Big corporations use the term “transparency” in a deliciously euphemistic way. In declaring their transparency, they appear to be saying, “We’re an open book.” What they’re really saying is, “If you weren’t clueless, you’d see right through us.”
So depending on how you interpret it, transparency is either superbly inclusive or darkly Enronesque.
In their ferocious response to the SEC last week, the media congloms dispatched a whole new cloud layer over transparency. The Feds suggested that shareholders would have a better understanding of their investments if they knew more about how executives — and stars — were compensated.
Hence, in addition to revealing CEO salaries, companies like Viacom might also tell us what they paid to hire Stacey Snider or even what they’re laying out for multi-year arrangements with key actors or directors.
The companies promptly went postal. They argued that pay packages “were not structured with an eye to public disclosure.” How’s that for transparency?
So what are the congloms worried about? Do they fear that shareholders may be angered in learning about the lofty salaries being awarded to executives who might be regarded as mere division heads? Or that the execs (or stars) at Disney may discover they’re not making as much as their rivals at, say, Viacom?
In renouncing the SEC proposals, the major studios displayed the sort of ironclad unity not seen since they denounced Communists in the McCarthy era. The Feds have retreated in stunned silence.
Had they opted for a subtler approach, of course, the congloms could have assumed a more traditional corporate posture: obfuscation. After all, most of us can’t figure out compensation packages anyway.
Look at what happened last week when The New York Times tried to explain what Ivan Seidenberg was paid at Verizon. Not only was the original story impenetrable, but the newspaper then had to follow up with a correction explaining that to figure out his pay package you would have to add up salary, bonus and the value of restricted stock.
Then you’d have to calculate a myriad of random perquisites (dubbed “other pay”), as well as the value of stock options. In short, you’d need the help of a mathematician as well as an accountant.
If that’s true of an ordinary corporate CEO, how would you calculate the compensation of Brad Grey, whose deal might also accommodate his continued credits on shows like “The Sopranos” and “Real Time With Bill Maher,” among other things?
For what it’s worth, I think the multinationals would be better served to appear like corporate statesmen and acquiesce to SEC demands, dutifully coughing up a sea of data that none of us could understand anyway.
Six and the city
So who were the ultimate winners and losers in the Page Six Wars?
Ron Burkle, the billionaire who “set up” Page Six’s Jared Paul Stern, was so delighted he even crowed about it in a rare Op Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. As his reward, the Journal let the liberal Burkle remind readers that the orchestrated leaks emanating from the Bush Administration are a lot more damaging than the gossip jottings of Page Six.
Readers of the New York Times were winners, too: That paper decided to drop its own flaccid gossip column. Boldface, as it was called, reflected a consistently whiny voice, as though a Times reporter was asking: “Why am I trying to talk with these ridiculous people?”
On the losing side, to be sure, are the folks who pound out Page Six day after day and who now know that their expense reports and other perqs will be scrutinized both inside and outside the newspaper.
Then there’s the biggest loser — the dapper and uniquely reckless Jared Paul Stern himself, whose role model, incredibly, was Walter Winchell. Someone should have informed him that Winchell ultimately was so despised that no one would carry his column except — you guessed it, Variety.
I even looked up his final columns. An example: “Salvador Dali showed up at Trude Heller’s Greenwich Village fruggery with his pet ocelot for his date.” That ran Jan. 17, 1968. Winchell was so bored at Variety, the files contain his memos alerting his pal J. Edgar Hoover that Hollywood types were joining the anti-Vietnam movement.
Hoover sent along thank-you notes to Winchell, as though to prove that someone out there was still reading him.