Books April 2004

Me And My Moguls

A portraitist who has mastered the art of the suck-up putdown

Whether or not you want to pick up a copy of Michael Wolff's new book depends on how you feel about passages like this one:

This was the meta thing. Meta gave both irony and gravitas to what we did. The delicious incongruity between our superficiality and our importance. The joie de vivre of self-referentialism. The stupendous, intoxicating power of being able to create the world we lived in ...

In fact, it depends on how you feel about such passages twice, because much of this book was previously published in Wolff's controversial weekly media column in New York magazine. The book, like the column (which recently moved from New York to Vanity Fair after Wolff and a group of major media moguls tried and failed to buy his employer), is ostensibly about life in the media-owned corporate skyboxes, far above the din of negligible things like newspapers, magazine columns, books, and, well, book reviews—unless they are about the media. But both its charm and its bite derive from the enormous doses of ego that Wolff manages to inject into all his observations.

Though it pretends to have a narrative structure based on a now forgotten off-the-record mogul conference, at which Wolff interviewed Rupert Murdoch, and at which a bunch of other moguls and mogul watchers tried to impress, intimidate, and occasionally seduce one another, much of what is notable in Autumn of the Moguls takes place within spitting distance of Wolff's table (No. 5) at the pricey midtown media watering hole Michael's (where I occasionally join him, courtesy of his prodigious expense account).

Here, at lunch (never dinner, only lunch; Elaine's is for dinner, don't ask me why), Wolff covers the scene like an ESPN commentator with ESP. Not only does he know what media bigwigs are saying to one another, he knows what they wish they could be saying, wish they had said, fear they might say, and are too afraid even to think about saying, or even thinking, though they still can't help themselves. But Wolff sure can be confusing to anyone who's never been to Michael's at least vicariously—through the gossip columns of the New York tabloids. To those who complain of the myopia of the New York media world, Autumn of the Moguls provides an open-and-shut case. By the time Wolff offers his fourth meta-analysis of the career arc of CNN's former chairman Walter Isaacson, or of who, exactly, took whom to the cleaners in the ill-fated AOL Time Warner deal, the uninitiated might be forgiven for wishing to throw this book across the room in disgust, screaming, "The Founders gave us a First Amendment so these schmucks can screw up the news like this?" Indeed, on occasion Wolff steps back and admits—nay, shouts—as much. Speaking to the "crux of the matter," he asks, "How is it that people vastly unworthy, by all evidence and logic, so palpably precarious, are taken so seriously?"

But don't go throwing it away yet. The men and women Wolff is channeling are the people who ultimately decide what Americans read, see, and hear in the media. Wolff is famously a little crazy. He revels in personal insults and studied putdowns of the very people to whom he is supposed to be sucking up. And yet one can't be sure that he isn't sucking up at the same time. Wolff manages to confuse even the experts. Sometimes he's a master juggler. Sometimes he's an illusionist, spinning a runaway riff that obscures more than it illuminates. But sometimes he gets it righter than anyone—and he's braver, too; though again, the nature of the beast is that one can never be certain. As he writes of entrepreneurs, with whom he clearly identifies and whose ranks he is so eager to join.

They're always in the process of sucking up to somebody while alienating somebody else (sucking up while alienating down). What's more, they're taking power from somebody else. It's a zero-sum media world: If you're the flavor of the month, somebody else isn't.

Sounds inviting, don't it?

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