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They Can’t Handle the Truth

Remember Bizarro World? That cube-shaped planet populated by perversely skewed alter egos of DC Comics characters? Where garbage men throw trash, Boy Scouts push babies in front of traffic, and Superman is a criminal? Well, we’re fast approaching this dimension in Big Media World, now that mogul moves are announced by Howard Stern and Don Imus and not in the financial press.

Yes, it was shock jocks who told us in the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday morning that: Viacom No. 2, Mel Karmazin, had resigned and CBS head Les Moonves and MTV chief Tom Freston were upped to co-presidents and chief operating officers. That left Viacom Entertainment topper Jonathan Dolgen humiliated as the great unmentioned. Once equal to Freston and Moonves, Dolgen was supposed to report to his former brethren, at least on paper. That was tantamount to a demotion, based no doubt on the fact that his Paramount division has been tanking and that he'd pissed off both men in recent years with his doesn't-play-well-with-others attitude -- to the point where Freston was telling pals that "dealing with Dolgen is like dealing with a rival studio." On Wednesday afternoon, Dolgen expectedly resigned.

In his new role as Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo, Stern gave us the behind-the-scenes dish while voicing his loyalty to rude and crude Karmazin and his disdain for slick and smarmy Moonves. Yet, just days earlier, Stern had warned us what was coming while Viacom itself stayed mute. And there were even Viacom’s repeated denials of 30 months of rumors that management was roiling because octogenarian chairman-CEO Sumner Redstone wanted to drop-kick Karmazin (and didn’t, only because Wall Street rebelled). But a recent tumble in Viacom’s share price caused Redstone to feel he finally had the upper hand over Mel. So, after gambling on actuarial tables that Sumner would drop dead sooner rather than later, Karmazin appeared to have lost the succession battle to Redstone’s 50-year-old daughter, Shari Redstone, a Viacom board member and president of family-started National Amusements. Mel would walk out shortly, Stern said on May 27.

That’s why Howard is No. 1 with so many listeners: They know he tells the truth, warts and all.

Too bad we allow his bosses to lie with the impunity of W’s warmongers.

You would think that, in the wake of the Enron–Tyco–Global Crossing–Adelphia–Martha scandals, corporate honchos would feel pressured by the much ballyhooed Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 — which sought to encourage more transparency in corporate governance but only succeeded in creating more confusion by its too-broad language, thus enriching more lawyers — to disclose, disclose and disclose some more.

But not Big Media.

Maybe their untruths sound louder because they own the microphones.

Maybe it’s because almost all of them were schooled in Hollywood, where lying has been elevated to an art form. But the mendacity just keeps coming, and not just from Viacom.

Example: For nearly the full 16 months that Michael Ovitz served as president of Disney, he and chairman-CEO Michael Eisner insisted in public that all those stories claiming they were not getting along were utter hogwash. Now, thanks to a shareholders’ lawsuit, we know that Eisner decided his No. 2 was a total incompetent, incorrigible liar and impossible spendthrift from almost the first day out.

Then there are Disney’s white lies: “We’ve fixed ABC.” “We’re fixing ABC.” “We’ll fix ABC.” And so on, ad infinitum. And yet, ABC is still broken, and it seems everyone has been fired except, inexplicably, its overseer, Disney president Bob Iger.

The managers of that media conglomerate once known as AOL Time Warner kept lying to the public, claiming it would meet financial targets when in fact it went into the toilet. Now Steve Case and Gerald Levin are gone, and in their place is Dick Parsons, who gave just as misleading statements as the rest of them but without consequences.

And we’re supposed to believe Rupert Murdoch’s assertions to the FCC and consumer groups that he will not turn DirectTV into an international Death Star for non-NewsCorp programming.

MGM is on the block, off the block, doing business, not doing business. Hard even for its managers to keep the stories straight about the fate of this sorta studio.

Vivendi Universal was built on the lies of one man, Jean-Marie Messier.

And Sony bought into Hollywood based on the biggest lie of all: that a studio could be profitable. That’s really laughable if it weren’t for all those write-downs.

Not a pretty picture, is it?

For years now, we’ve grown accustomed to the personality flaws of the men who would be moguls — especially the degree to which Big Media boys tinker with their toys. For every Mel Karmazin, who would say, “The day I start looking at pilots is the day you should start selling your stock in the company,” there’s his boss, Sumner Redstone, who, at the behest of his then movie-producer girlfriend, made a crack-of-dawn call to a Paramount screenwriter and ranted, “You’re late with that fucking rewrite.” For every Dick Parsons, who boasts to friends he can’t be bothered to watch his own television product, there’s Michael Eisner, who spent weeks trying to resolve a plot problem involving apparent incest between brother and sister animals for a straight-to-video sequel to The Lion King. And for every Jeffrey Immelt, who’d rather talk about General Electric’s medical equipment than its NBC subsidiary, there’s Jack Welch, the retired GE chairman, who became so embroiled in the network’s business that he’d start off conversations asking about the weight of his increasingly fat Veronica’s Closet sitcom star, Kirstie Alley.

 

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.”

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.

 

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.


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