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As we grapple with the great issues of freedom of the press, the role of independent newspapers and magazines and the unfettered range of inquiry permitted to broadcast newsmen and women, it may be time to zoom in on the matter of Michael Eisner's socks.

Michael Eisner is, as you know, the guy in charge at Disney and one of the most successful, richly rewarded and influential men in American media. His company owns great film studios, ABC/Capital Cities, a fine book publishing firm (Hyperion), theme parks and real estate, and some wonderful newspapers and magazines, some of which Disney plans to sell.

What alerted me to Mr. Eisner's socks was a column by one of our finest crusading American newspaper columnists, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times.

It seems that a couple of weeks back this ferocious keeper of the journalism flame did what business news reporters have done for generations, she bought herself a single share of Disney stock and went off to attend the Disney annual meeting in Anaheim over which Mr. Eisner presided. And a turbulent affair it was, with questions about Mike Ovitz's golden handshake and other grand stuff. But before they even got to that, reporter/columnist Dowd, to her astonishment, noticed that "the Disney chairman and CEO is sitting there, in the front row of the stockholders' meeting at the Mighty Ducks hockey stadium, with his legs stretched out and his hairy shins showing above his short black socks."

Now, you should understand that I can take short socks or leave them. The length of a man's hose is really between him and his God. Or a man and his valet. Although you would think a tycoon of Mr. Eisner's standing ought to be wearing over-the-calf hose or else the sort you hold up with garters (I realize I'm dating myself, since garters may have gone out during Eisenhower's second term, but never mind).

In any event, the Dowd column took note of Mr. Eisner's short socks and bare calves and reported on them to the American people on the op-ed page of her fine newspaper.

I was shocked. Oh, not as shocked as I have been to learn how many times that little hustler Johnny Chung has been welcomed in the White House, but pretty shaken. Sure, it's Eisner's affair what socks he wears to annual meetings or anywhere else. But where the hell was John Fairchild when these cultural abuses were taking place? Eh? Answer me that!

The point is that John Fairchild of Women's Wear Daily and of W is the single most powerful and caustic fashion editor in the business. John is also a sartorial perfectionist who will cut a man dead for a necktie. As for wearing short, black socks with a business suit: Never!

At Fairchild Publications, when it was still family-held, a reporter who wore short socks on the job would be in danger of losing his situation (to lift Scrooge's felicitous clause re: Bob Cratchit). Businessmen caught wearing short hose by our photographers would have their faces (and bare calves) plastered all over the paper next day in derision, much like any woman wearing the wrong dress on entering La Grenouille would be photographed and branded as a "Fashion Victim!"

And from then on, whenever the poor fellow was referred to in Fairchild papers, there would be some condescending reference to his socks. Oh, we were subtle about it, but the message was there.

If the man were sufficiently powerful, the chairman of GM, the head of Chase Bank, Watson of IBM or Iacocca of Chrysler, John Fairchild would really pounce. Correspondents abroad and at home would be sent to elicit comment from the dictators of world fashion. Chanel would be asked what she thought, Cristobal Balenciaga, Pierre Cardin, Mainbocher and Norman Norell on 7th Avenue, Jimmy Galanos out in California, Valentino in Rome. The top people at Burlington Industries and Du Pont and Brooks Bros. and Harrod's, as influential suppliers to the fashion industry or as retailers, would be asked their views. A reporter would be sent door to door along Savile Row inquiring of Henry Poole and others, had they ever heard of such a thing?

"Short socks? Short socks? The fellow ought to be drummed out of the Regiment and blackballed by the Club!"

Well, maybe I exaggerate a bit, but not much. Suffice it to say, the John Fairchild of old would have gone bonkers over Mr. Eisner's socks. Today? Well, today the Fairchild company belongs to Disney and if the Fairchild fashion papers have carried a line or published a photo of Mr. Eisner in this distressing condition, it has eluded me.

It is trivial stuff, I agree, and no harm done. But it does recall Joe

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