Tightwad titans?

Fund-raisers gripe that media moguls feast on pop

Herb Allen’s uber-exclusive media confab in Sun Valley offers many things — mountain air, high-end gossip, heady seminars and a horde of millionaires and billionaires.

But the gathering is more about getting than giving.

The monster-rich media & entertainment moguls — think Sumner Redstone, Charlie Ergen, Rupert Murdoch — aren’t mega-players when it comes to personal philanthropy. All three are on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans but are nowhere to be found among the country’s top charity donors.

TV mogul Haim Saban is one of the media’s biggest givers, donating more than $100 million to various charities over the years. Saban, who is worth $1.7 billion, is one of the few media moguls to criticize his colleagues, telling the press a few years ago that multimillionaires “can make a difference in the community, but they don’t. They have too much money. They should give more away.”

His plea has gone largely unheeded.

In general, showbiz billionaires’ idea of philanthropy is buying a few tables at a fund-raiser. They can talk eloquently about stock prices, mergers & acquisitions and new economic opportunities. Social problems, however, do not appear to be a subject of much interest to them.

Philanthropy goes beyond writing checks: It’s a social and emotional commitment, and the media mega-rich don’t seem to relate to that mindset.

Two publications, the Chronicle of Philanthropy and BusinessWeek, annually compile lists of, respectively, the 60 and 50 most generous philanthropists in U.S. industries. In addition, nonprofits and universities regularly report on the giving patterns of the super-wealthy.

Based on their data, media’s multibillionaires seem content to let the nation’s philanthropic life be shaped by the giants of other industries. Bill Gates has pledged or donated more than half his $48 billion net worth; Intel founder Gordon Moore is giving away his fortune by the billion. Though those two have showbiz connections, they made their fortunes via technology.

Southern California’s mightiest philanthropist doesn’t come from the world of showbiz: He is building magnate Eli Broad, who places high up on both lists. Worth $6 billion, Broad’s lifetime giving to public education, arts and science is estimated at $1.5 billion.

“Overall, it’s always struck me that media types don’t tend to appear on lists like this a lot. It’s hard to tell whether it’s because they don’t want attention, so give anonymously,” says Stacy Palmer, editor of Chronicle of Philanthropy.

But that publication and BusinessWeek list a few notable media magnates, including Ted Turner, Michael Bloomberg, Kirk Kerkorian, David Geffen and Oprah Winfrey.

In addition, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg are among the elite who pour a lot of money — and, just as crucially, time — into global causes. Univision chair-CEO Jerry Perenchio is also known for his charity giving.

NBC Universal chairman Bob Wright is now using his clout as a media bigwig to bring attention to autism; his grandson was recently diagnosed with the condition. Wright is a veteran of GE, an industrial conglom where philanthropy and community involvement are considered part of the job description. (As a GE exec, Wright served as chairman of the regional United Way.)

In 1997, Disney topper Michael Eisner transferred about $116 million of his own Mouse House stock to a foundation that he and his wife launched.

Still, some fund-raisers in the entertainment community consider Eisner ungenerous in his giving. He also raised eyebrows when giving $1 million to Georgetown U., his son’s alma mater. Georgetown chair emeritus Rev. Leo Donovan also sits on the Disney board.

Media companies love to tout their contributions to culture and philanthropy — the public service announcements, the matching donations to tsunami relief and the fact that employees are often quite generous with their time and money.

After decades of consolidation, big media has evolved into an ever-smaller circle of diversified, publicly traded entities with bottom lines to watch and stock prices to support. In many cases the real money is consolidated in the tightly clenched hands of the owner-operators, who show a unique disinterest in society at large.

It’s as if they’re playing a high-stakes game of “die rich.”

“These guys have wealthy companies to hide behind,” one fund-raising exec complains.

The irony is that the professional managers of some of the congloms are quite generous — especially considering their relatively modest salaries compared with the owners.

Murdoch’s apparent disinterest in philanthropy contrasts with News Corp. No. 2 Peter Chernin, who, along with wife Megan, is deeply involved in educational charities.

“The Chernins are unbelievable!” confirms charity party planner Judy Levy of Levy Pisanti & Associates.

And Redstone’s lack of public philanthropy contrasts with the efforts of Viacom employees, who have marshaled all wings of the company’s vast empire to raising awareness for HIV/AIDS.

Redstone donated $250,000 to Viacom’s AIDS effort. He also donated between $8 million and $10 million to found a burn center at Boston’s Mass General not long after he suffered severe burns in a 1979 Boston hotel fire. He is a founding member of the American Cancer Foundation. Privately, he also gives to the United Jewish Appeal.

But like many company founders and entrepreneurs, Redstone spends his time and his $8 billion fortune on, well, Viacom, making personal investments in business ventures such as Midway Games and exhib chain National Amusements.

Redstone reps say that he does donate money, but that he keeps such gifts private. The same is apparently true for Murdoch, who is worth $6.9 billion, according to Forbes.

“It runs so contrary to the way Murdoch was brought up and the way he has conducted himself as CEO to trumpet his giving,” a News Corp. spokesman says.

Tinseltown skeptics counter that if folks like Redstone and Murdoch made anonymous gifts, Hollywood would know about them.

Also, Redstone and Murdoch apparently believe that when their companies give, they are giving, too.

Murdoch and News Corp. have made a number of gifts to public schools both in Gotham and Australia. Individually, Murdoch has given money to the Catholic Diocese in Los Angeles as well as to medical centers in the U.S. and Australia.

But one top media exec says those who give anonymously do so, more often than not, because they don’t want to give very much and don’t want to be asked to give again.

Though EchoStar’s Ergen’s high-stakes bird battle with Murdoch’s DirecTV and cablers is very public, his profile in philanthropic circles is non-existent. Ergen, who plays the part of an underdog in his tectonic TV battles, is worth $7.3 billion, close behind his archrival Murdoch.

The press-shy Ergen devotes all his energies to EchoStar, a spokesman says. (His wife, Cantey, is on the board of the Children’s Hospital in Denver, and EchoStar donated proceeds from several Pay Per View Indian Cricket Matches to tsunami relief.)

If it’s any consolation to weary fund-raisers, the iconoclastic Ergen isn’t yet living the mogul life; he draws a $250,000 annual salary and has yet to sell a single share of the company he founded.

There is no conclusive tally of who-gives-what.

Anonymous giving is rarely included in totals compiled by think tanks and organizations that track philanthropy — and certain moguls do prefer to keep their giving private.

The secretive Cox sisters — Barbara Cox Anthony and Anne Cox Chambers, who control the private Cox Enterprises — are media’s richest heirs at $11.7 billion apiece. But they don’t make any top donor list, though press reports say they contribute to Atlanta-area schools and to Democrats like former Sen. Max Cleland.

A Cox spokesman says they give plenty privately.

How much is enough?

The New Tithing Group, a philanthropic research think tank in San Francisco, says the 400 top tax filers gave away $25.3 million on average in 2000, the latest year for which research is available.

The group’s executive director Tim Stone says the ultra-wealthy should be able to give $25 million a year for every $500 million in invested assets. Billionaires, then, should be able to give $50 million a year without putting too big a crimp in their lifestyles.

But even 2000’s tally would be a huge increase for most of media’s wealthiest chiefs.

Throughout Hollywood, fund-raisers for all types of charities express frustration that beyond a few notable exceptions (the principals of DreamWorks, Paul Newman, etc.), moguls are notoriously difficult to separate from their cash.

“People in this business are so insecure. For some of them, the money is newly acquired and they don’t trust it yet. It takes awhile sometimes to learn how to give, so there’s some of that,” one Hollywood studio exec says.

One board member of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art mused that the institution has no big entertainment-industry patrons.

“Being famous shouldn’t exempt you from philanthropy,” says one L.A.-based fund-raiser. “But that’s still an unpopular concept in Hollywood.”

Yet for the media moguls, the opportunity lost to society is even greater than the sum of their cash. Putting a face on a cause can make a great difference, particularly when it’s someone with a vast media empire at his or her disposal.

After their grandson was diagnosed with autism, Bob and Suzanne Wright launched the org Autism Speaks to raise awareness and break the stigma associated with disorder. And Wright isn’t shy about going on his own airwaves to further the cause. He announced the new foundation on the “Today” show on NBC as well as on CNBC and MSNBC.

Newsweek, which has an editorial partnership with MSNBC, picked up a column by Suzanne Wright for the “My Turn” section and said it would time magazine stories to run along with NBC’s offerings.

Then Bob Wright picked up the phone and called New York Times executive editor Bill Keller to commend him on a front-page story on autism. Keller assured him the Times wasn’t going to ignore autism, as he felt the paper ignored AIDS at the dawn of that epidemic.

Would Wright be calling in his connections for autism if his grandson weren’t afflicted? Probably not. But NBC parent GE has a long history of giving in communities where it is often the largest employer.

GE — not NBC Universal — was the biggest contributor to Katie Couric’s colon cancer campaign. Couric, who lost her husband to the disease in 1998, had her own colonoscopy broadcast on “Today” and is credited by doctors with increasing voluntary screenings by 30%.

In terms of corporate philanthropy, experts say the top executive sets the tone.

“There is a much bigger likelihood that everyone else will be involved if they perceive that it’s important to the top guy,” says Marc Pollick, president and CEO of the Giving Back Fund, an organization that helps athletes and celebrities create foundations.

The professional managers of media congloms — such as Time Warner chair-CEO Richard Parsons, Sony Corp. chair-CEO Howard Stringer and outgoing Disney chief exec Eisner — certainly don’t have the mega-fortunes that Murdoch and Redstone do, but they have the capacity to marshal the stars and the media to have an impact on society. Parsons and Stringer in particular try to set an example for their employees by being active in the community, sitting on a variety of boards and the like. (Their reps would not discuss the level of their personal giving.)

More often than not, charities are left begging for the likes of a Wright or a Parsons to serve on their boards — for their cash, their connections and their influence on the culture.

Why, then, do so many media moguls take a pass on an opportunity to demonstrate concerns bigger than the next TV season or quarterly earnings report?

There is no simple answer.

“Imagine if they were competitive about making a better world,” Pollick says. “Imagine what would accrue as a result.”

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