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Beloved TV show 'Lost' wasn't immune to industry's pervasive toxic culture

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

Looking at media coverage of Hollywood, especially in recent years, it seems obvious - show business has a problem with behind-the-scenes abuse and harassment. But this week, Maureen Ryan, a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and longtime critic and journalist, surprised TV fans by revealing in the magazine that a classic show beloved for its diverse cast and creativity was actually steeped in incidents of racism, sexism and bullying behavior behind the scenes.

That show was "Lost," centered on the surreal experiences of a group of people stranded on an island after a plane crash which won Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody Awards during its six-season run on ABC in the mid-2000s. But according to writers and actors who spoke to Ryan behind the scenes, showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof created an atmosphere where racism and bullying were tolerated and encouraged on the set. Ryan's Vanity Fair article is an excerpt from her upcoming book publishing Tuesday titled, "Burn It Down: Power, Complicity And A Call For Change in Hollywood." Maureen Ryan joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MAUREEN RYAN: Thank you so much for having me. I'm very, very happy to be here.

DEGGANS: Some of the examples you came up with - star Harold Perrineau, who people might know from "Oz" or the "Matrix" movies, who is Black, was written off the show after he tried to speak up about how he felt his character was being marginalized. And there was an Asian writer who was referred to as the Korean to her face. I mean, how did they not know this was terrible, even back then?

RYAN: Honestly, it's similar to things you still see going on in the comedy world, which is the attitude with comments and maybe even actions that are racist or sexist, homophobic, transphobic. Oh, this is me being edgy. But those edgy comments are really meant to make the people of color in the room, the women of color in the room, the LGBTQIA people in the room - make them aware that they don't have power, and the people making the offensive comment have the power.

DEGGANS: In particular, Damon Lindelof, who was co-showrunner on "Lost" with Carlton Cuse, seemed to have a pretty good reputation in the industry. What did he and Carlton Cuse say about why this happened on "Lost"?

RYAN: To some degree, a lot of their responses revolve around the idea that they were not aware of how the room was affecting people or aware of certain interactions or comments at all. So they addressed it, but a lot of their responses revolved around the idea that they did not recall what occurred or were not present.

DEGGANS: You know, people might wonder why we're spending so much time talking about a show that went off the air in 2010. But your book makes the case that, A, this kind of stuff is still going on in the industry, and, B, Hollywood seems to believe that an abusive culture is necessary to create brilliant TV and film. And I wanted you to expand on that a little.

RYAN: I think that there's an unspoken rule in some people's head - that person is too nice to be truly creative. That person is to considerate to be a genius - which is a horrifying unexamined assumption that I think that a lot of people maybe don't even know that they have in the audience or in the executive suite. This is a thing that I come across time and again, that some people are not seen as incredible geniuses or absolutely undeniable creators that people must give a big contract to unless they are consistently doing things to other people and to productions as a whole that are damaging or unprofessional or just garden-variety crappy.

DEGGANS: You and I are having this conversation while the Writers Guild of America has been striking for more than a month, asking for pay equity, protection from exploitation. Talk a little bit about the connection between the things that the writers are striking for and this - these larger issues that you talk about in your book.

RYAN: If I had to describe my book in one word, the word would be exploitation. People are being exploited routinely, and the exploitation can come in the form of coercive acts from their boss, bullying, racism, toxicity, homophobia, transphobia. They are not paid enough. Again, it's that word exploitation. You're asking people to work 12 to 18 to 20 hours a day, not see their families, not get enough sleep and on top of that, perhaps deal with bullying. People have just had it, frankly.

DEGGANS: How should fans feel about these situations?

RYAN: There's been a lot more journalism, especially in recent years, that kind of pulls the curtain back on how things really function in a realistic way for most people who work in the industry or for too many people who work in the industry. So I think fans are more savvy, and there's been a shift in what fans think and how they roll. And they really - they don't want their entertainment to be something that they enjoy, but the way it was made hurt people. They don't want that.

DEGGANS: I want to close with a question that will sound a bit personal, but we talked about this before this interview started, and you know I'm going to ask. Back in 2017, you wrote a story in the trade magazine Variety about being assaulted by a TV executive. And I was wondering, how did you come to the decision to speak publicly about that, and how has that impacted your work in reporting on abuse that other people have suffered in the industry?

RYAN: I am really glad you asked that. Thank you. I came to that decision because, you know, in the fall of 2017, so many people were speaking their truths. And I'll tell you, Eric, I decided to go public about that because it affected me. It almost drove me out of the industry, and I just wanted to be one more voice saying, this is how people get driven away. This is how people endure, you know, mental health challenges and cannot do the thing that they love, not because they're not good at it but because they were put in an impossible position and suffered negative effects on their lives, which I definitely did.

Being able to be public about it was a huge weight off my mind. And I think that without that experience, which I would not wish on anyone, I don't think that all the reporting I did in the wake of #MeToo, all the reporting I did in my book, I don't know if it would have happened. I certainly don't think it would have happened the same way. And what that experience - again, it was really, really rough. But what it taught me was how to interact with survivors, I think. It's very, very possible for me to be a rigorous reporter with stories that are very rigorously fact-checked and edited and hold in my mind the idea that I have to treat these conversations in a particular way, not just so that I get what I may need for the story, but so that I can sleep at night about how people were treated.

DEGGANS: That's journalist Maureen Ryan. Her Vanity Fair article is "'Lost' Illusions: The Untold Story Of The Hit Show's Poisonous Culture." And her book, which is coming out next week, is called "Burn It Down." Thank you so much for joining us.

RYAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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