Sumner vs The Beast

You guys seen the online brouhaha over The Billionaire versus The Beast?

Electric Barbarellas
Electric Barbarellas

Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom and CBS , is miffed by a story quoting anonymous sources depicting him as a lecherous casting-couch exec bent on forcing Viacom’s MTV to air “The Electric Barbarellas,” a reality show about a babefest band.

So Redstone calls the reporter—Peter Lauria, a New York Post scribe who recently defected to the Daily Beast—and leaves a juicy voice message offering to “take care” of him if he will reveal his source and promising he “won’t kill” the guy.

Then Lauria and the Beast post the message online for the entire world to hear.

Juicy stuff, no doubt a high-traffic hit parade online. It offers a sobering warning for all of us in the all-too-Digital Age, where a voicemail can be turned into a digital packet that can be forwarded to millions.

Or just to a single saucy Web site.

But what does it really mean for two giant, ostensibly publicly held media companies, and for the practice of journalism?

Did the Beast overstep some invisible line here?

Herewith, some insta-topspin:

—Peter Lauria now ranks as one of the bravest (and one of the rudest) media reporters anywhere. He may never again be able to have lunch at Michael’s, the midtown Manhattan media mecca. And no one will leave him a long voice mail.

—Sumner Redstone continues in his venerable role as one of the most eccentric, erratic and impulsive billionaires on record. I don’t believe this latest kerfuffle is a sign that he is senile or mentally incompetent. He’s always done boneheaded things like this—when you’re a billionaire, usually you get away with it.

—Online journalism may have hit a new low in lack of civility. A chairman calls a journo’s private phone line, leaves a private voice mail and presumes it’s all confidential. And all because he didn’t explicitly say, “This is off the record,” suddenly it’s “gotcha!” and we can turn private communication into public presentation? Without permission—hell, without even asking?

This latest flap won’t contribute to better in-depth coverage of Viacom and CBS. It isn’t likely to affect the underlying value of the companies. It’s a great one-off, a one-hit wonder, but was it worth it, guys? Maybe a little buzz is the only thing that counts these days.

Questions? Comments?