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Billy Bob Thornton v. Jian Ghomeshi


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Letter to the Ed., Globe & Mail today:

Regarding your editorial about CBC Radio's Q interview with Billy Bob Thornton (Tough Prima Donna - April 10), I'd like to set the record straight. The producers and host did not agree to a precondition to not mention his acting. As Jian Ghomeshi said in the interview, he was interested in talking to Mr. Thornton and the band about their music as well as having them perform. That's what we were aiming to do.

Arif Noorani, executive producer, Q, CBC Radio One, Toronto

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Billy Bob's tantrum raises new questions

Contrary to what his publicists led him to expect, the American star was actually confronted with ... journalism

RUSSELL SMITH

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

April 15, 2009 at 3:18 PM EDT

There is a curious pleasure in seeing American invaders beating a sullen retreat from our cultural shores, having come up against a slightly tougher journalistic culture than what they are used to. So it was for the egomaniac Billy Bob Thornton, a guy I had vaguely heard of as some kind of minor Hollywood character actor, but who is apparently also a creator of the kind of nostalgic bourbon-and-freight-cars rock that CBC Radio in all its channels so sweetly, helplessly adores.

I never would have listened to a radio interview with such a guy had the interview not turned out to be so wildly illuminating. If it does nothing else, that interview should strengthen the reputation of Jian Ghomeshi as a serious interlocutor on questions of art, and not a celebrity interviewer like those on the entertainment channels. He really couldn't have handled Thornton's strange aggression any better than he did: He stayed completely calm and unflustered and yet did not back down, just soberly challenged his sulking guest to explain himself.

Indeed, Ghomeshi's gentle demolition of the childish star, and the subsequent popular revulsion toward the guy who insulted Canadian audiences, was so discomfiting that Thornton's band cancelled the rest of their Canadian tour. (The band's website claims they got the flu. It's the kind of flu that comes when you're booed and mocked on your opening night. Yikes, that mashed potato was hot!)

But the little kerfuffle was also instructive. It can teach us a lot about the uneasy relationship between the arts media and the most popular entertainers.

Thornton was obviously under a misconception about the kind of broadcaster he had agreed to work with. He's a guy who is used to dictating terms to the media. His publicists no doubt don't really think of the media as media at all, but as a branch of the marketing department.

In fairness, all artists think of the media this way when they have a new product on the market. When my new novel comes out, if Shelagh Rogers wants to interview me, I'm there. The difference with me, though, is that I'm not a celebrity, so I know that it is entirely to my advantage to go on Shelagh Rogers's show, and a favour to me. I am so grateful I will not attempt to impose conditions. (“Absolutely no mention of my career as a stunt-car driver, right?â€) I also know, from a few interviews with slightly critical hosts, that if you go on the CBC you had better be prepared to be challenged at least once. (Ghomeshi once began a question to me, “How do you justify.â€) And that's fine with me.

But publicists for stars know that radio and television entertainment shows, especially in the United States, are extremely eager to get stars on their shows, and so their experience tells them they can attach any conditions they want to interviews. They know that the stars are doing the broadcaster a favour, not the other way around. That's why Thornton said with an air of hurt and offence to Ghomeshi, “You received instructions.†The idea of giving instructions to journalists doesn't strike him as at all odd; in fact, he probably didn't realize that he was in the offices of an august national broadcaster with a reputation for journalism. He was no doubt genuinely baffled that they don't take instructions very well at the CBC.

But the complicated thing is that, of course, sometimes we all do. We all know that we have to get stars in our newspapers and shows from time to time; it's about ratings. Thornton was not being interviewed because he is an artist of any interest, but because he is a celebrity. Thornton is what we call a “get.†And sometimes we ingratiate ourselves to their publicists for them.

So we the arts media sometimes do a little humiliating dance to get what we want. I've done it: Sure, I've said, I'll drive to nowhere to meet X; I'll do the interview in his bathtub; I won't mention the cocaine or the 18-year-old girl. Whatever it takes. We really just need a picture.

It's understandable that the PR machinery behind large corporate entertainment successes start to feel that they can get a little bossy.

I'm glad they got a little shock this time. But it also makes one wonder, would we really be missing anything huge if the more serious journalistic institutions stopped worrying about the celebrity “gets� People are not interested in celebrities through a desire to understand their art; they want to hear about their relationships. (Thornton himself is more famous for having been married to Angelina Jolie than for anything else he has done. Perhaps that's why he's a little defensive about his bio.)

The huge corporate successes are going to be interviewed on every commercial channel anyway. And they're usually not exactly representative of cutting-edge art. Why not leave them to the breathless and pretty red-carpet interviewers of the star-talk entertainment shows, where they can control their PR in any way they like?

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I am really getting a kick out of those folks who stubbornly refuse to accept the facts of this situation. What kind of journalism is that?

You can call Billy Bob Thornton a jerk. You can call him a spoiled celebrity.

You can say he has a short temper, that he lashes out inappropriately.

You can wonder what substance (or ulterior motive) fuels his anger.

I still don’t blame him.

By now, we’re all familiar with the actor-turned-musician’s meltdown.

When Thornton — the star of such movies as Mr. Woodcock and Bad News Bears — and his Boxmasters bandmates appeared on the Jian Ghomeshi-hosted Q, Thornton grew surly at the mention of his acting career.

In the days since, he has taken a beating in the media for berating the CBC host.

Yet for all the chatter, no one has bothered trying to see things from Thornton’s perspective.

Think about it.

In Billy Bob’s mind, he had an agreement with Ghomeshi (for the sake of argument, let’s assume Thornton’s version of events is the truth).

In order secure the interview, the former Moxy Früvous drummer — or at least his producers — agreed not to bring up Thornton’s acting.

You might consider that stipulation bizarre. I know I consider it bizarre. But for whatever reason, Angelina’s ex didn’t want to talk about his lengthy filmography. We all have our own personal no-go zones.

According to the actor, Ghomeshi agreed to this restriction, then went back on his word. On air.

Imagine how you’d feel in the same situation. You might think Ghomeshi was being dishonourable, sneaky even.

It might even set you off.

I don’t have to imagine how I’d feel. I’ve been in Thornton’s shoes. I made an agreement once in order to be interviewed, then got ambushed on live television. It’s not fun.

In 1996 I appeared by telephone on Jane Hawtin Live, an afternoon talk show.

The topic was Gerald Hannon, a former university instructor of mine who had caused a furor with his views on child sex (he’s in favour of men having sex with boys) and moonlighting as a prostitute.

I had spoken out against Hannon in an article in The Globe and Mail, so Hawtin’s staff felt it would be neat to stage a televised debate: the former student versus the hooker prof.

It would have made good television, it’s true. But for my own bizarre reasons, I declined. I said I would appear on the program by phone but I did not want to be part of any debate with Gerald.

Sure enough, as I waited to chat with the host, a producer came on the line to tell me I would indeed be appearing in the same segment with Hannon. I had been bushwhacked. I stumbled through the interview.

Looking back, I should have told Hawtin I objected to her people going back on their word not to set up an artificial confrontation, then hung up. I like to think that’s what I would do today.

Or look at it another way.

Let’s say I set up an interview with Ghomeshi and he asks me not to mention he was the drummer for a flavour-of-the-month band in the 1990s. Then, when our conversation gets underway, the very first thing I bring up is Moxy Früvous. Would he have a right to be ticked off?

None of this would matter if Ghomeshi worked for a private network. Since you and I pay his salary, however, the least I expect from this CBC employee is that he act honourably.

Truth be known, I don’t believe Ghomeshi or anyone else should kiss up to Thornton. An interview with Billy Bob Thornton is not important enough to compromise one’s journalistic principles.

Yes, I realize this goes on all the time, especially in broadcast journalism, but as an arts journalist and instructor, I don’t believe interviewers should play that game.

In fact, when I worked as an arts writer for the CBC, I never agreed to any such conditions.

In Thornton’s view, Ghomeshi did agree to the conditions for the interview, then pulled out the rug from under him.

Thornton has to answer for insulting Canadians with his comments about mashed potatoes. I won’t defend him for that, and he’s already paying a price in the form of cancelled concert dates.

But I don’t blame him one bit for getting upset during the Q interview.

Had I been in Thornton’s place, I would have freaked out too.

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For the sake of argument, let's assume that the above reporter has a brain made out of mayonaisse. I think we can all agree that someone with a brain made out of mayonaisse will have a diminished ability to make reasonable arguments, and as we've agreed that this person does indeed have a brain made of mayonaisse, we must also agree his arguments are unreasonable.

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