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?

Even between hard covers Wolff gives the appearance of writing whatever comes into his head; but like a runway model dressed in faux grunge, he works hard at the appearance of effortlessness. There is a high-wire aspect to this truth-teller act, because truth is entirely instrumental in Michael's World. But just as you can't tell the players without a scorecard, it's hard to follow the machinations of media moguldom without Wolff's guidance, wrongheaded as it may sometimes be. (One doesn't read Wolff to find out what's true; one reads him to find out what people may think is true; and the act of his writing and publishing it helps make it "true" in this sense—which in the ever pragmatic world of news is the only truth that matters.)

A trivial example: When you read an article in Business Week about the trials and tribulations of the AOL Time Warner deal, you think you're reading an article in Business Week about the trials and tribulations of the AOL Time Warner deal. Ditto Fortune and The New Yorker. Wolff finds your naiveté touching. In fact, Business Week was the weapon of choice in the arsenal of the AOL chairman Steve Case's PR guy, Ken Lerer, to try to knock off Time Warner's Jerry Levin and Richard Parsons. Fortune—owned, coincidentally, by Time Warner —was Levin and Parsons's response, through their PR guy, Ed Adler. Adler threw in The New Yorker—which employs Wolff's rival (and the much nicer) mogul watcher Ken Auletta—just to make sure the corpse wouldn't get up a second time. As Wolff wrote in the kind of throwaway line for which all media watchers depend on him, "Here is the Talented Mr. Ripley theory about Jerry Levin: He seems harmless enough until he kills you." Come to think of it, it's rather brave of Wolff to have left that sentence in, given that whereas it was perhaps true, it was true only briefly. Levin killed nothing deader than his own career.

Does it all add up? That depends on the meanings of "it," "all," "add," and "up." As I said, there's a reality here to which Wolff is the world's greatest living anthropologist, but it is a reality that is lighter than air. The book's paradigmatic figure, Walter Isaacson, has left the media business altogether for the greener pastures of the Aspen Institute—which, Wolff might say, is the whole point of the book. Rupert Murdoch is treated by Wolff as a near deity, with virtually no mention of the destructive character of his assault on genuinely "fair and balanced" journalism through ideological hatchet jobs and tabloid exploitation of our democracy—which, Wolff might say, is the other whole point. And the book contains an absolutely killer Barry Diller story. That and many others like it, I'm guessing the publishers hope, are the book's final whole point.

Should you, after all that, plunk down your $25 for a guided tour of Michael's World? Well, that's about one seventh the price of lunch for two at Michael's, and unless you're actually Barry or Sumner or Rupert or Walter or somebody like them, you might get seated in Siberia, where you'll miss all the action anyway. I'd say read it and weep.

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