Media Guy Fondly Looks Back at 2005

And the 10 Most Pathetic Media Meltdowns

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Oh what a year it was -- especially for media companies caught in the tumult of change. Let's look back at some of the more painful moments, shall we?

Rupert Eats His Young
It's a good thing Rupert Murdoch plans on living forever -- because in 2005 he neatly scuttled News Corp.'s presumed succession plan by sending his son Lachlan scurrying back to the Australian homeland. Lachlan's sudden resignation from the company was officially pitched, of course, as an amicable departure, but insider scuttlebutt had Murdoch the Younger fed up to here with Murdoch the Elder's meddling ways. Then, to reassert his vitality and with-it-ness, Rupert laid out zillions to bigfoot the youth-culture space on the Internet, snatching up teen favorite MySpace -- because, hey, yo, Rupe's down with the kids. Just not his own.

The Times vs. Judy Miller
In 2005, The New York Times excelled at operatic internal drama, once again overshadowing the actual news with news of its own making. First, reporter Judith Miller was jailed -- and championed in endless editorials -- for protecting a source in regards to the Valerie Plame scandal. Then, when it was revealed that her source was a scheming, dissent-quashing Dick Cheney aide, her Times colleagues, suddenly remembering her gullible Weapons of Mass Destruction "reporting," had second thoughts about her sainthood. Op-Ed queen Maureen Dowd in particular tarred her as a loose cannon and neo-con dupe ... and Judy whimpered all the way to the bank, with a reported seven-figure severance deal.

Attack of Tom Cruise!
Tom Cruise's toothy tantrum on Oprah was an instant classic that joined Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" on the shortlist of All-time Greatest Moments in American Television Infamy. But don't forget that Tom's attempt at bludgeoning us into buying his true l-u-v for Katie Holmes was almost topped by his own Scientology-fueled "Today" show outburst, in which he took on psychiatry, pharmacology, Brooke Shields and interviewer Matt Lauer. ("No, you see, here's the problem: You don't know the history of psychiatry," he told Lauer. "I do.") Unfortunately for Cruise, just about everyone concluded that his talk-show freak-outs were fatal PR malfunctions.

The Slow, Painful Death of Network News
It was, in total, an astonishingly eventful year for network news -- and the vast majority of the news about the nation's TV newscasters was unrelentingly bleak. The Anchor Era passed definitively and not-so-gently into that good night, what with Dan Rather's forced retirement and Peter Jenning's unexpected death (following Tom Brokaw's 2004 retirement). Ted Koppel and his hair ditched Nightline for HBO. And both CBS's and NBC's news divisions seemed to be contemplating their own mortality, even as they got new chiefs tasked with punching up the ratings (hello, thankless jobs!). Maybe all the nets should just simulcast Jon Stewart every night and be done with it.

The Death of Big -- and Little -- Newspapers
In newspaperland, this was the year of complete and utter desperation (just ask the 85 victims of the recent downsizing at Tribune Co. papers). When Knight Ridder contemplated selling itself to placate restless shareholders, everybody wondered, "Who in their right mind would wanna buy a newspaper chain?" And if anyone was hoping for alternative papers to keep up the tradition of a feisty, inky press, the merger of Village Voice Media with the New Times chain extinguished that lingering glimmer. But, hey, as long as Google doesn't add a free, wireless, AdSense-supported Google Sodoku service, people will still need newsprint, right? Right?

"Brownie" does "a helluva job"
First, there was that infamous shot of Bush surveying Katrina damage from the comfort and safety of his Air Force One seat -- the year's worst photo op, which showed a remote, disconnected, powerless president doing ... nothing. Then came his mortifying press-conference embrace of FEMA Director Michael Brown: "You're doing a helluvajob, Brownie." In the end, the hurricane not only devastated New Orleans, it wrenched the Bush administration's creaky smoke-and-mirrors machine -- which would be further damaged by the endless war in Iraq and the hapless Harriet Miers nomination. The endgame? Bush's spin doctors have been thrust into a seemingly permanent defensive crouch.

Attack of the iPod!
In 2005, before everyone was ooohing and aaahing at the sight of U2 videos and "Desperate Housewives" reruns on iPod video screens, everyone was obsessing about podcasting. Both handheld revolutions were spawned by Steve Jobs' Apple, and while tech writers rose to new heights of sycophancy in praising Jobs & Co.'s genius, media-management types reacted with entirely appropriate befuddlement and panic. Once bits of programming go portable, a la carte, and on-demand, who's in charge? The consumer, presumably, which terrifies the TV and radio network suits whose traditional ad-supported business models have been unraveling at the rate of, oh, well, Apple new-product announcements.

Deep Throat II
First, Bob Woodward got scooped on revealing the identity of Deep Throat. (Do you remember the old guy's name? Probably not. But you probably do recall that Woodward got one-upped by Vanity Fair.) Then, he somehow neglected to tell his own bosses about his connection to the Plame scandal, thus earning him comparisons to Judith Miller for not only being a self-absorbed reportorial Army of One, but a Washington grandee compromised by his own insider status among those who alternate between disingenuous back-slapping and whispered smear campaigns. Worse, his muted apologies to his supposed Washington Post superiors made it clear that for Woodward, book sales come first.

Attack of the Viacom Crypt Keeper!
Sumner Redstone announced plans to split up his Viacom mega-conglomerate to unlock the company's value -- "Sometimes divorce is better than marriage," he told the Times -- and then promptly made it clear that he intends to maintain control over the resultant spin-offs. This makes perfect sense, because there is nothing shareholders love so much as having the CEOs of newly spun-off companies undermined and emasculated. (Also, everyone knows octogenarian megalomaniacs make great uber-managers.) Apparently, the 82-year-old Redstone is counting on a souped-up version of WiFi -- or maybe one of them newfangled EVDO cards? -- and a worm-powered laptop to allow him to control the Viacom spin-offs in perpetuity from his grave.

Attack of Google!
If you're dependent in any way on advertising sales, 2005 was the year you realized that Google had set its sights on devouring your lunch. The good thing, though, is that once Google entirely wipes out your livelihood -- by, say, early 2007 -- you can use the new, free Google Base classified ad service to put all your worldly possessions up for sale. Then, use the proceeds to buy an RV (and maybe a rifle and a deck of cards), drive into the Internet-free wilderness, and spend the rest of your days foraging in peace (that is, until Google introduces Google Hunting and Gathering).

The Media Guy's column appears weekly on and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at [email protected]

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