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
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
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
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
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,
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.