They Can’t Handle the Truth | Deadline Hollywood | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

They Can’t Handle the Truth 

Lies and the lying moguls who tell them

Thursday, Jun 3 2004

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These can be excused as the eccentricities of the Big Media bosses. But it’s another thing to tolerate their prevarications, especially when — along with Wal-Mart and McDonald’s — infotainment conglomerates are the most public faces of corporate U.S.

The fact that Tuesday's news of Karmazin’s exit slapped Viacom’s stock proves that shareholders should have been told honestly and straightforwardly that even the slimmest chance existed that he would leave. As is usual in such messes, the little people got hurt.

Despite Sumner’s mouthpiece, Carl Folta, insisting to LA Weekly that the timing of Mel’s decision was a surprise, if not the decision itself, Blockbuster board members had been discussing for weeks why the normally engrossed Karmazin suddenly had disengaged from the subsidiary. Karmazin later told reporters that he made the decision to leave "a while ago" and informed a few Viacom board members confidentially on May 19, the day of Viacom's annual meeting. So, starting on May 20, Viacom was free to disseminate that information, but didn't. Stern’s May 27 info was indeed coming direct from the top – from Mel, the mogul who’d made Howard a star, the man whom Stern most trusted, the executive who just a few weeks earlier at a New York confab answered a question from The New Yorker’s media reporter, Ken Auletta, about the long-running Sumner-Mel soap opera: “I cannot come up with one issue where he and I have been at odds.” Sumner, though more tersely, attributed rumors of bad blood to media fiction. Karmazin expanded, “I think the fact that both of us care an awful lot about the company, both of us have the same vision, is why we are still together . . . I’m having a good time. I love the company. I could not find a place that I would rather be.”

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So what happened to change his mind? Maybe only a shareholder lawsuit will uncover the truth about how the bad blood played itself out.

Instead of coming clean, if not with the media then at least with stockholders, Viacom’s Folta preferred to parse the situation. “What you’re trying to do is completely unfair,” Folta said angrily when asked if Viacom had lied to the public about the true nature of the Sumner-Karmazin not-so-love-fest. “If you say, ‘I’m happy,’ and something happens and you say, ‘I’m unhappy,’ did you lie the day before?” Privately, of course, Viacom sources point out that having people even asking about the Redstone-Karmazin relationship was reason enough for them to part company. Which raises the question of who had the most to gain by planting so many “Mel’s in! Mel’s out!” stories. (Even money says Redstone, who is known to suck up big-time to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.)

Not that anyone should feel sorry for Karmazin. He made his deal with the devil and profited fabulously from it ($30 million to settle his contract). Plus, he may be destined for Disney. A fixture on dissidents Stanley Gold and Roy Disney’s shortlist to replace Eisner, Karmazin was unable even to entertain the feelers because, as he told Auletta, “I had a contract, so I’m unable to talk to anybody . . . And no less than a minute after they mentioned my name, we were on the phone with them saying, ‘Flattered, but no thank you.’”

Karmazin for years had a sign on his desk that read: “No Excuses.” He even moved it to his console so it was more visible. True to the motto, when Auletta asked why Viacom’s stock had slipped about $14 since he took over, Karmazin replied, “I have no excuses.” Then he paused to add: “Sumner Redstone.”

The confab audience tittered. “For those of you here, I’m joking, guys.”

For too brief a moment, we had landed on that parallel universe Truth World.

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