'Citizen Hearst's' Corporate Rah-Rah Video Muddies

Scott Sassa, the Hearst Entertainment and Syndication president who abruptly left in March amid reports of an alleged sexting scandal, is featured several times within “Citizen Hearst,” an upcoming Bio channel documentary devoted to the company.

And that’s not even close to the most embarrassing or awkward thing about a two-hour special that plays like a feature-length corporate video, the latest example of media companies indulging in blatant self-promotion and waving assets around like digital pom-poms.

As one of the lesser A&E networks, Bio is part of the Hearst empire (which shares ownership with Disney), and the special is tied to the company’s 125th anniversary. No doubt a drastically shortened version would elicit smiles if shown at a Hearst retreat or board of governors meeting.

Hearst produced the film, directed by Leslie Iwerks and narrated by William H. Macy, and Bio is airing it April 23 under the guise of – well, what isn’t exactly clear. The title is certainly misleading, inasmuch as the company’s famous founder, William Randolph Hearst, dies almost exactly a third of the way into the film.

So what fills out the rest? Interviews with various Hearst execs about how forward-thinking and wonderful the company has been. Even a segment about a bitter newspaper strike against the company over the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, which was later shuttered, blames labor rabble-rousers for pretty much all the unpleasantness.

Mostly, the modern portion plays like a corporate greatest hits album – and a paean of praise to Hearst CEO Frank Bennack, who has announced he will retire from that post in June. Again, the 80-year-old Bennack probably deserves an “atta boy” for his 30 years in the position, but turning the CEO’s retirement party into a televised event sets a rather questionable precedent.

As for the W.R. Hearst, while there are a few independent voices (Dan Rather, Leonard Maltin) discussing his legacy, the historical analysis primarily consists of Heart’s descendants and others seeking to rehabilitate his image.

The Spanish-American War? Hearst’s role in promoting U.S. intervention was exaggerated, we’re told. “Citizen Kane?” The movie wasn’t an accurate depiction, plus it hurt the Great Man’s feelings. His affair with actress Marion Davies? “Astonishing,” his great-grandson says, that Hearst was “able to weather that lifestyle” despite flouting marital conventions.

Something like “Citizen Hearst” would be less irritating if instances of it hadn’t been sprouting up elsewhere. In connection with the 10thanniversary of Sept. 11, for example, Disney didn’t just produce a tribute to CEO Robert Iger commemorating the company’s generous contribution to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum but also showcased it on ABC News’ website, complete with testimonial from anchor Diane Sawyer.

At the time, the Los Angeles Times’ James Rainey noted the video was “so frothy, [and] had so many references to Iger’s New York ties” that it could have easily been confused for the opening salvo in a political campaign.

There’s nothing wrong with companies taking a bow for their good works and being civic-minded. Indeed, a whole charitable industry is built on the practice. But there’s a difference (or should be) between the praise-filled content at black-tie fundraising dinners and what companies display on their networks or websites.

Then again, we’ve perhaps become a bit blasé about how much brazen self-promotion gets squeezed into programming, from morning shows indulging in breathless recaps of their own network’s reality fare, like “The Bachelor,” to HBO showcasing Beyonce’s self-produced-and-directed documentary “Life is But a Dream,” which was enough to give the term “vanity project” a bad name.

It’s even more insidious when broader corporate interests are at work, such as Fox News Channel downplaying the phone hacking at News Corp.’s U.K. newspapers, or its Fox Business arm conducting softball interviews with CEO Rupert Murdoch. (“No worries, Mr. Chairman,” anchor Stuart Varney gushed when Murdoch balked at commenting about the scandal a couple of years ago.)

The irony is Hearst can point to a fairly proud tradition following its founder’s death, including its early investment in the aforementioned ESPN. Still, there’s scant incentive to pat media companies on the back when they’re busy doing it themselves — and no one comes away from “Citizen Hearst” smelling like a rosebud.

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