Disinformation highway

By the time this column is published, we will all presumably have unlocked the mysteries of the “new” MGM/UA. Over the weekend we will learn whether the venerable UA will be spun off into a separate entity and who will steer that entity. We may even find out how much money the long-suffering Credit Lyonnais, along with other potential investors, will commit to the resuscitation process.

Even under normal circumstances, this information would be of keen interest to the entertainment community. But given the prevailing atmosphere of rumor and disinformation, the MGM/UA saga commands even stronger attention. I cannot recall any story of recent vintage on which so many people have labored so hard to confuse and obfuscate.

First came the flurry of rumors as to who would be in charge — Terry Semel and Frank Mancuso led the list. Next came the supposed investors: the Pritzker family, RJR Nabisco, Ted Turner, Ron Perelman, the French media group Chargeurs and the Midwestern grain conglomerate Cargill.

When a company is “in play,” rumors always abound, but we weren’t merely dealing with rumors here; these were carefully orchestrated efforts to blast stories onto the front page.

The whole episode was a vivid reminder that covering show business and covering Washington have become virtually the same exercise — same rules, same hidden agendas. As such, it provided a fitting background to the surreptitious summit meeting that took place Friday in Los Angeles, attended by top editors and TV journalists reporting on the field of entertainment. The purpose of the meeting was to analyze the deteriorating relationship between the entertainment press and its news sources. The pitched battles over stories, magazine covers, ground rules for interviews, etc., have engendered such an atmosphere of rudeness and suspicion, the journalists concluded, that both sides were ill-served by the hostilities.

In its own way, the MGM/UA affair represented an intriguing microcosm of the media cold war. Consider the Cargill episode, for example:

Until this week few reporters covering Hollywood had ever heard of this privately held corporate giant, which sprawls over 47 businesses in 54 countries. Yet by Wednesday the phone lines crackled like Gatling guns as tipsters systematically spread the gospel.

The calls seemed to come at five-minute intervals to one paper after another.

This obscure commodities trader, we were told, would take control of MGM/UA as a “distressed company,” effectively pledging as much as $ 500 million to enable Credit Lyonnais to write off the studio’s enormous debt load.

And who hadorchestrated this financial coup? Jeff Wald, that’s who — the one-time husband of Helen Reddy who manages some acts in the music business. In bringing off the deal, Wald had managed to go over the heads of the entire directorate of Credit Lyonnais as well as the bank’s newly appointed consultant, Michael Ovitz, concluding his negotiations directly with France’s finance ministry.

In due course the French bank denied this story, and the finance ministry apparently couldn’t even translate its response into intelligible English. Cargill’s spokesman also dismissed the report as a Hollywood laff riot.

All this only served to intensify the rumors, however. At week’s end the Los Angeles Business Journal cited a tipster as confirming that “an agreement in principle had been reached and the deal could be ratified this week in Paris.”

Why did the Cargill acquisition become “the rumor that wouldn’t die”? One explanation, it was pointed out, was that it was such a good yarn — the music manager who had actually persuaded a $ 49 billion-a-year company to face up to the vicissitudes of the movie business.

On one level, Cargill, after all, might be a refreshing presence in Hollywood. Given its background in the grain business, the company might foster a whole new genre of rustic flicks — consider a contemporary version of “The Corn Is Green.”

Then there’s also the other possibility: that the perpetuators of the Cargill rumors were so determined to embarrass the French bankers and their allies at CAA that they were going to see it through to the end.

As stated at the outset, much of this should imminently reveal itself and, as far as the press is concerned, it may all prove a valuable lesson. Many a youthful reporter has learned, at least, that the journalism business, circa 1993, consists basically of the conversion of disinformation into information. Hopefully there might even be some useful byproducts along the way — such as a few random insights and even a glint of humor.

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