The Bloodiest Media Coups of 2014
From Jill Abramson’s unceremonious New York Times exit to The View’s implosion, those reporting the news endured vicious humiliations and violent company shakedowns.
Here’s blood in your eye.
For the media business, 2014 has been another typical year of—what’s the appropriate Orwellian euphemism?—“creative destruction.” Or “disruptive transition.”
Better yet: “Exploring new opportunities.”
It’s not even over—10 days of potential carnage remain—but 2014 will be remembered (only briefly, because we have a short attention-span) of pandemic layoffs and buyouts, high-profile firings that resemble public beheadings, mortifying fabrications and mealy-mouthed apologies, charges and denials of plagiarism, cynical pandering that crosses the line into insanity, comical mismanagement and brazen duplicity, stupid leaked emails, and we’re probably leaving something out.
In any case, some enterprising independent producer might have enough material for a reality-show pilot. Until then, here are The Daily Beast’s Top Ten Media Fails of 2014:
THE AGONY OF AMY PASCAL: If she manages to save her job as co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, she might have Kim Jong Un to thank.
In recent days, U.S. authorities have traced to North Korean operatives the extensive hacking of Sony’s internal computer system—a terrifying cyberattack by the shadowy so-called Guardians of Peace, resulting in the wholesale theft of screenplays, videos of movies, thousands of Social Security numbers and other personal employee information, and a widely published cache of dunderheaded email exchanges involving Pascal and other top Sony Pictures executives.
Pascal is under fire for any number of faults: the woeful inadequacy of Sony’s cybersecurity protections, various emails in which she participated in lame racial jokes about President Obama and insulted major movie stars, and her decision to cancel the planned Christmas release of The Interview, a spoof starring James Franco and Seth Rogen in which Kim Jong Un is assassinated—this, after “the Guardians of Peace” threatened to attack movie theaters.
One can only sympathize with Pascal, who has been compelled to seek absolution from the Rev. Al Sharpton—who declined to grant it Thursday after a 90-minute meeting with her in New York—and she is now apparently in the crosshairs of the planet’s most vicious dictator.
Maybe she’ll survive at Sony Pictures on the theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my studio chief.”
Then again, now that the president has called her out on her “mistake” of caving to North Korea and canceling the movie, maybe not.
ROLLING HEADS AT ROLLING STONE? NOT YET: Two weeks after that notorious retraction, we’re still waiting for Jann Wenner’s often-newsmaking magazine to come clean about precisely how its editors, fact-checkers, and lawyers permitted the publication of contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s now-discredited blockbuster on the fraternity rape culture at the University of Virginia.
When the 9,000-word piece was released in November—complete with the extremely graphic and disturbing account of a supposed gang rape at U-VA’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house—the campus was thrown into an uproar, and the U-VA administration suspended all fraternities and sororities.
Despite the skepticism of an increasing number of commentators, Rolling Stone’s editors aggressively defended the gang-rape account. It was based on Erdely’s uncorroborated interviews with the alleged victim, a first-year student identified only as “Jackie,” who somehow got the magazine to agree not to follow standard journalistic protocol and reach out to the alleged attackers.
After The Washington Post tried to verify Jackie’s story, it quickly unraveled, and Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana initially blamed her—“we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced”—before finally admitting the obvious: “That failure is on us—not on her.”
RICH KID VS. THE NEW REPUBLIC: Thirty-one-year-old Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes—a near-billionaire by virtue of having been Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard roommate—didn’t know he was shoving his handsome face into a hornet’s nest on Dec. 4 when he sidelined the venerable Washington opinion mag’s two most respected editors, and announced TNR’s relocation to New York and its transformation into a “digital media company.”
The immediate resignations of Editor in Chief Franklin Foer and literary editor Leon Wieseltier were quickly followed by a mass exodus of writers and editors, complete with manifestoes and denunciations, making it impossible for the clueless Hughes, who bought the magazine in 2012, to publish the next scheduled issue.
Hughes’s recently hired CEO, a former Yahoo News executive named Guy Sidra, had told baffled staffers back in October that TNR’s new goal was to “break shit.” Mission accomplished.
SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT FIRST LOOK: When eBay founder Pierre Omidyar publicly committed $250 million of his $9 billion fortune to a brand-new enterprise that would give a powerful platform to America’s best investigative reporters, he was heralded as a savior of journalism.
Barely a year later, the 47-year-old Omidyar finds himself presiding over prohibitively expensive chaos, with internal disputes and firings at the new company, First Look Media, generating more headlines than the few stories about the national-security state posted on The Intercept, First Look’s digital magazine.
Wishful thinking probably persuaded the conflict-averse Omidyar that he could create a coherent media outlet by employing a diaspora of outsized, argumentative personalities like Glenn Greenwald in Rio de Janeiro, Laura Poitras in Berlin, and Jeremy Scahill in New York, to say nothing of hiring gonzo-polemicist Matt Taibbi to manage the startup of a business mag called Racket.
Predictably, Taibbi was fired, Racket was killed, and Omidyar is learning the hard way that, as one knowledgeable observer put it, journalists “are different from products people or engineers or sales people… The best journalists are also the hardest to manage. And that’s something that media executives only learn through painful experience.”
FAREED ZAKARIA’S PUBLIC SPANKING: The Mumbai-born CNN host and foreign-policy intellectual has, until recently, led a charmed life, running magazines, writing well-regarded books and even meeting for private bull sessions with President Obama.
Then, in August 2012, Zakaria was forced to apologize and admit to “a terrible mistake,” and even received a brief suspension from CNN and Time magazine, after he was caught plagiarizing New Yorker writer Jill Lepore in a Time column about gun control.
Zakaria, 50, managed to avoid further trouble until last month, when two ridiculously handled bloggers, Blippoblappo and Crushingbort, uncovered additional instances of alleged plagiarism dating back to the 1990s, prompting The Washington Post, Slate, and Newsweek to post humiliating reader warnings on a half dozen examples of Zakaria’s work. Going forward, the Z-man better watch himself.
MARK WHITAKER’S COSBY CATASTROPHE: In the annals of self-inflicted damage, it’s hard to match the Bill Cosby biographer’s decision not to mention, let alone pursue, well-documented allegations of sexual assault in his supposedly authoritative book about the comedy star, Cosby: His Life and Times.
Whitaker’s largely positive portrayal of the 77-year-old pop-culture icon, who cooperated extensively, has been drowned out by a tsunami of credible accounts of Cosby’s possibly heinous behavior—allegedly drugging and sexually molesting more than a dozen women.
Whitaker’s high-risk choice to leave that part out smacks of historical omission-ism. And his understandable expressions of regret—now that his book is tanking—come as too little, too late.
BEDLAM AT NBC NEWS: Deborah Turness can’t be blamed for the outrage of “special correspondent” Chelsea Clinton’s $600,000-a-year sinecure or the anemic ratings of another celebrity kid, MSNBC host Ronan Farrow.
The decidedly unjournalistic Chelsea—who resigned in August—was hired two years before the 47-year-old Turness was recruited as president of the network news division from Britain’s ITV News in 2013, and MSNBC doesn’t report to her.
But it’ll be more difficult for Turness to skate away from the ongoing turmoil at the once-dominant Today show (including the hiring and abrupt firing, after only 10 weeks, of an impolitic ESPN executive to oversee the morning show’s “brand”), the questionable decision in July to pull veteran Middle East correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin from war-torn Gaza and then dissemble about it, her botched handling of David Gregory’s departure from Meet the Press, and her strange campaign to recruit Jon Stewart for the Washington Sunday show before she settled on Chuck Todd.
And the newcomer hardly made friends at NBC News when she boasted to New York Times television writer Bill Carter: “I have achieved more in the first year than I ever thought I could… People in the organization from top to bottom recognized that NBC News hadn’t kept up with the times in all sorts of ways, for maybe 15 years. I think the organization had gone to sleep.”
‘THE VIEW” ISN’T PRETTY: One could hardly blame Barbara Walters—who created and co-owned ABC’s hugely popular daytime panel show before retiring and cashing out in May—if she’s taking perverse pleasure in how badly The View is faring without her. Now limping along in its 18th season, the once-dominant program is still absorbing the consequences of a summer bloodletting—in which ABC Television chief Ben Sherwood kicked Sherri Shepherd and Jenny McCarthy to the curb, recruited former cohost Rosie O’Donnell to join Whoopi Goldberg, hired former Republican operative Nicolle Wallace and actress Rosie Perez, and replaced original executive producer Bill Geddie with MSNBC veteran Bill Wolff.
The program—weirdly—is now under the umbrella of ABC News, and is suffering from flat ratings and an aging demographic. Maybe it’s time to bring Baba back?
THE NEW YORK TIMES/JILL ABRAMSON DISASTER: It was messy enough when, on May 14, New York Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. (nicknamed “Pinch”) abruptly fired the Times’ first female executive editor in its 163-year history after months of supportive noises about how wonderful she was.
The resulting publicity—rife with accusations from Team Abramson, but not the woman herself, about sexist salary disparities—was embarrassing but endurable.
If only Sulzberger had managed to keep a zipped upper lip while leaving the dirty work to anonymous underlings.
Instead, Young Arthur took a full-immersion mud bath, issuing a series of unseemly memos concerning Abramson’s alleged shortcomings as a newsroom manager, and then complaining in an interview to Vanity Fair about the unfairness of it all, while taking zero responsibility for his newspaper’s predicament.
“The question is, am I doing a bad job of picking leaders for The New York Times? I don’t think so,” he told VF.
Abramson, biting her tongue, was widely portrayed in rival outlets as classily above the fray. Her only answer—a thousand times more effective than Sulzberger’s whiny quibbles—was a self-deprecating photo of herself wearing boxing gloves, which somehow ended up on the cover the New York Post. A PR pro’s verdict: “Abramson was unfairly ditched by a sexist, privileged dilettante who doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
And all this before the mass buyouts and layoffs that came later in the year.
THE TRIALS OF DON LEMON: Embattled CNN chief Jeff Zucker had some nerve calling anchor Don Lemon an “idiot”—actually, Zucker’s quote was “Don, don’t be an idiot”—for speculating that missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 had been sucked into a black hole.
Zucker led CNN’s endlessly over-the-top and widely mocked coverage of the vanished plane back in March, much like last year’s wall-to-wall programming featuring Carnival Cruise Lines’ “poop ship.” Lemon—who also scored an exclusive report on “the smell of marijuana in the air” from an anti-cop protest in Ferguson, Missouri; and demanded of a Cosby accuser who claimed she was forced into oral sex why she didn’t simply bite his penis—seems the perfect embodiment of his boss’s plan to attract eyeballs with the cable-news equivalent of a freak show.