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The invisible CEOs

I was having lunch with Peter Guber a few months ago when he suddenly sneezed. “I assume that sneeze was off the record,” I said facetiously. “Yes,” replied the Sony chieftain, who then gave me a quick smile as if to say, “OK, smartass, I get the message.”

This incident came to mind as a result of reading the lengthy piece in the February Vanity Fair dealing with Martin Davis, Paramount’s feisty CEO. The article is laden with stream-of-consciousness musings from Davis about Ted Turner, John Malone, Barry Diller, Norio Ogha and just about everyone else with whom he has had dealings. Not surprisingly, Davis’ assessments are barbed, if not downright incendiary. Only irascible Marty Davis would say about Malone, “The guy is a genius … but he stands for nothing, believes in nothing and has contempt for anyone that walks and talks.”

Then he added: “Besides, Malone talks too much. He has nothing good to say about anyone.” Talk about people in glass houses!

Why would Marty the Munificent decide to pour his heart out to Bryan Burrough , who, as co-author of “Barbarians at the Gate,” has not exactly built up a reputation for compassion? “An accident of timing,” explains one Paramount source, who was himself stunned to read Davis’ ramblings on his unsuccessful efforts to buy NBC, Reed Elsevier, Thorn EMI and other assorted media monoliths.

Davis himself declines to confirm or deny his quotes in the piece, but he’s hardly pleased. “It has become increasingly difficult to communicate with reporters who are now more interested in probing for spicy quotes than for material necessary for a real business story,” Davis told me. “It’s no wonder CEOs are increasingly reluctant to have regular contact with the media.”

Having started in life as a press agent, Marty Davis had always been a clever handler of the press, but since the failure of his Time Inc. foray five years ago, he’s become less communicative. Asked by a reporter for comment or advice on a breaking story, he would more likely bark criticism at his caller over some earlier impropriety, real or imagined. In the eyes of the press, both he and his right-hand man, Stanley Jaffe, seem to have developed short tempers and long enemies lists.

In view of all this, the Vanity Fair effusion seemed both surprising and uniquely out of character — not only for Davis but for CEOs in general. More and more, the men who run media and entertainment companies in this country have essentially sequestered themselves from the press. Though leaders in the field of communications, they have become resoundingly uncommunicative.

Michael Eisner, the once-garrulous Disney chief, rarely talks to the press anymore, coming out of hiding only to accomplish a specific mission — threatening closure of Euro Disney, for example, ostensibly to put pressure on French bankers.

Guber is another invisible CEO; he’ll deliver an occasional public speech, sticking to his prepared text, but on those rare occasions when he talks to the press, he’s quick to say, “This is background, and it’s also off the record.”

Bob Daly of Warners gives the word “guarded” a whole new dimension. Sid Sheinberg is a walking “do not disturb” sign.

Why the change? Says Davis: “The media has elevated the CEO to celebrity status. Personalities have become more important than business skills and achievements. In an effort to sensationalize stories, rumor, gossip, innuendo and speculation have replaced solid business analysis.

“Most recently, I have been profiled and analyzed from all angles by such so-called experts as ‘anonymous sources,’ ‘people close to a situation’ and ‘executives familiar with the issues.’ To make matters worse, my comments and viewpoint are often taken out of context.”

Davis has a point, but several factors doubtless figure in as well. Today’s CEO usually presides over a complicated multinational corporation with myriad political hot buttons — a sharp contrast to the single-product movie studios of old. Layers of corporate authority have grown vastly more complicated; virtually every CEO seems to have at least one other CEO looming above him.

Aloofness

Meanwhile the explosion of interest in entertainment news has exacerbated a “them vs. us” mentality — an irony given that many of today’s communications companies themselves control segments of the press. Rupert Murdoch may relish a lively give-and-take with a reporter but nonetheless manages to convey the attitude that reporters are basically employees, who, like children, should be dismissed when they overstep their status.

In the end, the aloofness of the CEOs helps no one. In a time of vast change in the shape and structure of the info-entertainment industry, there are complex and provocative issues to be aired. Indeed, the willingness of Messrs. Eisner, Diller, Murdoch and Sony’s Mickey Schulhof to speak at the Jan. 11 Superhighway Summit, organized by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, indicates a recognition of this fact.

Even in the hide-bound automobile industry, the top executives have come out of their sancta sanctorum to deal with the media. In the media business itself, however, the “great divide” grows ever wider.

Thus, while it’s easy to scoff at Marty Davis for giving vent to his emotions in Vanity Fair — thus sharing a platform with the likes of Heidi Fleiss and Roseanne Arnold — at the same time he deserves a pat on the back. He managed to say what he thinks. At least he said what Vanity Fair thinks he thinks. And not a single sneeze was off the record.

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