Ghosts of media empires past

I KEEP RUNNING INTO GHOSTS as I wander Gotham’s corporate corridors, and I don’t even believe in ghost stories. Everywhere I turn, people are still talking about Gerald Levin and Ted Turner.

Levin’s presence is pervasive because so many people blame their problems on “that deal.” If Levin, in a flight of megalomania, had not married AOL to Time Warner, our world would be a better place.

Turner, of course, was one of the victims of “that deal,” and now everyone in the news business is trying to figure out where he stands on the next mega-deal — the one that would combine CNN and ABC News. Except for the bean counters, many suspect that shotgun marriage would be doomed to misery.

And Turner? “I think Ted will fight it to the end,” one friend guesses. But then no one can be sure because Turner, like Levin, a corporate ghost.

I REMEMBER A DINNERTIME ENCOUNTER with Turner when he was on the cusp of closing his CNN-Time Warner deal. My wife, a CNN loyalist, buttonholed Turner, demanding, “Why are you doing this? You’re going to lose your empire!”

Turner seemed perplexed by this onslaught. “I want to be big … BIG!” he replied, making a grandiose gesture. “I want to be bigger than the Empire State Building.” Jane Fonda, his wife at the time, looked at him with a sort of bemused disdain.

Figures like Turner and Levin undergo major character transformations in the process of becoming ghosts.

Levin’s colleagues used to describe their leader as a cautious intellectual, always respectful of subordinates.

Talk to these same people today and they’ll portray Levin as devious and inscrutable, a man who sublimated his rabbinical rage. Now that he’s a ghost, he’s also become a nasty ghost.

Colleagues liked to talk about Turner admiringly for his freewheeling, anti-establishment fervor. In an era of corporate players, he was the last of the free spirits.

Now that he’s a ghost, Turner has become an egotistical loner who would talk but never listen, a general who would seize the high ground but sell out his troops.

Levin has zealously guarded his ghostly presence, hovering at the sidelines, avoiding publicity. I had a friendly phone conversation with him not long ago. We talked about politics and philosophy, not about deals or dealmakers. I couldn’t quite tell where he was calling from, but I never ask personal questions of ghosts.

Turner pops up in New York regularly, but only a few get to see him. “He’s more serious and more guarded than the old Ted,” says one friend. Another told me he looked rather pale, which suits his ghostly status.

And will he take a position on the proposed CNN-ABC merger? “He’s close to Dick Parsons,” was all one friend would say, referring to Levin’s successor as CEO of AOL Time Warner.

IN HIS PRE-GHOSTLY DAYS, Turner surely would have pointed up certain questions about the merger. How will two such disparate cultures co-exist? Will the bean counters really be able to deliver significant cost savings without ravaging the quality of coverage?

And most important of all: Is this a moment in history when we want to lose an important voice?

Some top corporate players have serious thoughts about these issues. The ghosts are mute, however. That’s their role in the social order, after all.

But as I said at the outset, I don’t believe in ghost stories.

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