Jon Stewart's Next Target for a Spanking: Sumner Redstone!

A Columnist -- Who Favors Clawing Back Money From Media Execs Ruining Media -- Can Dream, Can't He?

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Given all the recent media-fueled outrage over the obscene bonuses paid out to AIG executives, I have a simple request: I'd like the same media that have been raising holy hell about AIG to investigate the often completely unjustified compensation of the executives that have been driving the media business into the ground -- often preserving their own cushy jobs while laying off the rank and file and even killing off storied media properties.

Sumner storm: An overcompensated, underperforming media titan.
Sumner storm: An overcompensated, underperforming media titan. Credit: Adam Nemser
Consider New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's language in a letter he sent last week to House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (adding fuel to the fire that ultimately forced hapless Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to finally read the riot act to AIG and prompted Congress to gin up a claw-back tax plan): "These payments were all made to individuals in the subsidiary whose performance led to crushing losses and the near-failure of AIG. Thus, last week, AIG made more than 73 millionaires in the unit which lost so much money that it brought the firm to its knees, forcing a taxpayer bailout. Something is deeply wrong with this outcome."

Now, look around at the mostly New York-based media executives that have been tripping over themselves racing to downsize pretty much anywhere but in the executive suite. Their corporate culture -- salary structure and perks -- continues, in most cases, to be unjustifiably generous. Insanely generous.

The American media business, even before the current global economic apocalypse, has been falling apart -- newspapers especially, of course -- thanks in large part to the performance of corporate "leaders" who were asleep at the wheel while upstart new-media companies (from Google on down) first stole their lunch money in schoolyard muggings nobody was willing to take seriously, and then brazenly robbed more and more of their overall business.

Now entire media sectors are facing not just crushing losses and near-failure but total failure -- in some cases extinction. And in most cases, the corporate overlords who didn't see the internet coming (even 10 years after it arrived!) are still not only in charge but ridiculously well-compensated.

Something, to borrow Andrew Cuomo's words, is deeply wrong with this outcome.

The truth is, the internet isn't waging a war against "old media" so much as it's waging a war against old-media overhead. Before Hearst made the decision to shut down the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last week, it issued a memo to its employees saying, "We see no opportunity for us to publish the P-I on a profitable basis." Declining newspaper revenue aside, if you consider the Hearst executive-suite lifestyle in the posh Hearst trophy tower in Midtown Manhattan, it's not hard to imagine why. Even now, as Hearst is "blazing a trail," as one observer put it to the Columbia Journalism Review, in continuing the P-I as an online-only publication -- radically downsizing the 167-person operation to roughly 40 (20 in the newsroom, 20 on the business side) -- I wonder how much the decks are stacked against the new operation given the contribution it'll have to make to support old-school corporate overhead that's a throwback to the age of media monopolies. At any rate, starting a web-only property in 2009 is so totally not "blazing a trail."

Now, I know what you're thinking: Hearst is a privately held company -- it can do whatever the hell it wants. Unlike AIG and the other companies the government has been bailing out, Hearst hasn't been taking taxpayer money to further reward overpaid numbskulls who destroy value for a living. But in this country we do still give lip service, at least, to the idea that companies involved in producing actual journalism are engaged in something approaching a public trust. And, of course, plenty of big media companies are publicly traded -- so the decisions being made in fancy New York trophy towers are affecting not only American citizens who are seeing the vaunted Fourth Estate wave a white flag, but millions of American shareholders.

What am I asking for here? More media-on-media violence? Yeah, but I'd like to see something a bit more courageous than, say, Jon Stewart bitch-slapping Jim Cramer and CNBC. Shooting fish in a barrel -- another media company's fish -- is great sport and even better TV, but what I'd really like to see, now that the media has collectively consecrated the fake news of the "Daily Show" as realer and more truthful than the real news, is Stewart going ballistic on, say, the guys upstairs: Sumner Redstone and the clowns who have been helping him "run" his media companies.

Redstone, after all, is the ultimate boss of not only the fake news but some real news, too. His ironically named National Amusements controls both Viacom (Comedy Central's parent company) and CBS Corp. Ask the gang at nickel-and-dimed CBS News how they feel about Redstone's leadership.

And let's do the arithmetic on how billionaire Redstone has further enriched himself and his executive ranks while making value-destroying decisions. In its most recent report on Sumner's compensation, covering 2007, BusinessWeek calculated that he pulled in nearly $10 mil; I can't wait for the 2008 numbers to get tallied. Go back a couple years to 2005, when Redstone was still sticking with his brilliant plan to have Les Moonves and Tom Freston co-run Viacom as co-prezzies/co-COOs (before he split the company in two). In that year Redstone pulled down $56 million, and Moonves and Freston pulled down $52 million each. And let's not forget that when Freston got iced out in 2006, he scored a $59 million severance package.

In the bizarro world of American big media, it's no wonder there's no money left for journalism anymore.

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