There’s clearly been a loss of civility in the way Washington does business, and that’s spreading to Hollywood — witness last week’s “War of the Words” involving Tom Cruise and Sumner Redstone.The headlines in the consumer press heralded “Redstone fires Cruise,” but the facts would suggest that this was more like a bad divorce: Both sides were in a state of withdrawal. It’s all about deal, not about doctrine. Paramount didn’t like the numbers of the Cruise-Wagner deal, which was expiring (Paula Wagner is Tom’s production partner), and Cruise and his CAA reps didn’t like Paramount’s revisionist proposals. So CAA started looking for independent financing (they say they’ve found it) even as Brad Grey was laying the groundwork for a soft landing. After all, Paramount still would like to pick up an occasional Tom Cruise vehicle — his films are responsible for roughly a third of the studio’s box office over the past six years. But divorces don’t have soft landings. Redstone’s announcement that he was, in effect, terminating Cruise because “his recent conduct has not been acceptable” detonated the biggest explosion at CAA since Mike Ovitz defected (having just assured his colleagues that he would never defect). “Shockingly offensive and graceless,” is the way Rick Nicita described Redstone’s remarks (Nicita is the co-chairman of CAA). Clearly Paramount will not be first in line to distribute that random, independently financed Cruise vehicle. Unless the Cruise film is wrapped up in a DreamWorks package; after all, Spielberg is CAA’s biggest client (bigger than Cruise) and Paramount owns DreamWorks. (Those mixed messages again.) The fallout was inevitable. “Who speaks for Paramount?” one senior agent asked. The studio has emerged from its reorganization with an intricate network of production units. Now it also has a complex web of official voices and attitudes.
* * *Selling the news Last time I noticed, Katie Couric was neither a breakfast cereal nor a tube of toothpaste. So I wonder why she is letting herself be sold like one. I realize media companies need to overhype everything, whether it’s a new “Pirates” movie or another faux “American Idol.” Hence, Couric’s anointment as the new CBS network anchor has taken on a manic pizzazz. But all this may be doing a disservice both to Couric’s credibility and to network news. Those of us who actually watch the news (and there are nearly 25 million in this constituency) are led to wonder: Will Couric actually tell us what’s happening in the world or will she preside over a sort of mini-”Today” show, complete with its well-worn couch? Some of the nuggets she has dropped during her myriad press interviews are disconcerting. Since most of her viewers will already be cognizant of the headlines of the day, she said, her show can focus more on “in depth” pieces. She even plans a nightly sequence titled “Free Speech” in which a mix of scholars, comedians and ordinary viewers would sound off. Does this mean less news and more “features”? Mindful that these shows, in fact, deliver a mere 22 minutes of actual content, sandwiched between drug commercials, this sounds like a further diminution of hard news. I’m not even sure about her basic assumption: By the end of the day, events have taken us far beyond the morning headlines. It’s already a bit ominous that ABC’s “World News Tonight” suddenly has become “World News.” What happened to “Tonight”? My observation is that network news features often lack both relevance and attitude. OK, the federal government wastes a lot of money; I don’t need an anchor to remind me once a week. In this post-Cronkite world, the networks seem to believe they can sell “trust.” Hence, the campaign for Charles Gibson announces him as “Your Trusted Source,” inadvertently reminding us of the Peter Jennings slogan, “Trust Is Earned.” I would argue that trust isn’t earned by dint of a $10 million ad campaign putting Couric’s face on every bus in New York. Trust stems from experience. Bob Schieffer’s craggy features and “I’m an old hand at this” delivery inspires trust, but I’m grateful I don’t have to stare at him on a bus. At present, Brian Williams, with his precise stentorian phrasing, holds the ratings’ lead, and lately, has even flashed an occasional glint of humor. The dour Charles Gibson is only now building his audience, but anchors have been giving ABC a bouncy ride. Remember the Elizabeth Vargas-Bob Woodruff team. (Woodruff was injured in Iraq) CBS had its headaches a decade ago when network chieftains decided the presence of Connie Chung was necessary to Dan Rather’s ratings. For her part, Couric has tried to be tactful in describing her approach to the anchor job. In an interview with Jacques Steinberg of The New York Times, she even alluded to Will Ferrell’s hilarious send-up of a pompous, self-aggrandizing newsman in “Anchorman.” She said she wanted to get away from the self-importance with which some correspondents deliver their pronouncements. “The ability to just talk to people in simple language that we use in conversation is something that can be done to a greater extent,” she observed. OK, simple sentence structure is fine, but the news is not simple. Indeed these days it’s about as gloomy as the “side-effects” blurbs that accompany every drug commercial. In the end, we don’t expect to be entertained. We just want to be told the truth.