By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
As a journalist, you reach a certain point where you realize your career has come so far, and no farther. I‘ll never win a Pulitzer. I’ll never break a Watergate. I’ll never be interrogated about CIA operative Valerie Plame. I’ll never be fawned over like a Maureen Dowd. I’ll never fuck up like a Jayson Blair. (Oh, wait: That’s a good thing.)
So I suppose I have to take solace in being "Exhibit 21" in the shareholder lawsuit about the extravagant hiring and even more lavish firing of Michael Ovitz as Disney president. Fame may be fleeting, but I’ll take this moment in the spotlight. For me, it was Oscar night in a backwater Delaware courthouse. For Michael Eisner, it was Best Performance by a dissembling Big Media CEO. For Disney, it was Best Picture for a corporation trying to manipulate the media and the masses into thinking everything was right with management when in reality everything was very, very wrong.
Which is why this never-ending trial looks about to generate its own awards show: The Eisners, where there’s no red carpet, but you get a prick with brass balls.
Gosh darn but it took big cojones or, at the very least, unmitigated chutzpah, for Eisner — looking older, balder and uglier since he last took a witness stand (that misbegotten Katzenberg trial) — to acknowledge all of the lies he and his people told the world. And, in the end, this is what may cause Disney’s downfall in this trial.
That Disney was able to keep the dustup on Dopey Drive undercover for as long as it did during 1995 and 1996 was a testament to Eisner’s Stalinist control not just over the company but of the company’s image. In summary, the man who increasingly resembles Ol’ Leonid Brezhnev saw the media as his bitches.
But trials have a way of digging up dirt in the most delicious way. And Hollywood dirt makes for many tasty morsels. Delaware Chancery Court last week provided a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of how Disney manhandles the show-biz media.
During Eisner’s few days on the witness stand, he was made to answer for several internal e-mails and memos from longtime corporate communications chief John Dreyer on how best to bully the newspaper, magazine and TV people from reporting the truth: that Ovitz was being kicked to the curb, just as I and others said he was.
First came Dreyer’s oh-so-humiliating characterizations of the press. Geraldine Fabrikant of The New York Times"always hangs up" on people. John Huey, then Fortunemagazine’s managing editor and now Time Inc.’s editorial director, makes a "sales pitch." The Los Angeles Times’ Claudia Eller and Jim Bates "don’t really expect to get interviews." And in a "P.S.," Dreyer lets it rip that Kim Masters ratted out her then–Vanity Faircolleague Bryan Burrough’s book-contract aspirations.
At first Disney condescendingly didn’t refer to reporter Bruce Orwall by name but only as "Tom King’s replacement" at The Wall Street Journal. But a few months later, Orwall was proving useful to Eisner as Disney’s semiofficial spinner, prompting Dreyer to suggest that "I think you need to talk to people on background, as you are doing with Bruce Orwall." In court, Eisner went so far as to give Orwall a gush as a "very good" and "astute" reporter, apparently because the reporter’s information was coming from Eisner’s mouth. Yet Orwall still didn’t know that Ovitz was toast. By contrast, Eisner dismissed NYT’s Bernie Weinraub as reporting "third-hand gossip."
Dreyer made it clear that Orwall, Huey, Larry King, Lou Dobbs, Bloomberg and Barron's were potentially Disney’s most easily controlled media outlets. But "I have considered CNBC may be more hostile than they usually are with guests."
One journalist glaringly missing from Dreyer’s analysis was Variety editor Peter Bart. But that reason is obvious. Back when reports first surfaced about the battling Bickersons, Bart light-weighed in with an emotional column claiming the two Mikes were still on their honeymoon. Bart occupied an unusual position during this Disney crisis; he was both Eisner’s and Ovitz’s buttboy. (Which is why Bart’s recent Ovitz bashing is as hilarious as it is pathetic. Bart spent years ass-kissing Ovitz.)
I want to thank the court for helping me win my Oscar, er Eisner, after testimony made clear that Eisner’s troubles hiding the truth really began with Plaintiff’s Exhibit 21. My article! It was published September 23, 1996, while I was West Coast editor for The New York Observer. The cover story not only contained anecdote after anecdote of Ovitz messing up at Disney, but featured a color cartoon of Ovitz dressed up like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasiaunder a provocative headline that caused a few snickers in the courthouse.
Plaintiff’s lawyer Steve Schulman: This period was preceded by a number of critical news articles or investigative pieces.
Schulman: The Nikki Finke article in the Observer, "From Sorcerer to Schmo."
Eisner (looking puzzled): What was the second thing you said?