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They Hate Me, They Really Hate Me 

On winning "The Eisner" at the Disney trial

Thursday, Nov 25 2004
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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 Fortune magazine’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 Fair colleague 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 Fantasia under 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.

Eisner: Which articles?

Schulman: The Nikki Finke article in the Observer, "From Sorcerer to Schmo."

Eisner (looking puzzled): What was the second thing you said?

Schulman: "From Sorcerer to Schmo." S-C-H-M-O. An article in The New York Observer that was presented to you on direct.

Eisner (his voice barely above a whisper): I recall that, yes.

Schulman: So there was a lot of reporting in the press about how Mr. Ovitz was faring or not faring on the job, wasn’t there?

Eisner: There was some, for sure.

Schulman: And you were receiving advice from public relations to take steps to remedy that public image. And was part of that public relations effort to appear on Larry King?

Eisner: It was.

They hate me. They really hate me.

As Dreyer wrote to Eisner in response to my article: "We have an image problem regarding M.O. and his relationship with you, execs and his role in [the Walt Disney Company]. Unless we address this, the problem will only continue to grow . . . It may be time to kiss the babies, smile for the cameras and make nice. Time to remake the image and go on the stump. Time for a political campaign for Disney in general and MSO [Michael S. Ovitz] in particular.

"The campaign needs to be internal as well as external. Like it or not, our colleagues, using well-cultivated media relationships, hide behind the cloak of anonymity and talk about the corporate gossip, real or imagined slights, conversations they have heard or witnessed, conclusions they have drawn about who is competing with whom, confusion as to who is responsible for what, speculation about who is running the show. All of this shows up in the media."

Dreyer presented an image of a company under siege, the truth be damned. "There may be some curative effect in firing someone as an example — if I can discover that someone is a source. There would be better results were there an effort to win people over — results that would show up in the media coverage . . . Externally we need to do some media interviews, meet off the record with editorial boards, have off-the-record lunches with key editors and reporters, give speeches in front of groups, and we need to shoot some pix of the two of you together."

In court, Eisner characterized the Larry King interview as "awkward," since at the time what he and Ovitz were going through was "like a divorce." I remember it vividly. Watching their performance, I was both amused and appalled. Because it was a sham, totally fake, absolutely false. They stepped on each other’s lines. They could have used some better jokes. Ovitz had a bad case of flop sweat: The rivulets of perspiration running down his upper lip, forehead and temples made him look like Albert Brooks as the hapless anchor in Broadcast News. More accustomed to interviewing has-been actors like Burt Reynolds and bonkers billionaires like Ross Perot, King uncharacteristically was like a pit bull with fresh meat in his maw on the subject of whether the two men were getting along. He wouldn’t let it go. At first, sitting stiffly side-by-side in chairs and facing the camera from Orlando, the two executives blamed "competitive Hollywood gossip-mongering" and "the water cooler" for the talk of trouble between them.

But then the pair displayed the exact sort of behavior which Hollywood and Wall Street had been describing to me for weeks. Eisner didn’t miss an opportunity to reduce Ovitz from prince to peon. The chairman even corrected King’s assumption that Ovitz was already a major Disney stockholder: "Not yet. He has to earn it." Ovitz responded with a forced smile. Ovitz on-camera spoke twice as much as his boss, who had a hard time getting a word in edgewise. Asked to comment on the bad publicity he’d been receiving from me, Ovitz sighed, "You never really expect it, but you live with it." Just like you never really expect to win an Eisner, but more reporters should aspire to it. Unlike journalists, the days of shareholders being the bitches and buttboys of corporate managers are over after this trial.

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.

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