Stories That Matter: How the Los Angeles Times Brought Down the Golden Globes
A six-month investigation by Stacy Perman and Josh Rottenberg unearthed the corruption and racism behind the glitz and glamour of one of Hollywood's premiere awards ceremonies.
The Golden Globes have long been seen as the sketchy sibling of the Oscars and the Emmys. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the organization of little-known journalists that bestows the annual awards, is routinely dismissed as a group of grifters and clowns who play a useful role in the Hollywood hype machine. As long as publicity-seeking stars kept attending the nationally televised ceremony, and millions of viewers kept tuning in, few in the industry felt the need to ask who the 87 voting members were, or how they made their choices.
Journalists have periodically tried to pierce this secrecy over the decades, to little avail. That all changed earlier this year. On February 21st, the Los Angeles Times published a lengthy expose providing evidence of widespread corruption, including schemes by which the non-profit organization enriched many of its members. An accompanying story highlighted an even more startling fact: The organization did not have a single Black member.
This time, people with clout took notice. Hollywood insiders, led by prominent creators of color, began protesting on social media. Over the following weeks, the pressure for reform gradually grew, culminating in NBC’s May 10th announcement that the Globes, which were first presented in 1944, will be on hiatus next year. Whether they return the year after is anyone’s guess.
This strong response has been a pleasant surprise to Times reporters Stacy Perman and Josh Rottenberg, who spent six months writing and rewriting the initial stories — and are still on the beat. “When we were working on the story, it didn’t occur to us in our wildest dreams that not only would NBC pull the show, but Tom Cruise would return his Golden Globes,” Rottenberg said.
“While we were working on it, a lot of people asked us why we were even bothering,” Perman added. “Much later, when we were pursuing subsequent stories, I had a conversation with a studio executive who said a lot of this was known, but, [because of] the way it was laid out in the story, ‘a lot of us realized it just wasn’t OK anymore.’”
Perman and Rottenberg talked about their pursuit of the story, how it came together, and its long afterlife in an interview with The Postscript. It has been edited for concision and clarity.
The idea that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is prone to corruption is hardly new. In the 1980s, there were credible allegations that a man essentially bought a Golden Globe for his girlfriend, actress Pia Zadora. Why did the two of you decide to take a deep dive into an organization that so many have written about before?
Rottenberg: It’s true that the HFPA’s shenanigans are well-trod ground. The impetus was the lawsuit this Norwegian journalist, Kjersti Flaa, filed accusing the HFPA as operating as a sort of cartel and institutionalizing a culture of corruption. I got an email from my editor last August asking me to look into it. I remember he said, “this could lead somewhere, or nowhere at all.”
Our feeling at the beginning was: Was there anything new to say about the HFPA? But as we went on, we found a lot that had not been reported before. Also, while some of the broad strokes were known, it’s a different time now. With all these organizations inside and outside Hollywood engaging in a reckoning about race, it all hit differently. While the HFPA had certainly taken its hits over the years, it had never done so in the context of social media, Black Lives Matter, and Time’s Up.
Perman: There was also a lot of pent-up frustration with the organization within the industry. People had reached a boiling point. Also, we got a hold of a lot of financial documents that backed up a lot of the rumors, accusations, and claims about the group.
Were people who had kept quiet in the past now willing to talk to you?
Perman: It was an interesting challenge, in that a lot of people didn’t want to speak, but they also wanted the story told. We worked on the initial stories for six months. A lot of that time was getting an understanding of the players, cultivating sources, getting people to talk to us, getting ahold of documents. It was a laborious process.
Rottenberg: Within the HFPA, there is a well-known code of silence. Although they’re journalists, they don’t talk to the press about how they actually operate — or even who is in the group. They operate in their own shadowy little corner and don’t interface with other journalists covering Hollywood.
Within the industry, there was a sense of “we know what the deal is, but we don’t want to talk about it.” The ecosystem that empowered this group doesn’t reflect well on a lot of people. So getting people to talk on the record was incredibly challenging. Now that the information is out there, the taboo has lifted a little bit, and people are talking more openly.
Perman: After our story came out, the Hollywood publicists announced they were withholding their talent from (engaging with) the group. That became a big turning point. They told us they wanted to do this a year earlier, but they felt they couldn’t. It was basically our story that allowed them to do it at this point at time.
It is interesting that, of all the players involved, it was the publicists who were the first ones to actually take decisive action. Did it surprise you that they were the people who said “no”?
Perman: That was very, very surprising. It turns out they wield a lot more power than even they understood, particularly when they marshaled it in a critical mass.
Rottenberg: I was stunned when that happened. These people who profited directly from the Globes said “we’re turning off this machine until this gets cleaned up.”
The Globes run on stardom. That’s the currency of the HFPA, their life blood. There was a lot of talent in Hollywood that was fed up with what they had to do to court the HFPA year-in and year-out — the way the press conferences were run, the kinds of questions that were asked. There was pressure from a lot of the talent to say “enough is enough.” The publicists eventually forced the hand of NBC, but the decision to pull the plug on the Golden Globes for next year came almost two months later.
It took a lot of time for the other players to reckon with this. No one wants to be the one who pulls the plug, because everyone makes a lot of money from it. That’s why it has gone on for all these years. But now that we’re in this new moment, we’re seeing everybody recalibrate what they get out of this vs. the cost of being associated with it.
Going back and rereading your original story, it was mainly about corruption. But a lot of the reaction was driven by your revelation that the HFPA had no Black members. Did that surprise you? Did it require you to shift your focus a bit?
Perman: There were two aspects to the story that surprised us when they caught fire: The news about the HPFA having no Black members, and the Emily in Paris junket. Both got a lot of attention, and they pulled the rest of the story into the conversation.
Why did the controversy over Emily in Paris, a Netflix show that was nominated for best comedy series after 30 HFPA members who were flown to France and wined and dined on the set, raise so many eyebrows? Hasn’t this sort of thing been happening for many years?
Perman: The HFPA has a reputation for being easily influenced, and this put a fine point on that. This was a strange nomination; it wasn’t on any critic’s Top Five list. It took the whispers that had long surrounded the HFPA and filled in the blanks.
It’s fascinating that the HFPA is being forced to answer for its self-dealing and corruption in large part because people are upset not about that, but about the organization’s lack of diversity.
Perman: There is some overlap between the diversity issue and their ethical lapses and financial conduct. Soon after the initial stories ran, [film director] Ava DuVernay and [television producer] Shonda Rhimes went on social media to say their Black-led content was snubbed.
Rottenberg: Emily in Paris is a frothy show about a white woman. Even one of the writers on the show called it a show about white privilege, and she was surprised it was nominated. I May Destroy You is a show that deals with issues of race and has a Black woman at the center of it. It was in a different category than Emily in Paris, but the fact that show was overlooked and Emily in Paris was nominated tied together the two issues (of alleged racism and corruption).
Besides simply conveying so much information, what was your biggest challenge in writing the initial story?
Rottenberg: One of the tricky things was the audience for the story straddles the industry, which understands the history and how this ecosystem works, and the people who just watch the Golden Globes but know nothing about the HFPA. We had to figure out how to present the piece in such a way that it resonated with both of those audiences.
This was a very long piece for the L.A. Times to run. There were different ways we could have broken it down. It was one of the top editors, pretty late in the process, who said we should take all the information about who is and is not in the group and break it out into a sort of sidebar. That took some of the pressure off.
What guidelines were you working under regarding using anonymous sources?
Perman: If we use an unnamed source, we generally have corroboration, either by documentation or another source who backed up what they said. You always have to evaluate the credibility of sources, but, in many cases, we had multiple sources telling us the same piece of information. If a piece of information came from was a single source who wouldn’t go on the record, that wouldn’t meet our standards.
So are you still on this beat?
Rottenberg: We’re constantly joking that we’re going to be on this until the end of time. We are going onto the fifth month (since our initial story ran), and there are still elements emerging. In saying the show will not air in 2022, the can has been kicked down the road. There’s a lot still to come. So even as we do other stories, we’re staying on top of the continuing drama.
How did this go from an inside-Hollywood story to something much larger?
Perman: I think this story, even though it’s very specific to the entertainment industry, touches on a lot of larger themes, like racial justice, the #metoo movement, equity, representation, power, money, and influence. People are trying to figure out how all of those are changing, and how it affects them. If you peel off the celebrity aspect of the story, there are a lot of relatable social issues. Institutions of all types are having a reckoning and being held accountable. This story fits into all of that.
Rottenberg: The story of the HFPA is these are people who should have almost no power — but because they give out this award, and Hollywood saw an opportunity to leverage the group and its award for their own benefit, that invested the whole thing with this importance it wouldn’t have had otherwise. But that’s also why it was kind of a house of cards.
The actual wizard behind the curtain is this random group of journalists representing mostly obscure outlets, if any. They were bestowed this power, but it’s now clear that it can easily and quickly be taken away. To me, that’s endlessly fascinating.
When you put it in those thematic terms, it sounds like this saga could be made into a good movie.
Perman: That would be very meta.
Rottenberg: The characters are almost too weird to believe, in some cases. It could be a movie like The Big Short, but it’s very much an open question whether Hollywood would want to tell this story. It doesn’t exactly reflect well on the industry.
Stories That Matter is a series of interviews with the people behind some of the best and most influential journalism being done today, focused on reporting, writing, and lessons we can learn from the process of creating great work.
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Predict: What Happens Next?
Neither Stacy Perman nor Josh Rottenberg were willing to hazard a guess as to whether the Golden Globes will come back. Perman noted that Hollywood is currently dealing with “awards fatigue”; the ratings of virtually all of the major awards shows have been down this year. If that pattern holds next year, it could dampen enthusiasm for bringing back the Globes in 2023.
On the other hand, Rottenberg cautioned, “this is an award show that has been kicked off television twice before, and they’ve managed to come back.” He continued: “There’s so much money involved that there’s an incentive to try to make it work. Ultimately it’s going to be up to the celebrities — and the audience.”
Read: More on the Golden Globes
Scott Feinberg at the Hollywood Reporter puts the current scandals in perspective: “Are the Golden Globes Done For?” May 12, 2021
Chris Lee’s reporting for Vulture confirms and follows up on some of the L.A. Times’ reporting: “How the Golden Globes Canceled Themselves,” May 14, 2021
Golden Oldie: A 1996 Washington Post story from Sharon Waxman about how questionable the Hollywood Foreign Press Association seemed even then: “Fool’s Gold,” December 6, 1996
Meet: About the Author
Tom Jacobs is a former senior staff writer for Santa Barbara-based Pacific Standard magazine, and a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. He tracks and analyzes trends in the arts and social sciences, with an emphasis on psychology, the role of culture, and the cultivation of creativity. A native of Chicago, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University.