The Shame of No Shame: Fawning, Sniping in Media Land

Autumn of the Moguls: My Misadventures with the Titans, Poseurs, and Money Guys Who Mastered and Messed Up Big Media , by Michael Wolff. HarperCollins, 381 pages, $25.95.

In 1980, George W.S. Trow, a veteran New Yorker staff writer and one of the founding editors of The National Lampoon, published a 25,000-word jeremiad decrying the evils of television. “No good has come of it” was his conclusion, arrived at a scant six paragraphs in, and the going only got bleaker from there. In a style that might best be described as oracular doom-collage, Mr. Trow cautioned that if we let it, TV would rob us of every human dignity.

“Within the Context of No Context” remains something of an anomaly to this day. Stitched together out of reminiscence, whimsy and ex cathedra decree, the essay strikes many readers as visionary, others as overblown and silly-it did, after all, finger Richard (“Survey says … “) Dawson as a principle archenemy of civilization. But looking back, it’s hard not to acknowledge its strange prescience. Mr. Trow said the world was about to change, and it did-in exactly the way he said it would. The old, stodgy, civic-minded ethos of the newspaper gave way to a sensibility increasingly defined by People magazine and the tube. With the ballast of gravitas jettisoned, journalism became bigger, cheaper and downright panoptical. It became “media.” And lo, media’s credo was made universal: Be savvy or die.

Twenty-odd years later, savvy has, at last, found its one true and perfect voice. Michael Wolff sits, J.J. Hunsecker–style, at table No. 5 in Michael’s, the unofficial canteen for infotainment tycoons, and collects material for his weekly New York magazine column, “This Media Life.” As he confesses up front in Autumn of the Moguls, he’s not a critic-“that dour schoolmarm figure”-and almost never writes about the daily truck and haggle of business. (“Paying attention to details,” he insists, “is not cool.”) To lack substance, for the true media savant, is a highly refined method for capturing the vital essence of the mogul. The media conglomerate, according to Mr. Wolff, is a gratuitous behemoth, its primary raison d’être being the vanity of the boardroom titan whose dealmaking created it. Only a pundit devoted to the “cult of corporate personality” can truly understand it. The traditional journalist’s stock-in-trade is access; stalking moguldom requires “proximity.” And in addition to lunching in midtown, it turns out Mr. Wolff lives on the Upper East Side. “I have taken to observing Diller from afar,” he confides at one point. “Once, under the awning of the Carlyle, we might have even stopped to chat, except that I was with my children, who were crying and hitting one another.”

In search of a precedent for his work, Mr. Wolff cites Walter Lippmann, Auberon Waugh and Cleveland Amory. What Michael Wolff is, of course, is the triumph of everything George Trow found corrosive and inane. And here’s a measure of the totality of that triumph: Mr. Wolff proceeds without an ounce of embarrassment. “In the media business,” he assures us, “everybody’s motivations are clear. Every aspect of the enterprise … is about achieving notoriety. The media is, in fact, in the business of being noticed by the media.” (This is merely the savvy reworking of Mr. Trow’s apocalyptic formulation, “The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.”) The book’s taking-off point is what Mr. Wolff calls “the beginning of the end,” the period following the disastrous merger of AOL and Time Warner in January 2000, during which time the media business has fallen into a financial and-to hear Mr. Wolff tell it-an almost existential crisis. But with its (probably intentional) echo of Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, its (probably unintentional) echo of Robert Browning-“Days decrease / And autumn grows, autumn in everything”-Autumn of the Moguls is also valedictory, a look back over the two-decade period in which the media industry consolidated, the culture of Hearst-like moguldom was reborn, and “publicity,” as Mr. Wolff puts it with characteristic ho-hum bluntness, became “the currency of our time.”

Is that look back wistful, or acidic? Hard to tell. Virtually every thesis is presented with immense self-congratulatory brio, only to be contradicted later on. For the purposes of basic clarification, it’s best to think of the book’s author as two distinct Michael Wolffs. One has the skepticism of Hume; the other the credulity of Emma Bovary. One can be bitter and astute, the other fawning, like a courtier. Wolff No. 1 has a provocative theory: He thinks the media business is a total chimera, and the people who run it fantastic ninnies. Wolff No. 2 thinks modern media companies control reality itself, and thus the modern media mogul is the most powerful human being ever to stride the earth.

I know, I know, he contains postmodern multitudes-as signaled by his use of the prefix meta- at one point-and should be admired for his ability to grasp, at once, that the entire media business is “a fluke of semiotics,” and that “being a media power was something like being a nuclear power.” But how to square the following? “No sane person … who has ever sat down with one or another of the halfwit overlords of the feudal media states and listened to the rationalizations for the twenty-year rise of the media cartel system has ever had any idea what these people are talking about …. I can’t do justice to the true asynchronous pitch of halfwit overlord talk.” And: “Rupert Murdoch … [is] larger than life … a man who is not like other men … a man who is imbued with so many sun-god attributes.” Mr. Wolff, he freely admits, has a high-school crush on Mr. Murdoch, and when he is near him, he feels like a “proximity crackhead.” What does one do when you are allowed to approach the sun-god? “You surrender.”

Well, Mr. Wolff surrenders. A journalist from Forbes wanders into the vicinity and makes the mistake of asking the sun-god an actual question; Mr. Wolff makes sure he’s quickly hustled aside. So how do we square these two impulses, to denigrate with one hand and to lay atop the sun-god pedestal with the other? (Mr. Wolff is not on the couch in this book, but he has lately been in the financial pages: He wants to be a mogul himself, by purchasing New York magazine from its current owner, Primedia.)

The 20-year period covered by Mr. Trow’s prophesy and Mr. Wolff’s backward glance was, to put it banally, a communications revolution. Somewhat less banally, the triumph of the media as reality’s final arbiter represented a total upheaval in our idea of the public space. As such, it has an interesting historical analogue: the creation of the modern mass reading public in the 18th century. Both were enormously disorienting, as they created new styles of personhood, defined by new ideas of personal merit. As a coping mechanism, the 18th century often fell back on social rank. “All civilized nations have settled upon a plain and invariable principle,” Dr. Johnson, the greatest 18th-century man of letters, announced to James Boswell. “A man is born to hereditary rank.” Mr. Trow similarly feared a world of no social continuity whatsoever, a world ruled by perpetual arrivistes. That world came about, to some degree; it’s the world of moguls, the one Mr. Wolff chronicles. And to experience it as a stable and meaningful world, Mr. Wolff falls back on social rank. “If you wanted to make a connection, bank a relationship, get in good, with anyone in a station above you, well then, you had better engage in some flattery.” (Italics added.) From virtually the first page to the last, this is his method in Autumn of the Moguls: He looks at you, he plots a vector involving money and power, and he ranks you.

Messrs. Diller and Murdoch are at the top. Poets are at the bottom. (Mr. Wolff makes a big deal out of his status as a parent. One wonders what it’s like to grow up in a household where the prevailing sentiment is, “What clear-eyed person would want to be a poet?”) In between lies everyone Mr. Wolff condescends to. “I had to summon my energy to want to talk to them,” he yawns at one point about upper-echelon management. “They were, in mogul terms, small time … each of these men would certainly finish his career worth hundreds of millions.” In a world ruled only by status, everything falls under the semiotics of power: “In the consultant-banker-CEO world, breakfast and where you breakfast are significant.” Books with sentences as daffy as that often dignify themselves with a reference to Edith Wharton. Dust off your copy of Custom of the Country: Where Wharton was thickly descriptive and sardonic, Autumn of the Moguls is thinly descriptive and artless. The reason is simple enough: The perpetual arriviste is condemned to a perpetual adolescence.

By relentlessly equating adulthood with professional success, Mr. Wolff degrades the concept of human maturity-a reasonable acceptance of limits, an ability to mind one’s own business. Mr. Trow nailed just this aspect of the media mentality when he wrote that today’s “Ambitious Americans … have preferred to remain adolescents, year after year.” When Mr. Wolff runs into the world of real adults, the results are alternately amusing and sad. Arthur Sulzberger Jr. refused an interview with Mr. Wolff with the curt explanation, “I hate New York magazine.” Confronted by a throwback to the world of prestige and civitas-Walter Isaacson, who, in addition to running CNN, has written creditable biographies of Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Franklin-Mr. Wolff can only treat him as a mystery, then finally whittle him down to familiar proportions: “Cocktail parties … are, in many ways, his real medium.”

Mr. Trow came from a family of printers. They were decently well-off and sent him away to Exeter and Harvard. What he feared in a loss of social continuity wasn’t the end of the Protestant establishment that had served him and his family so well, though. (Be gone with it, please.) It was the dawning of a new individual, with no sense of personal or social history, who could be sold anything, like tax cuts that will impoverish his children or wars that will kill them. In treating Roger Ailes as an amusing but mostly harmless Falstaff, Mr. Wolff is a symptom parading as a diagnosis. He’s a harlequin blown about in the shallows, masquerading as a world-weary cynic who sees down into the depths.

This book is prolix, boring, poorly structured and unenlightening. But it would be nice if, in its ridiculousness, it served as a harbinger of a new Zeitgeist, in which the word Zeitgeist had been quietly retired, and in which status-hounding had become a thing of the shameful past. In that world, Michael Wolff would be dismissed as vulgar, and a book like this as an utter embarrassment.

Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer.