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Autumn of the Moguls: My Misadventures With the Titans, Poseurs, and Money Guys Who Mastered and Messed Up Big Media

Autumn of the Moguls: My Misadventures With the Titans, Poseurs, and Money Guys Who Mastered and Messed Up Big Media

by Michael Wolff

Astute, brutally honest, and always provocative chronicler of assorted media-world implosions Michael Wolff has sorted through the wreckage of fallen media empires and fearlessly deconstructed the peculiar psychology behind the mess. A former media entrepreneur himself, Wolff has had a ringside seat as the conglomeratized worlds of newspapers, magazines, television


Astute, brutally honest, and always provocative chronicler of assorted media-world implosions Michael Wolff has sorted through the wreckage of fallen media empires and fearlessly deconstructed the peculiar psychology behind the mess. A former media entrepreneur himself, Wolff has had a ringside seat as the conglomeratized worlds of newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and the Internet have taken often bewildering turns.

In Autumn of the Moguls, Wolff explains it all, taking on the great (and not-so-great) characters of the age, including:

  • AOL Time Warner's Gerald Levin, Steve Case, Bob Pittman, and Walter Isaacson;
  • New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.;
  • Viacom's Sumner Redstone and Mel Karmazin;
  • Disgraced domestic goddess Martha Stewart;
  • Would-be media empress Tina Brown;
  • Legendary kahuna Barry Diller;
  • Media mogul turned New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg;
  • Disney czar Michael Eisner;
  • And an outrageous cast of self-proclaimed creative geniuses, short-sighted (and often short) financiers, and shameless politicians who attempt and frequently succeed in manipulating the media.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
[Wolff] never really pauses to make a sustained argument on behalf of his thesis, nor is there a story per se. Driving the narrative is, of all things, a conference: early in the book he is invited to participate in a media conference, and hundreds of pages later, he does. This is a daredevil level of anti-plot, and you have to admire it for sheer nerve. He gets away with it because the real point here is the tangents, the asides, the riffs. Wolff loves to riff, and it suits his style, which manages to be breezy and grandiose at the same time. — Rob Walker
Publishers Weekly
Michael Wolff. Harper Business, $25 (272p) ISBN 0-06-662113-5 When the Internet boom began, Wolff set out to make a fortune and wound up with a bestselling memoir chronicling his failure (Burn Rate). Successfully reinventing himself as an industry pundit, most notably for New York magazine, he's reached the point where, as he boasts here, "[I]f there was a media party, I'd be invited to it." (He can even produce a guest list as proof.) This book centers on one such party: an industry conference where he's enlisted to interview Rupert Murdoch. Onto this foundation he piles digression after digression until he has offered up a catty remark about just about every major player in the media biz. Thus "gray and corpulent" Fox News head Roger Ailes is "one of the great creepy figures of the age," and even Walter Isaacson, acknowledged as the "fantasy life" figure for journalists of the author's generation, is eventually skewered as "the most self-important person in [his] class at Harvard." All this heel-nipping serves as anecdotal support for Wolff's contention that the industry is a chain of con games in which the last domino is about to fall and Wolff is the only one brave enough to say so. Eventually, every topic returns to the subject of the author as industry outsider, with other people existing so that he might have opinions of them. A thin veneer of self-effacement does nothing to blunt the tremendous display of ego slathered over this superficial analysis. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (Nov. 4) Forecast: The publisher plans ads in the New York Times and the New Yorker, a 25-city national radio campaign, a 15-city NPR campaign and author appearances in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. All of that publicity may not help sell as many books as the publisher hopes, however, since this title lacks Burn Rate's consistency and fair-mindedness. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
New York media columnist Wolff (Burn Rate) presents an up-close examination of the people who drove the media business to new highs and new lows in the boom years. The book provides ample context as it covers the shifts in the culture of business, the evolution of global economics, and the revolution of media consolidation. Yet, somehow it always comes down to the personalities of the "moguls" making the deals (e.g., Michael Eisner, Rupert Murdoch, Barry Diller, and Edgar Bronfman). In some ways, it is a lesson in the power of ego to facilitate unprecedented change, but it is also an opportunity for the author to drop names; his Manhattan address and role as a media columnist give him access to global players. He writes about the people he lives near and with whom he peripherally works at one point to plan a major conference on the future of the global media giants. This is a book on the media, but it is really about the world-shaping personalities who drove major media enterprises to collapse. Though not essential reading, it would provide business students with a sense of the current ways of the world.-Stephen Turner, Turner & Associates, San Francisco Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.28(d)

Read an Excerpt

Autumn of the Moguls
My Misadventures With the Titans, Poseurs, and Money Guys Who Mastered and Messed Up Big Media

Chapter One

The Comedy

The media business is collapsing. The structure is caving in, like a monarchy, or colonial rule, or communism.

The handful of companies that control the consciousness of our time are trembling and heaving, about to fall victim to internal weakness and external obsolescence.

If by the spring of 2002, this seemed obvious to many logically minded people, what logic did not account for were the moves and countermoves, as well as the pure denial, that delayed the inevitable end. Logic was up against the kind of powerful men, progressive business theories, public relations resources, and mountains of financial analysis -- not to mention lots of charm and brutishness -- that make most reporters and columnists end up believing that the moguls and their henchmen who run these businesses really do know what they're doing and that the next big deal is the big deal that will bring about a perfectly realized, synergistic business condition.

Now, it is not just spin and spreadsheets that obfuscate the real predicament of these colossuses, but the media culture itself. The media, like all social and political systems, works on its own behalf. The social reality -- to be a player in the media is to be among the most powerful people of the age -- belies a contrary business reality, that the business barely supports itself.

We are in a novel of manners -- the pretense is the thing.

Therefore, to tell the story of the media, you have to tell the story of the rituals and conceits and behavioral norms and notions of propriety that hold it up.

Instead of a purposeful business story, it should be something more like a drawing room comedy -- not a story about corporate success and failure as much as one about individual need and weakness and, of course, opportunism.

How to reduce such vast companies and so many divergent players to a small stage? How to bring such outsized men with their praetorian retinues into the same room?

The task was to find these people in their element, to move among them seamlessly. To be of them -- but not employed by them (or, even worse, sucked up to by them -- because their charm is not ordinary charm).

How to find the functional equivalent of a weekend at an English country house with a representative set of mogul kingpins as the guests?

Indeed, if business is the center of the modern world, which most certainly it is, then we have to find the dramatic context in which to reveal its true character.

Let us wait for such an opportunity.

Chapter Two

My Table

In the spring of 2002 -- in the year of the autumn in question -- I received an official, even ceremonious, invitation to have lunch with two journalists I knew from the Internet years (already sounding like some druggy past, or a best-forgotten unpopular war). They had a proposal to discuss. We want to bounce something off of you, one of them said in an email.

And so we met at Michael's. To have lunch at Michael's seemed specifically part of their point here.

You step into the door on West 55th Street, in a building once owned by the Rockefellers, and get a greeting from Michael himself (when he's in from the Coast -- Michael's has a sister restaurant in Santa Monica), in brilliantined hair (recently he's been sporting a new floppy cut), or from one of the oddly nurturing ("You look great today") front-desk people. Then, from the top of the few steps leading down to the spacious dining room with good art and many flowers, you see everybody else in the media business who wants to be seen.

I have a table. It's table No. 5, which is a very good table very near the front of the room. Its sight lines go directly to the entryway, and its back is secured by the east wall (in view of table No. 1 in the bay with Caroline Kennedy playing with her hair or Mick Jagger drumming his fingers or Bill Clinton monologizing his luncheon companions). Among the things I have never expected or wanted to achieve is a table of my own (like Winchell at the Stork Club). Still, this takes nothing away from the satisfaction of having gained a contested piece of turf. (There is a menacing back room at Michael's where faceless people are led every day, never to emerge.)

Before Michael's was Michael's, it was the Italian Pavilion, which in a former heyday of media life had a serious following among advertising and network types. My father was in the agency business and once took me to lunch here and pointed out Bill Paley, the chairman of CBS and the most powerful and elegant man then alive.

I think this is part of the Michael's attraction: It recalls the other, more salubrious, three-martini era (occasionally, someone will even have a martini at Michael's), when media was the easiest game in town, when the world was made up of a passive audience and eager advertisers, when the money flowed like gin -- as opposed to now, with media being a tortured, hardscrabble affair. A bleak, unpromising, Darwinian struggle.

I sometimes think this is part of the running joke. When you're making a lunch date and say to someone, "Michael's?" -- they're in on it. The joke is that all these media bigs show up for lunch and pretend everything is just fine and still supporting these incredibly expensive meals, while waiting for the person at the next table to break down in tears (at any given moment, everyone knows who will likely be crying next).

In other establishments like this -- the Four Seasons, for instance -- there's a certain sort of pretense. People in a gated community pretend that they live the lives of people outside the gated community, or pretend the gated area is normal life ...

Autumn of the Moguls
My Misadventures With the Titans, Poseurs, and Money Guys Who Mastered and Messed Up Big Media
. Copyright © by Michael Wolff. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Michael Wolff is a National Magazine Award winner and two-time nominee. His weekly column in New York magazine, "This Media Life," is one of the most influential commentaries about the media industry. He is the author of the best-selling Burn Rate and of the books White Kids and Where We Stand, which became a multipart PBS series. He is a frequent guest commentator on a wide range of national television news shows. His work also appears regularly in the Guardian newspaper in London. He lives in New York City with his wife and three children.

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