Murdoch continues to squirm in the spotlight

At a time when Rupert Murdoch continues to squirm in the spotlight, is it a mere coincidence that his fellow media moguls have become semi-invisible to the press?

The entertainment industry was founded and fostered by icons like Jack Warner and Walt Disney who relished center stage, but they were producers, not Harvard MBAs. Later generations of leaders like Michael Eisner coveted their role as public figures.

Yet how often these days do we hear a valuable insight from Philippe Dauman of Viacom, Sir Howard Stringer of Sony, Steve Burke of Comcast NBC Universal or even Bob Iger at Disney? They wield giant influence over the global entertainment industry but remain sealed in their corporate cocoons.

Within the last two weeks Iger has lost his biggest shareholder and most important director in Steve Jobs and has also signed a new five-year contract taking over as chairman and president. Yet the only public pronouncement emerging from Disney was from its retiring chairman, John E. Pepper (whom no one has ever heard of) reassuring stockholders that Iger “is as fresh as a daisy — people can get tired when you’re as busy as he is.”

Referring to “Cars 2,” James B. Stewart wrote a column in the New York Times asking, “Is Disney stepping on Pixar in a quest for franchise sales?” Disney’s recent pronouncements, however, have focused on its improved profits from ESPN and its theme parks, overlooking the bumpy results of its totally restructured film division.

Burke, too, seems to be flummoxed on how to respond to NBC’s ever-steeper slide. “No network has ever been as far behind financially as NBC,” he told an analyst conference recently, to which his network chief, Bob Greenblatt, added, “we should expect it’s going to be difficult because it’s going to be difficult.” OK.

Jeffrey Bewkes of Time Warner is as cautious in his statements as in his deal-making, but nonetheless has been relatively outspoken on Netflix and the TV Everywhere initiative. Still he, too, has been wary about commenting on his TW corporate structure, where “teams” rather than single division chiefs still rule key sectors.

Given the unending explosions in Rupert Murdoch’s world, a case could be made that media moguls are wise to be prudent about public exposure. Murdoch, however, by choice moved from the role of corporate patriarch to that of political kingmaker. According to those close to him, he also has become increasingly grumpy and isolated.

Anti-Murdoch sentiment stems from two distinct sources: The hacking scandals focused attention on Murdoch’s business philosophy — win-at-any-cost, whether in breaking news or in breaking media competitors. Second, the success of Fox News under Roger Ailes has effectively positioned the Republican Party as another Murdoch subsidiary. With the approach of an emotional presidential election, Murdoch’s role in polarizing the political process elicits shrill attention in the media.

Tallying up shareholder votes last week, more than one-third of the voters opposed returning Murdoch’s two sons, James and Lachlan, to the board of directors — a result that surprised even insiders.

The upshot is that more and more members of the creative community regard Rupert Murdoch as toxic. If given the choice, they would prefer to work for a rival company. Fox executives recognize this but insist that, till now, this is rhetoric, not reality. Yet Murdoch’s company itself is staffed by people who find their boss’s politics to be abhorrent.

The operating chief of Fox, Chase Carey, a Harvard MBA, displays little interest in content and zero interest in politics. His predecessor, Peter Chernin, was widely regarded as an effective “lid” on his boss, both in terms of deals and ideology. Peter Rice, who has had a successful run both on the film side and as chairman of Fox Broadcasting (who didn’t go to Harvard), is widely rumored as a possible successor to Chernin’s role but publicly follows the rules of media invisibility that are now the model for every executive in the corporate culture.

It’s safe to be secretive. The question is whether invisibility is an acceptable role for those who wield vast influence over our worldwide popular culture. Is there someone with a “vision” out there somewhere hiding behind a Harvard diploma? Column Calendar: Monday: Peter Bart Tuesday: Peter Caranicas/Cynthia Littleton wednesday: Brian Lowry Thursday: Andrew Barker/David S. Cohen Friday: Tim Gray/Ted Johnson

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