Chuck Ross

Of Hacks and Flacks and a Death in the Family

Feb 24, 2011

Working at The Hollywood Reporter years ago–as a beat reporter covering cable and home video–most of us at the time referred to ourselves as hacks. I was just happy to get into print as many stories as I could squeeze into the paper each day and occasionally beat my competitors at Variety.

The routine was non-stop and I couldn’t imagine a job that was more fun. Being single back then, I considered going out virtually every night to some function–a dinner or a screening or an awards show or just a party–one of the perks of the job.

You’d wake up early the next day for a breakfast appointment with an executive or a publicist , check into work for a few hours, back out for lunch with another executive and his or her publicist, back to The Reporter to write up stories, sticking around to about 7 p.m, and then back out to dinner and whatever event was planned for that night.

Since we were the hacks, of course we referred to the publicists, with no offense intended, as flacks.

I’ve long maintained that publicists have incredibly tough jobs and are often caught between the proverbial rock and hard-place.

The best reporters don’t settle for platitudes and ridiculous explanations. They are always looking for stories that really happened and some accompanying insight into those stories.

But often the publicist is not in a position to provide either those stories or the accompanying insight. Most executives think that the job of their publicists, first and foremost, is to paint their companies in a good light with information that they control as to when and where the information will be released to the public.

The best reporters, however, realize that their primary responsibility is to give honest stories to their readers, regardless of what kind of light these stories shine on the companies they cover.

As I left The Hollywood Reporter and as my career progressed, I realized that the best way to find out about the inner workings of the companies I was covering, to find real news, was to develop great relationships with top executives themselves, unfiltered through the newsspeak I would get from too many publicists.

It would be fair to say that most publicists didn’t like this methodology of mine, for they would be getting pressure from those to whom they reported to make sure the message that was being written about was the message they wanted to get out. Furthermore, they wanted to control when it got out and which publications got it first.

So I either didn’t have relationships with many publicists, or the ones I did have were poor ones.
However, there were exceptions. The publicists that I did have good relationships with I always thought were the smartest ones. Not because they seemed to like me–OK, that’s a lie; of course that was a factor.

Look, it’s like any relationship. A trust thing develops. If I would find out some information and the publicist wouldn’t try to stonewall me or engage in some sort of doubletalk about information that I knew was true, I was pleased. If I wrote about what I had learned in a truthful and fair manner, then the publicist knew I was trustworthy as well. And in the long run, I think they better served the companies for which they worked, as they were being honest about their companies.

And the public appreciates honesty. For example, Apple is beloved by most of us. And it’s not because we don’t know about some of its warts. But we appreciate Apple warts and all.

One of the publicists I liked a lot was Nancy Carr. Nancy was never a close friend, and what she really thought about me I have no idea. As I said, most publicists never liked me.

But I always appreciated the fact Nancy was a straight shooter. For many years she was at CBS. Most recently she was at the Hallmark Channels.

Like most publicists, Nancy knew which executives at the companies she worked for were jerks and in what ways they were jerks. It’s not that she talked about them in any disparaging way, but since I usually knew who the jerks were, and she knew that I knew, she never tried to pretend they weren’t.

She never approached me with non-stories that would waste my time, and never tried to mislead me about something I knew was true. She was frank and honest.

In other words, she was a facilitator, not an inhibitor.

And that included her personal life as well, at least the one part I knew about.

We shared a love of animals, especially those in danger of being killed if they weren’t adopted. My family has three dogs, all of them from rescue shelters.

But Nancy did much better than that. She actively sought out people to adopt these kinds of animals. And she was very successful at it.

Nancy started suffering from brain tumors. Like her colleague Pam Slay at Hallmark, I never heard her complain about her condition, not once.

As the end of last year approached, I had heard that Nancy was doing much better.

I was shocked last Friday when we learned that Nancy had died of a perforated colon. She was only 50 years old.

We’ll never know what Nancy and her family endured.

As James Agee said in his beautiful, poetic novel “A Death in the Family,” sometimes “God doesn’t believe in the easy way.”

So I’m angry and pissed off that Nancy’s dead, and f-you Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and your five stages of grief.

But I do find solace from the wonderful writer William Saroyan and what he wrote about life:

"In the time of your life, live–so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed….

“In the time of your life, live–so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it."

Nancy, thanks for smiling.#



  1. Thanks Chuck for your incredibly humble, honest and personal rememberance of Nancy. You said it best and did it professionally and personally. Nancy was a remarkable gem. But your story speaks volumes about you too.

  2. Thank you for a lovely tribute. You may think you did not know Nancy well, but you knew her heart.

  3. Chuck you’ve beautifully described Nancy’s consummate professionalism, personal integrity and the beauty of her soul. Thanks from the bottom of my heart for sharing these thoughts and reflections on her, and for explaining to the many that seem not to know, how relationships between hacks and flacks should ideally work.

  4. You were lucky to have known someone this courageous & successful. She clearly had a gift and a talent for living – no imitation here – her art was her life.
    Yes, Nancy – thanks for smiling.

  5. That was actually very nice, Chuck. Thanks.

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