed to enter a drug-treatment program supervised by the probation department.) He just separated from his wife. And he has to write a whole new season of The West Wing, including its rumored two-hour opener. On the other hand, if there were a Web site devoted to you, wouldn't you visit it, and maybe make a few God-like interventions--especially if the participants treat your postings with worshipful respect? (Check out the posts that follow "Benjamin" 's.) My impression is that celebrities do this more often than you'd think--the Web, because it allows the cover of false identities, has been God's gift to them. Where six degrees of separation were, there's now one. And, who knows, the fans may have some good plot ideas.

2) He's so nasty about Cleveland, who is to him in the Hollywood hierarchy as a small field rat is to an elephant. Weinraub's piece clearly got to him. Moral: Never shave your writers' paychecks if one of them (Dee Dee Myers) is married to the local New York Times bureau chief (Todd Purdum)--at least if you're sensitive about bad publicity! (Update: Cleveland has now posted a remarkably calm response to Sorkin's charges. It's way, way, down on the same mightybigtv.com thread. A second mightybigtv.com thread has also been opened for discussion of the controversy.)

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