News & Politics

The Fairly Unbalanced PBS

It's pretty ironic when Fox News is willing to air media critic Michael Wolff's scathing views on big media execs, while public television takes a pass.
Even casual readers know enough not to expect balance from New York Magazine's acerbic, award-winning media columnist. Wolff is well known for offering unvarnished and often unflattering opinions about the powerful people he encounters while living his "Media Life." In fact, this very unbalanced brilliance helped create his emperor-has-no-clothes persona in the first place.

So, what on earth was public television executive Les Crystal thinking when he censored a recent Wolff interview because it wasn't "fair and balanced?" And why is Roger Ailes -- who literally trademarked the phrase as a description of Fox News -- now talking to Wolff about hosting a media program?

The bizarre balancing act began when Wolff taped a recent interview with Terence Smith, a media correspondent for the nightly PBS program "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." It was one of dozens he's given lately while promoting his much-buzzed-about book "Autumn of the Moguls." Wolff describes the interview as "fun and not very controversial." However, in it he excoriated executives like Viacom boss Sumner Redstone, and characteristically called Disney head Michael Eisner "a liar."

NewsHour executive producer Les Crystal killed the interview, explaining only that "we did the interview, we looked at it and felt it was unbalanced, and decided not to run it." Predictably, Wolff went ballistic and public, charging censorship. He told the Washington Post that "these guys must be super-sensitive" to the fact that his remarks would "annoy" powerful media kingpins, and later said to the New York Daily News that the "weird and sad" PBS decision had left him "flabbergasted."

"PBS is supposed to be the independent voice -- independent from big media," he concluded, "And obviously it looks like they're just afraid of the big media guys." Wolff also published a letter to NewsHour correspondent Smith, praising Smith for protesting the decision not to air the interview, but charging that there was a "growing anger with PBS over its fundamental bias: "(N)ot so much a liberal bias, I might argue, as a sucking up bias. The folks who run PBS and its news shows want the people in power to like them. And of course the most powerful people today are the people who control big media."

Wolff, obviously not to be counted among those who "want the people in power to like them," unleashed his full fury on power broker Steven Rattner, head of the Quadrangle Group media investment firm. He claims that Rattner, chairman of public television station WNET and a large contributor to PBS programs such as that hosted by Charlie Rose, somehow played a role in censoring him. The ostensible reason? Wolff's rough treatment of Rattner in his book, which personally attacks both Rattner and his wife Maureen White in a most unfair and unbalanced manner (he's a "social climber;" she's "sexless").

"I believe that Rattner is angry enough to do this," Wolff maintains. "Plus he is all over the PBS system. I think it is reasonable to think that someone somewhere said 'Let's not offend Rattner -- Steve hates this guy.'" Yet at least one media heavyweight appears to love Wolff and his book. "Roger Ailes called me up and told me the book was really smart," Wolff revealed. "He told me he particularly liked what I wrote about him, that he thought I was the only person who really understands him."

Would Wolff be interested in filling in for Hannity and Colmes sometime, Ailes wondered? What about doing his own show -- fair and balanced of course -- all about the media? Talks between Wolff and Fox continue, while Steve Rattner, Les Crystal and Terry Smith remain safely incommunicado, unavailable for comment. Meanwhile, Wolff continues his effort to put together a deal to purchase New York Magazine from its current owners, Primedia.

The latest formulation has Wolff and adman partner Donny Deutsch, along with reclusive billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, in an unlikely consortium with real estate/media mogul Mort Zuckerman, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, mogul mogul Nelson Peltz and Cablevision CEO James Dolan. Deutsch has been overheard jocularly wondering if "we've just joined Murder Incorporated?"

Rory O'Connor is the president and CEO of Globalvision, Inc.
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