Truth, Consequences: Redstone in China Faces Touchy Subject

On Saturday afternoon, Sept. 25, in a television studio in the Hunan province of China, Viacom chief executive Sumner Redstone was presented with a ceremonial Chinese sword at the end of a half-hour interview with the local Sino-version of Oprah Winfrey.

“The sword represents success and ambition,” a stylishly coiffed, Armani-clad woman told Mr. Redstone, who accepted the gift “in the warm spirit of international friendship and cooperation.”

But as the audience cheered and the blade glinted in the klieg lights, I found myself thinking about an interview that Mr. Redstone had given earlier that day to Peter Bart, the editor in chief of Variety. And given what Mr. Redstone had told Mr. Bart, I couldn’t help but wonder: Exactly whose head at CBS is going to be lopped off with that sword when Sumner gets back to America?

But before I address that issue, maybe some explanation is in order here.

Your diarist is filing this dispatch from a 42-story hotel in Changsha, China. It’s a city you’ve almost certainly never heard of, although its population is larger than Dallas or Boston and its skyline is packed with other 40- and 50-story buildings. It’s located in the Hunan province, which boasts a larger population than France.

And on Thursday night, Sept. 23, I attended a live television broadcast here of something akin to the American People’s Choice Awards—a show that featured performances by the Chinese Céline Dion, the Chinese ’N Sync and the Chinese Bono (singing a love song about Taiwan). It was viewed by an audience larger than the entire population of America.

Yes, that last sentence was correct: Almost 300 million Chinese tuned in to watch. There’s simply no other way to put it: The size and scope of China is simply mind-boggling.

I’d been invited here to speak at a media conference along with Mr. Bart and Tad Smith, the president of the media division of Reed Business Information. But Mr. Redstone was the headliner, and his reception here bordered on the surreal: not so much media mogul or even rock star as conquering potentate. The lieutenant governor met him at the airport; he was whisked into town with a sirens-blaring police escort; he was besieged by autograph seekers, followed everywhere by TV cameras, and his visit made both the local and national news.

So how does this figure into Dan Rather’s future?

On Saturday morning, Mr. Bart conducted a televised interview with Mr. Redstone in front of an audience of 200 Chinese media executives, which was to be followed by a Q&A session. I’d been specifically asked by my Chinese hosts not to question Mr. Redstone about CBS, as he was supposedly in a terrible mood about it. But 17 minutes into the interview, Mr. Bart popped the question anyway. Here’s the transcript:

Bart: “The other issue that has gotten a great deal of attention lately is the imbroglio involving Dan Rather at CBS, which has had implications for the Bush campaign. What was your feeling about that situation?”

Redstone: “Let me start at the beginning. You’re a journalist, and you know how important journalistic integrity is. Nobody—not I, not any other executive, not the board—have anything to do with matters relating to news reports coming out of CBS. We read about them in newspapers like everybody else. Having said that, obviously, I have been very concerned. And I’ve been talking throughout this trip in China to Les Moonves, and I’ve been talking to members off the board, in trying to monitor this situation. As you know, we’re setting up an independent panel. And it will be independent. I assure you of that. And it will be moving very quickly. And I’m satisfied that the conclusions they reach, and the consequences they suggest, will be appropriate.”

Mr. Redstone paused, then added forcefully: “But while I’m on that subject, I’d like to talk about some speculation about my role here. Because I gave a couple thousand dollars to a very good guy, a longtime friend, John Kerry, people have speculated that I am somehow involved in a campaign against Bush.

“I think people who base a speculation about my leanings in this election on some contributions in the past are making a big mistake. In fact, I vote Viacom. Viacom is my life. And I believe that a Republican administration is better for companies—not just Viacom, but big media companies—than a Democratic administration.”

Bart: “So let the record show that Sumner and Rupert are allied in issues of politics. And only issues of politics.”

Mr. Redstone laughed at Mr. Bart’s final comment, in marked contrast to the rest of his answer, which was delivered in a slow, deliberate, pointed tone of voice. But the implication of what he was saying—and the parsing of his answer—was clear to everyone in the audience: The key word here was “consequences.” And the source of his annoyance seemed to be less about a journalistic screw-up than the fact that his own integrity had been called into question. In other words: It’s one thing for Dan Rather to embarrass CBS; it’s quite another, far more serious thing to drag the master of the universe into it. And that sword is definitely going to swing at CBS, sooner rather than later.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, my trip to Changsha has been slightly surreal. But what’s made it even more so is the fact that this city—specifically this hotel—is apparently the center for Chinese baby adoption in the Hunan province. The lobby is filled with Americans clutching 18-month-old Chinese girls; there’s a special section of the coffee shop where nursery rhymes play over the loudspeakers at breakfast. The Americans freely admit it costs $15,000 to adopt a child; when you ask a Chinese how they feel about this phenomenon, they shrug, avert their eyes and say, “It’s fine.” But I’m not sure if I believe them. In fact, I have three different reactions: The father in me wells with hope for the babies; the cynic wonders what the Chinese really think; and the screenwriter conjures up a vision—about 20 years from now—when a half million Chinese women return home, hell-bent on revenge. But that’s another story.

In the end, I am left with an odd juxtaposition here, one that I can’t quite reconcile: Sumner Redstone, on the fifth floor of a hotel in Changsha, China, holding forth to a group of Chinese businessmen about MTV, broadband and the future of commerce with China … as an 18-month-old Chinese girl clutches at her newly adopted mother’s breast in the lobby.

As to which transaction is more important, your guess is as good as mine.