Tuesday, August 21

Redefining Reporter Finesse: Steve Friess

The last time I saw Jerry Lewis, it was years ago and in passing at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. Most people didn’t recognize him because he’s an unassuming traveler. There was no entourage. There was no fanfare. He was in a wheelchair; the medication he was on at the time was less than kind.

He is good to his fans; it is not impossible to write him a nice letter and receive an autographed picture on request. He personally donates funds to the MDA and as most people know, he is the MDA national chairman and will be leading the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon.

But credentialed local freelance writer Steve Friess wanted to write about something different. So Lewis’ publicist Rick Saphire passed, mentioning that Lewis had a sizable fee unless the interview was related exclusively to MDA. Friess, in turn, wrote about his experience on his blog, which has since landed over at The Huffington Post.

Yesterday, Saphire was fired. Lewis agreed to the interview. His team noted that the fee was never intended for mainstream U.S. media, but merely an attempt to cut down on the number of international interview requests. Some celebrities, as you might imagine, could make a full-time job of doing nothing but interviews.

Most people seem to be celebrating Friess securing the interview out of the misunderstanding. In truth, it seems to me only Lewis handled this right. Saphire might have known the facts, which makes me wonder why he was on the payroll. Yet, Saphire wasn’t the only one mistaken.

As seasoned as Friess is, with by-lines appearing in USA Today and Newsweek (among others), he knows well enough that interviews are almost never so restricted. Our credits include the Los Angeles Times and The Denver Post, and we know it: a little finesse during an interview can go a long way.

So where does all this drama lead social media? When freelance writers cannot get the interview they want, is the appropriate action to publicize the rejection? I hope not. It seems brutish to me. Not to mention, the rejection seems to be getting a lot more mileage for Friess than the update. And, unfortunately, that comes at Lewis’ expense.

Simply put, Friess could have contacted the MDA publicity team, arranged the interview, and had a different experience all together with no harm done. Instead, it seems to me that he set out to teach the publicist a public lesson, and mirroring yesterday’s story, that seems to say a lot about his reporting style. It also seems to demonstrate once again that news creation is alive and well in Las Vegas.



Sweet Tea on 8/21/07, 11:10 AM said...

So, how much do you charge, Rich? I'm glad my interviews are with unknowns mostly. I must say that, in my opinion, I have had some and will have interviews with people worth paying for but no one has ever asked for a fee.
It seems a bit steep for Lewis but not when you consider what some politicians get. Doesn't anybody do anything any more without wanting money? Think Bill Clinton would take pity on me and let me have a free interview?
Thanks,Rich. Very interesting as always.

Rich on 8/21/07, 11:36 AM said...

Hey JS,

I must confess that I never thought to charge for an interview nor have I ever been asked to pay for one. However, I have never had an interviewee stick to scripted guidelines either. (I've arranged a guidelines, but they naturally drift away from those guidelines.) Usually, such a drift is accepted within reason, but even that understanding is broken all the time.

To be clear, I think shaming people into an interview and/or charging for interviews is equally fraught with disaster. However, there are some exceptions, especially for those people who are not seeking publicity.

What stood out in this case, after my initial "surprise" that Lewis would allegedly charge $20k (which turned out to be inaccurate), was that I am pretty certain that if Friess said "I am writing a story about the MDA for Newsweek and would like to interview Jerry Lewis" then the whole "to do" would have been avoided. But it isn't clear that he was writing for Newsweek in this case. And, I'm not found of reporters making news.

That aside, if you had the right topic and the right publication lined up to take it, you might be able to get a Clinton interview.

Glad you enjoyed it. Thought you might, given you've been doing an good job with your series!


Sweet Tea on 8/21/07, 12:06 PM said...

Thanks. You're right about being clear up front. Tell people who you are and what you want, Honesty remains the best policy.

Rich on 8/21/07, 1:16 PM said...

Famous Last Words:

"Wait, so we CAN'T punch Jerry Lewis?" — Steve Sebelius, editor of CityLife

As an interesting sidebar, seems not everyone was happy with the way the Friess-Lewis story played out.

Kim on 8/21/07, 1:29 PM said...

Why would any writer or journalist feel that they are entitled to an interview with anyone? Not for anything, but Mr. Lewis is getting up there in years, isn't in the best of health, and still dedicates his life to helping others through his work with MDA.

I think it's sad that Friess is using misinformation supplied by a lackluster PR guy as an excuse to gain attention for himself at the expense of Mr. Lewis. Isn't he supposed to be writing the news, not making himself the news?

You gotta love Jerry. I do.

Anonymous said...

jericho saved,
Yes, given the right circumstances former President Bill Clinton might grant you an interview.

He seems like a nice man and one of the smartest I've ever witnessed. I've never seen anyone speak so effortlessly, so expressively, so intelligently before. He is so candid and thinks on his feet, unrehearsed and if you ask a question, especially the three and four part questions, about a subject, he is able to answer each part with a fluidity that is thrilling.

So, if you have a good cause or reason for an interview, I don't necessarily believe he would charge a fee.

Anonymous said...


What a wonderful response and I agree with you wholeheartedly.

Anonymous said...


I have just caught up on your posts. What a wonderful writer you are. If I had a bunch of colored balloons I would hand them to you.

It is telling ... how your words have an effect on your readers, so well thought out. The way you plot out your story, the way you present the facts. I always enjoy reading your work.

By the way, I have another site herein the web page. It may or may not be your cup of tea. :)

Rich on 8/21/07, 2:04 PM said...

Well Theresa,

I will be certain to check it out. Thank you for letting me know. I am sure I will like it (if not respect it). After all, I wonder if everything is my cup of tea sometimes ... I enjoy the diversity.

And thank you for the compliment. Very nice of you to say. If you handed me a bunch of colored balloons, it would mean more than you know.

I once played a written in clown in a play called "Where Have All The Lightning Bugs Gone," which required me to pack a bunch of colored balloons and head off to Muncie, Ind. where we performed. The thrust of the play is that a boy and girl meet in a park, then fall in love by discovering how to ‘touch’ each other as human (not sexual) beings.

Amazing. Welcome to the park. Social media.


Sweet Tea on 8/21/07, 2:05 PM said...

You have given me hope. Imagine Bill Clinton speaking to Jericho fans about motivation and inspiration. As I've gotten older I've learned that it never hurts to ask. Off to see if I can contact Bill. Thanks.

Staff Writer on 8/26/07, 9:22 AM said...

Stories now being circulated via international press services and the internet, claiming that Rick Saphire has been "fired" from his position as "publicist" to Jerry Lewis, are inaccurate and misleading. Rick Saphire has never been employed as publicist by Mr. Lewis. Moreover, Mr. Saphire who is self employed, has arranged for Mr. Lewis' employment.

Jerry Lewis and Rick Saphire met in 1953 and first worked professionally together in 1962. In recent years Jerry Lewis had authorized Rick Saphire to negotiate in his behalf, to secure employment for the now 81 year old star. The work secured for Mr. Lewis, both internationally and domestically, between 2004 and 2007 has included fee based television appearances, newspaper, magazine, and electronic media interviews, live interviews, and personal appearances. Mr. Saphire did not represent Mr. Lewis in conjunction with his fundraising activities.

All clients of Rick Saphire Celebrity Management have the right to refuse any offer of employment without question. If any celebrity chooses to decline representation, simple notification is all that is required. In every case, the CELEBRITY establishes the range of fees and criteria that are acceptable. All agreements are subject to final approval by the celebrity. All offers and negations are considered confidential, and all communications between inquiring parties and Rick Saphire Celebrity Management are considered private.

Rich on 8/26/07, 1:42 PM said...

Mr. Saphire and/or representative and/or supporter,

Thank you for the additional clarification. It is an interesting contrast to what has been stated in the media.

There are two courses of action that seem appropriate. Speed to response in what appears to be a crisis situation and/or saying nothing other than all negations are considered confidential, and all communications between inquiring parties and Rick Saphire Celebrity Management are considered private.

This response, although interesting, falls uncomfortably in the middle. My recommendation might be either to be to go public and tell your side of the story and/or let it drop as a five minute miscommunication. Both decisions have consequences.

All my best,

Anonymous said...

Steve Friess Was No Help to Jerry's Kids

From: The New American Journalist

The weeks leading up to the annual Jerry Lewis Telethon to combat neuromuscular diseases, are intense and focused. The temporary Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) offices in a Las Vegas hotel are charged with nervous energy and hope. The hope is that the organization will raise at least one dollar more than the previous year. That is no easy task, as the MDA raised over sixty million dollars just 12 months earlier. Comedian and humanitarian Jerry Lewis is likely the most dedicated celebrity fundraiser in history. A few years ago the prospect of a possible death sentence handed down by a disease called Pulmonary Fibrosis did not stop the legendary entertainer from fulfilling his duties. But when freelance reporter Steve Friess bounded through the doors of the MDA offices in Vegas in August of 2007, posing as a Newsweek reporter, the focus of Lewis and others was temporarily shifted.

Steve Friess' "calling card" was a contrived tale that Jerry Lewis' publicist, Rick Saphire, had demanded $20,000 from Newsweek for an interview to be published in conjunction with the Telethon. In fact, Newsweek never discussed any such interview with Saphire. But taking Friess' story at face value, the MDA and Jerry Lewis scheduled an interview with the freelancer. Now, all the MDA and Lewis needed to do was wait for the wonderful story to hit the pages of Newsweek, and the coveted, "one dollar more," might be that much closer. The Telethon did make well over their minimum goal for 2007, but with no help from Steve Friess. There was no story on the pages of Newsweek Magazine or Newsweek.com, but only a negative story about Jerry Lewis' distain for Las Vegas, published on Steve Friess' personal internet Blog.

The MDA and Jerry Lewis wasted valuable time affording Friess an interview. The hope that the needy victims of Muscular Dystrophy would reap the benefits of a high profile Newsweek story were pipe dreams. But the writer did draw a great deal of attention to himself, gloating about how he got, "The $4 Interview with Doom Sayer Jerry Lewis." That was the title of the resulting article Steve Friess wrote after his meeting with Jerry Lewis at the MDA offices. In the article there was much bragging by the "blogger" about how the interview cost him a mere $4.00 for parking. The balance of the story contained quotes by Jerry Lewis comparing Las Vegas hotels to excrement. There was only one sentence mentioning the MDA, but considering the tenor of the story, that might have been a blessing.

In a separate article on his blog Steve Friess wrote, "I've just come from my much-ballyhoo'd and FREE chat with Jerry Lewis. It went quite nicely. I know he's known as a major-league jerk to many journalists I admire, but I think all of this hullabaloo put him on his very best behavior." Friess continued, "But I got some good stuff out of it, in particular Lewis' very opinionated condemnation of modern Las Vegas." Steve Friess makes it apparent that he concocted a "hullabaloo" to coerce Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association into an interview on HIS terms. The losers were the MDA and Jerry Lewis who might have used their valuable time to improve the human condition, and not Steve Friess' blog.

Newsweek officials deny having directed Steve Friess to interview Jerry Lewis.

Rich on 12/9/07, 9:17 PM said...

Hey Anon,

On this point, I am not surprised. I would be the first to caution journalists not to tout their work as an assignment unless it is an assignment.

Thank you for bringing this story to my attention.



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