Is Hollywood whitewashing Heath Ledger‘s biography?

"Entertainment Tonight/The Insider" paid a hefty chunk of cash for a video that reportedly shows Ledger doing drugs at the Chateau Marmont in January 2007. In a clip that has been widely teased, Ledger is seen talking about smoking five joints a day for 20 years.

But after an e-mail from the actor’s publicity firm, ID PR, was circulated throughout Hollywood, both shows decided not to air the video.

My inside sources say the decision was less about taste and more about a threatened lawsuit.

"Out of respect for Heath Ledger’s family, Entertainment Tonight and The Insider have decided not to run the Heath Ledger video which has been circulating in the world media,"’ said a statement on the show’s website.

But is this a good precedent to set for so-called entertainment news shows?

I’m a huge fan of Heath Ledger. I first talked to the then-unknown young Australian actor for USA Today about his role in Mel Gibson‘s "The Patriot."  And I was fortunate enough to speak with him often during "Brokeback Mountain’s" sweep of the 2006 awards season.

I found him to be gentle, sensitive, sweet-natured, incredibly talented. He also seemed incredibly vulnerable, a lot like Johnny Depp.

That said, I’m also a fan of the media serving the public with information that might help prevent unnecessary tragedy. If the public knew that Ledger was struggling with addiction, is it possible that resulting media scrutiny could have forced Ledger’s loved ones to get him the care he needed?

Dr. Drew Pinsky had viewed the tape and was interviewed to offer perspective.

"I have treated many celebrities and many of them have been functioning at a very high level using a lot of substances. The reality is that when a 28-year-old seemingly healthy man, whom we love and respect, dies suddenly, there is a reason. His death plays upon our deepest fears. We owe it to the public to try to answer the question why. I am convinced that if this heart-wrenching video had aired, it would have gotten through and had a positive effect on young people in America. Perhaps it could have even saved lives," Pinsky told "Entertainment Tonight."

I watched a very under-the-influence Brad Renfro make quite a scene at a swanky Hollywood party several years ago. Not only did none of his celebrity friends, or the publicists throwing the bash, find his stumbling, slurring, falling down and bleeding nose unusual, but not one reporter covering the party reported it. I tried to. But it was edited out of my then-newspaper’s party item.

Hollywood publicists, managers and agents can often be the worst enablers. They are the spin-meisters, part of the protective circle that surrounds stars and tries to keep any bad behavior — drugs, spousal abuse, drinking — out of the news.

Why? Because that is what they’re paid to do. Make no mistake, they make money off celebrities just like the paparazzi.

The big problem I have with Hollywood’s time-honored "Cone of Celebrity Silence" is this: When drug use or addiction goes unreported, unspoken and unnoticed, the addict continues to use drugs without the consequences needed to help them hit bottom and seek help. And very often, these people die.

And when the truth about a celebrity’s drug use isn’t reported, that person’s millions of fans never know how dangerous drug use — often perceived as glamorous and cool — really is.

So I don’t think showing a video of Heath, reportedly showing him doing drugs and talking about his use, would be doing Ledger’s memory a disservice.

Perhaps it’s a little too soon and feels a little too sensational. But as the days go by, if I were his parents, or his girlfriend and mother of his child, I would want his fans to know how evil, deadly and dangerous drugs can be.

Revealing possible drug use doesn’t take away from his talent or his legacy. It spreads awareness.

So think what you want about "The Insider" teasing the video and attempting to air it. And say what you will about TMZ dogging Britney Spears. Sure, the paps are making money off the videos and photos of Britney. I’m not saying their motives are noble. But consider for a moment that the resulting media attention might have spared Spears from many more months, perhaps years, of confusion, unhappiness, questionable behavior or worse.

Had TMZ not videotaped her high-speed driving antics, her erratic mood swings, her British accent, those kids might still be riding around with her — and probably not in child-safety seats. And she might not be in UCLA Medical Center right now, with her parents around her, finally getting the medical help she desperately needs.

So if you want to honor Heath’s memory, don’t censor yourself from reading or viewing new information about the causes of his untimely and unnecessary death. In my opinion, drug abuse is an important public discussion. But please post your comments on this topic if you disagree.   

Below you can read the statement released by Heath’s former publicity agency IDPR….

]]>Here’s the e-mail from the publicists:

Subject: Entertainment Tonight and Heath Ledger – FYI

Tonight Entertainment Tonight/The Insider are previewing an extremely distasteful segment regarding Heath Ledger. The segment centers around a two-year old video ET purchased for a large sum of money in the hopes of stirring up a salacious and exploitive story about Heath, which would win them big ratings on the first day of sweeps. The two outlets did not even have the courtesy to wait until after Heath’s burial to broadcast this segment. They intend to air the full segment tomorrow.

For the sake of his grieving family and friends, his child, and common decency, we hope to pressure Entertainment Tonight and The Insider to do the right thing and pull the spot. This is not journalism, it is sensationalism. It is a shameful exploitation of the lowest kind, to a talented and gentle soul, undeserving of such treatment.

We are asking the Hollywood community to pressure Entertainment Tonight to pull the segment. Please take action so that Heath’s family can grieve in peace. Please forward this message to everyone you know and ask them to personally call Linda Bell Blue at Entertainment Tonight and Brad Bessey at Paramount to express their outrage and request Entertainment Tonight to pull the distasteful spot. Their information is listed below.

Thank you.

Photo: WireImage