Saturday, July 05, 2008

Angelina Jolie: Did she really have her baby? Show Under Pressure in Jolie Birth Story

Five days after “Entertainment Tonight” reported that Angelina Jolie had given birth to twins, it is starting to look more and more as if the syndicated show — which is on every weeknight, primarily on CBS affiliates — made a serious mistake.

A law firm representing Ms. Jolie says that an impostor claiming to be the actress’s assistant misled some news organizations. According to Ms. Jolie’s camp, the birth report was false.

The law firm, Lavely & Singer, sent a letter of warning to roughly two dozen news media outlets on Monday.

“A random individual has engaged in a scheme to intentionally harm my client and deceive her fans, the public and the media through illegal and tortuous impersonation of Ms. Jolie’s longtime assistant, Holly,” the letter said.

The letter did not specifically mention “Entertainment Tonight,” but it seemed to be a response to its report.

For news organizations, many millions of dollars hinge on the pregnancy of Ms. Jolie, whose partner is the actor Brad Pitt. As most people know — or perhaps cannot avoid knowing — the couple has four children, three of them adopted, and is expecting twins this summer.

The first photographs of the twins will undoubtedly sell for seven figures, and online reports say that the bidding war is already well under way. News about the newborns will also drive viewers and readers to entertainment television shows, Web sites and magazines (as it apparently has already).

On Friday morning, after seeing a spike in Google search traffic about Ms. Jolie’s pregnancy, an “Entertainment Tonight” producer e-mailed a person she believed to be Ms. Jolie’s assistant. The person responded by BlackBerry, saying she had been in the room for the birth.

The ensuing “Entertainment Tonight” report, published online just before noon on Friday, was quickly picked up by The Associated Press and myriad other outlets, large and small. Publicists for the show circulated the story widely, complete with a requirement that other outlets must mention “tune in to ‘Entertainment Tonight.’ ”

Part of the surprise came from the fact that Ms. Jolie’s due date has widely been reported as Aug. 19, so the twins’ arrival, if true, would have meant that they were born very early.

The report prompted swift denials from Ms. Jolie’s representatives.

Despite everything, “Entertainment Tonight” is sticking to its story. “We are waiting to see how this story plays out,” Linda Bell Blue, the show’s veteran executive producer, said in a statement on Monday, which was repeated on Tuesday.

But sometime before Monday, the article was removed from the “Entertainment Tonight” Web site. The show’s spokeswoman would not comment on the decision to delete the record, and the show has not acknowledged the denials.

Although “Entertainment Tonight” pumps out light fare, it does have a respected place in the world of infotainment, so the apparent mistake left some analysts wondering about a risk to its reputation. Many tabloids have a history of rushing to press with flimsy stories that turn out to be fake, but “Entertainment Tonight” has historically acted with caution.

“Entertainment Tonight” is a moneymaker for the CBS Corporation, although the company does not release financial details. The show, which has been on the air for 27 years, draws an average of 6.5 million viewers every night, twice as many as its most popular rival, “Access Hollywood.” And much of its brand is built on credibility.

The producers know how damaging a blunder can be. The show “can never afford to be wrong,” Ms. Bell Blue told the trade publication TV Week in 2004. “If it means we’re not first on a story, then we won’t be first. We make sure it is right.”

But that was before the Internet became a major player in the gossip game. Since then, sites like Time Warner’s TMZ and Yahoo’s OMG have made the format of a half-hour evening show seem sluggish.

Is it possible that Ms. Jolie has indeed given birth and that the news is being withheld for some reason? Yes, but as a person close to her said, when Ms. Jolie’s baby Shiloh was born in 2006, the event was confirmed almost immediately.



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