Money talks

Autumn of the Moguls

Michael Wolff <em>Flamingo, 368pp, £18.99</em>

ISBN 0007178824

This is a cautionary tale about hubris and overweening ambition. It tells how businessmen intoxicated by the immense power and glamour of the American media built empires so vast that they were doomed to collapse.

Media has replaced government and politics as the most influential force in America. It has become the country's biggest industry, making its leading players not only hugely rich, but famous and powerful as well. So it was natural that ambitious businessmen should want as big a slice of "media" as they could lay their hands on.

But what is media? The word has come to embrace every business activity that can be put under the heading "communications". It lumps together newspapers, magazines, radio, television, films, public relations and internet services, as well as the means of delivering them to the customer, such as satellites and cables and film distribution networks.

Words such as "consolidation" and "synergy" have been invoked to justify the grouping of such disparate products and activities under one corporate umbrella. But as Michael Wolff says, the idea of a media business is "as ridiculous as if someone had come along and invented the 'transportation' business and, within the same company and under the same management, because they were all somehow related to the same word, put car companies and train companies and ship companies and airlines together".

Nevertheless, this is what has happened. In a series of mergers and acquisitions, most dramatically exemplified by the disastrous purchase of TimeWarner by AOL, vast corporations were created which, because they were intended to consolidate what couldn't be consolidated, have since disintegrated or, at least, fallen into deep trouble.

For most of us in Britain who feel guilty that we know so little about the mighty moguls who created and ran these great corporations, this book is reassuring. It tells us not to worry. Despite their past deification in magazines like Vanity Fair, they are, for the most part, ghastly, boring, untrustworthy people. Not only that: they are passe, finished, through.

Wolff, who writes a celebrated media column for New York magazine, is merciless in his criticisms of the media moguls. They are, according to him, mostly vain, insecure money-men - sometimes brilliant at making deals but hopeless at running the media companies they have created.

By trying to impose a single brand identity on their different media interests, they have devalued all of them, even the cinema. In his analysis of the failure of Talk magazine, founded as a vehicle for Tina Brown by the Miramax film company, Wolff accuses Tina of not understanding that her obsession with Hollywood now conflicted with the zeitgeist.

According to Wolff, the various cultural transformations, including new technology, have made the movie business peripheral and disposable: "Hollywood which once made Tina look hip and powerful now made her look craven and silly - and like a dumbo for not getting that it's so over with."

But according to Wolff, Tina's main problem is that she should have been rich: "She became an international brand name. But because she was, in reality, just an employee (despite her best efforts at Talk to become a mogul) and because her successes, at least from a profit-and- loss standpoint, have been mostly illusory, she never made her fuck-you money.

"And the money is where the confidence and respect come from - it redeems you. Not having the money means you're just a sucker. Which is, in essence, the social rule propounded most forcefully and unforgivingly by Tina Brown."

That's a bit unkind. At Vanity Fair and at the New Yorker, Tina propounded no social rule. She simply had an instinct for what was "hot"; and if money was "hot" (which it normally is), she went with it. Her problem at Talk was that this instinct seemed to desert her.

But if Tina feels wounded by Wolff's strictures, she can take comfort from his beastliness about practically everybody, including Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax and Tina's employer at Talk. Although not a genuine mogul (Miramax is a division of Disney), Weinstein "has wildly exaggerated mogul attributes", Wolff writes. "He is obese and grotesque, with a W C Fields nose, pockmarked face, and menacing eyes. He's a thug too - he's threatened all kinds of people. He's thrown punches and grappled with people in public. He's a tsunami of PR agents. He's always trying to buy off reporters with favours and charm. He's a great and gross manipulator."

Interestingly, the only mogul Wolff really seems to admire is the greatest and most durable of them all, Rupert Murdoch. He feels guilty about this. But he can't help himself. He just loves the guy for his charm and directness and lack of pomposity, and also for the way he "always sees things first".

Talking of which, Wolff predicts that Murdoch will be the first mogul to deconsolidate his empire of his own accord, turning it into a network of loosely affiliated enterprises over which his children may separately preside. Is Murdoch really so wise and farseeing? Or is Wolff just another sucker? We shall see.

In the meantime, if you can take the slangy staccato style, the multi-hyphenated words, and the profusion of brackets, you should read this book. Wolff is funny and extremely clever. And he convinces us, thank God, that we need never take media moguls seriously again.

Alexander Chancellor is the author of Some Times in America (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Those WMDs - The blame game