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To the End of Time: The Seduction and Conquest of a Media Empire.

As if scripted by publicists for Richard Clurman's book,*, the board of Time Warner in late February ousted its co-CEO, Nicholas J. Nicholas in what was widely described as a "coup." The awkward two-chief arrangement that had existed since the companies' 1989 merger finally gave way, and Warner mogul Steve Ross, even as he seemed to be dying of prostate cancer, had won again. By the time Nicholas left the company, he and Ross were no longer even speaking--a feud born, reportedly, of the vastly divergent styles that are described in Clurman's book.

In a gesture of excess that has come to characterize the company, Nicholas will receive somewhere between $24 and $45 million for the privilege of being booted out of the company. That decision prompted a lawsuit from four shareholders who claim, not at all unreasonably, that the payment "would constitute a gift and a waste of Time Warner's assets." A quote from Clurman, whose book details many such greedfests, became mandatory in everybody's account of the Nicholas debacle.

This was only the most recent example of publishing hype that Simon and Schuster couldn't possibly buy. The excerpt in January's Vanity Fair profiling Ross, for all its discussion of his mob-tinged past and obscene $100 million annual compensation, contained very little that hadn't already been published. But it managed to catch the tsunami of resentment rising against American executive perks, prompting tongues to clack in the microcosmos where such things matter--so much so that New York City Council president Andrew Stein was compelled to write a letter to Vanity Fair saying Clurman had done Ross wrong. Stein defended Ross as "a unique human being, a great New Yorker, and a visionary business leader," and thanked him for continuing to employ 7,000 people in the city where Stein hopes soon to be mayor. That Time had, just weeks before, laid off hundreds of employees and that Time Warner has a monopoly on cable television services in New York City were clearly less important to Stein than the fact that Ross had recently co-chaired a $5,000-a-plate Stein fundraiser that helped him circumvent public campaign financing laws.

Add to this a story in March's Equire by former Time writer Robert Sam Anson about the newsweekly's ongoing identity crisis. Even before Esquire had hit the stands, Clurman accused Anson, whom he'd hired at Time in the sixtiies, of stealing from his sallies. This baseless charge came to the attention of noted literary critic Liz Smith, who trumpeted it in her syndicated gossip column without bothering to ask Anson his opinion.

What's most remarkable about all this mud-slinging in glamorous venues is that Clurman's book is spectacularly dull. Had I not had to read it for professional reasons, I would never have made it past the first chapter. Most of the book recounts the on-again, off-again negotiations between the Time board and Warner's Ross. The biggest question isn't who won, but who cares? Surely the world has reached a saturation point beyond which there is no justification for another book about gree-fueled corporate mergers and the investment bank legerdemain that made them possible. The financial tedium is by no means enlivened by Clurman's plodding prose and stunning lack of analysis.

Luce slips

The only reason anyone would care enough to talk about this book is that the company in question is the vaunted Time Inc., a media empire once known for its rigorous separation of editorial and business operations and its commitment to journalistic excellence. Clurman, a two-decade Time reporter himself, sprinkles the company history throughout the book, barely able to hold back his tears when describing its founding fathers. In typically fetishistic fashion, he opens and closes with descriptions of oil paintings of Henry Luce, Andrew Heiskell, and Hedley Donovan.

The premise of To the End of Time is that this publishing palace has been irreparably sullied by contemporary business practices and the merger with tacky Warner Communications. Beset with inherent conflicts of interest (what happens when Entertainment Weekly reviews a Warner Brothers movie?), declining readership, and a multibillion-dollar merger debt, the empire, says Clurman, is now almost certain to drift away from its founding mission.

The problem is that Clurman's nostalgis history isn't just simplistic, it's bunk. While Time may have structurally kept the influence of advertising away from its copy, the editorial content of the newsweekly during what it celebrated as the American Century was often abysmal by the standards of independent journalism. The Luces were rabid anti-Communists who routinely smeared labor and other segments of the American left, making Joe McCarthy's mission much easier. The magazine regularly propagandized for the CIA's illegal and ill-conceived foreign escapades and provided wildly distorted accounts of State Department-sensitive areas from Korea to Nicaragua. Culturally, it trashed the likes of Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and anyone else perceived as a threat to domestic stability.

It goes without saying that the upper echelons of Time, like most of corporate America, were and are places where women and minorities have no place. I am told reliably that during a recent pre-launch meeting about Volume, Time Warner's upcoming magazine on hip-hop and black culture, corporate editor Gil Rogin had his shoes shined by a black company shoeshiner as he discussed how to cover the black music scene. Although Clurman's book is filled with such corporate obscenities, he doesn't seem any more troubled by them than his subjects do. In a representative passage, amidst a description of a lush Bahamian corporate retreat meant to acquaint officers of the two companies, Clurman quotes Time managing editor Henry Muller without raising an eyebrow: "We don't like anybody outside the family who isn't one of us."

The book does provide some wonderful dish on Ross' infamous greed and how he bamboozled and persuaded Time honchos to do the deal, largely by guaranteeing that they'd all become filthy rich, regardless of the company's performance. Frankly, though, Clurman has dug up little that is genuinely new: The most salacious Ross details appeared in Connie Bruck's New Yorker account of the merger. And the perpetual screwing of Time Warner stockholders has been amply documented in The Wall Street Journal, where it was certainly read by anyone who cares.

Ironically, it's precisely Clurman's intense focus on the financial aspects of the merger that makes his book so short-sighted. Clurman clearly spent a great deal of time educating himself about the intricacies of takeover and stock plans, and is a little angry that capitalism has come to this king of chicanery. But he's thoroughly incapable of recognizing that, far from violating his precious "Time Inc. culture," the merger was its logical conclusion. Time's Cold War addictions and conservative agenda made its "culture" the desired blueprint for multinational corporate capitalism--a kind of journalistic imperialism. The company both financially and ideologically supported the very forces that led to its eventual merger with a global media giant. If Clurman weren't so wedded to Time's catechisms, he might've used his material to make that point. But it's hard to see how the proper recent history of Time can be written by one of the faithful.

James Ledbetter is a media critic for The Village Voice.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Ledbetter, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1992
Words:1197
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