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Tale of two Michaels

The music industry last week was jolted by two guys named Michael.

Michael Jackson confided to Variety’s Army Archerd that he’d decided to return to the studio to remove the “Jew me, sue me” lyrics from his new album. And Michael Fuchs summoned Doug Morris, CEO of Warner Music U.S., to his office to inform him that he was out of a job.

All this took place against the continued sermonizing by politicians and editorial writers, denouncing lewd movies and rude rappers, and calling upon the leaders of the entertainment industry to exercise “corporate statesmanship.”

Which brings me to a rather basic question: What is “corporate statesmanship” anyway?

My curiosity was underscored by an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, that citadel of hard-core capitalism, which picked up the “statesmanship” theme. In a Bob Dole-like preachment, the Journal argued that “it’s pathetic to see two once-proud companies sink so low” – the companies in question being Sony, which put out the Michael Jackson album, and Time Warner, whose subsidiary, Interscope, houses gangsta rappers. “Far be it from us to complain about someone making a buck,” intoned the Journal, “but, even in a free market, there are distinctions to be drawn.”

While the Wall Street Journal, like Dole, warily distances itself from calls for censorship, at the same time it tacitly urges major entertainment corporations to impose some form of self-censorship on their product.

Now, it’s fine to take the moral high ground on issues like this, but who’s kidding whom? When has a major corporation ever stopped marketing a profitable product on the grounds of morality? The cigarette companies, we’ve learned, have been shredding research for years, lest it interfere with making a buck.

And even if a company decided to capture the high ground, exactly how would it go about it? Remember, we’re no longer talking about small, focused companies like the studios and record companies of old, where artists knew they had to cater to the specific whims of a Thalberg or a Jack Warner. Everything today belongs to a multinational conglomerate.

Can you imagine the CEO of a monolith like Time Warner interrupting a budget meeting to ask his colleagues, “Gentlemen, what do you believe are the sociological and epistemological permutations of ‘Natural Born Killers’ ? “

For that matter, imagine a multicultural committee at Sony analyzing whether to hold up the $30 million promotional blast on “HIStory,” lest it impinge upon ethnic sensibilities.

Let’s face it, “suits” aren’t qualified to deal with issues like this, nor are they even interested. Robert Bartley, the estimable editor of the Journal, himself acknowledged the risks of cavalierly imposing so-called “community standards.” In 1883, he reminds us, the “official” arts salon in Paris refused to accept the works of Manet, Cezanne and Pissarro because the Impressionists shocked the sensibilities of the arbiters of that era.

The bottom line is that today’s giant entertainment companies are proving to be marginally unmanageable as business entities, their warring divisions engulfed in tribalism. To expect manifestations of “statesmanship” in this environment borders on the preposterous.

Add to that the mixed signals emanating from the politicians who’ve decided to become self-anointed cultural arbiters. Sen. Dole, for example, likes to whomp away at Time Warner in his public orations, but suddenly changes into a cozy ally when it comes to cable deregulation. Dole even distanced himself from the so-called “V-chip,” which is designed to give parents the chance to limit their children’s exposure to TV violence.

Hollywood may be “main-streaming devianey,” Dole seems to be saying, but that’s no reason to inhibit its financial growth.

One thing is clear: The pressure on the big entertainment companies will continue to mount – pressure that will surely create a degree of corporate chaos. Indeed, artists may view this as a ray of hope – after all, artists usually thrive in an atmosphere of chaos.

As for the megacompanies, some may pause to examine the example of ITT, the giant multinational which has just decided to reverse the tide by growing smaller rather than bigger. By deftly subdividing into three separate entities, ITT decided that each enterprise would be easier to manage, find better access to new capital and build a higher degree of employee loyalty by tying incentives to specific objectives. ITT also would become a more elusive target for pressure groups and regulators.

By voluntarily uncobbling $25 billion in assets, Rand V. Araskog, the head of ITT, demonstrated the ultimate example of corporate statesmanship. He actually came up with a new idea.

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