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by Michael Wolff
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The handful of companies that control the consciousness of our time are trembling and heaving, about to fall victim to internal weakness and external obsolescence.
If by the spring of 2002, this seemed obvious to many logically minded people, what logic did not account for were the moves and countermoves, as well as the pure denial, that delayed the inevitable end. Logic was up against the kind of powerful men, progressive business theories, public relations resources, and mountains of financial analysis -- not to mention lots of charm and brutishness -- that make most reporters and columnists end up believing that the moguls and their henchmen who run these businesses really do know what they're doing and that the next big deal is the big deal that will bring about a perfectly realized, synergistic business condition.
Now, it is not just spin and spreadsheets that obfuscate the real predicament of these colossuses, but the media culture itself. The media, like all social and political systems, works on its own behalf. The social reality -- to be a player in the media is to be among the most powerful people of the age -- belies a contrary business reality, that the business barely supports itself.
We are in a novel of manners -- the pretense is the thing.
Therefore, to tell the story of the media, you have to tell the story of the rituals and conceits and behavioral norms and notions of propriety that hold it up.
Instead of a purposeful business story, it should be something more like a drawing room comedy -- not a story about corporate success and failure as much as one about individual need and weakness and, of course, opportunism.
How to reduce such vast companies and so many divergent players to a small stage? How to bring such outsized men with their praetorian retinues into the same room?
The task was to find these people in their element, to move among them seamlessly. To be of them -- but not employed by them (or, even worse, sucked up to by them -- because their charm is not ordinary charm).
How to find the functional equivalent of a weekend at an English country house with a representative set of mogul kingpins as the guests?
Indeed, if business is the center of the modern world, which most certainly it is, then we have to find the dramatic context in which to reveal its true character.
Let us wait for such an opportunity.
In the spring of 2002 -- in the year of the autumn in question -- I received an official, even ceremonious, invitation to have lunch with two journalists I knew from the Internet years (already sounding like some druggy past, or a best-forgotten unpopular war). They had a proposal to discuss. We want to bounce something off of you, one of them said in an email.
And so we met at Michael's. To have lunch at Michael's seemed specifically part of their point here.
You step into the door on West 55th Street, in a building once owned by the Rockefellers, and get a greeting from Michael himself (when he's in from the Coast -- Michael's has a sister restaurant in Santa Monica), in brilliantined hair (recently he's been sporting a new floppy cut), or from one of the oddly nurturing ("You look great today") front-desk people. Then, from the top of the few steps leading down to the spacious dining room with good art and many flowers, you see everybody else in the media business who wants to be seen.
I have a table. It's table No. 5, which is a very good table very near the front of the room. Its sight lines go directly to the entryway, and its back is secured by the east wall (in view of table No. 1 in the bay with Caroline Kennedy playing with her hair or Mick Jagger drumming his fingers or Bill Clinton monologizing his luncheon companions). Among the things I have never expected or wanted to achieve is a table of my own (like Winchell at the Stork Club). Still, this takes nothing away from the satisfaction of having gained a contested piece of turf. (There is a menacing back room at Michael's where faceless people are led every day, never to emerge.)
Before Michael's was Michael's, it was the Italian Pavilion, which in a former heyday of media life had a serious following among advertising and network types. My father was in the agency business and once took me to lunch here and pointed out Bill Paley, the chairman of CBS and the most powerful and elegant man then alive.
I think this is part of the Michael's attraction: It recalls the other, more salubrious, three-martini era (occasionally, someone will even have a martini at Michael's), when media was the easiest game in town, when the world was made up of a passive audience and eager advertisers, when the money flowed like gin -- as opposed to now, with media being a tortured, hardscrabble affair. A bleak, unpromising, Darwinian struggle.
I sometimes think this is part of the running joke. When you're making a lunch date and say to someone, "Michael's?" -- they're in on it. The joke is that all these media bigs show up for lunch and pretend everything is just fine and still supporting these incredibly expensive meals, while waiting for the person at the next table to break down in tears (at any given moment, everyone knows who will likely be crying next).
In other establishments like this -- the Four Seasons, for instance -- there's a certain sort of pretense. People in a gated community pretend that they live the lives of people outside the gated community, or pretend the gated area is normal life ...