More Barbarians Come Knocking at Gelbart’s Gate

Fewer hands, greater power.

That troubling scenario in communications drives a new movie that Larry Gelbart, a celebrated comedy writer for years, is finishing for HBO. “Weapons of Mass Distraction” is scheduled to arrive May 18.

The distracting media weapons reside in the arsenals of fictional warring moguls played by able actors Gabriel Byrne and Ben Kingsley. Broadly speaking, these bitter enemies resemble real-life media tycoons Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner, whose own snarling feud has produced occasional comic sidebars that belie the perils implicit in centralizing media control.

Such clustering is greater now that sprawling Time Warner Inc. (which owns Time and People magazines, Warner Bros. and HBO itself, among others) has absorbed Turner Broadcasting (whose properties include CNN and Headline News). That merger yielded a curious memo to CNN staffers from CNN President Tom Johnson last Thursday, saying, among other things, that all Time Warner divisions have been given cost-cutting goals that “some analysts believe” will add $10 a share to Time Warner stock.


In other words, win one for the stockholders?

In a related sideshow, meanwhile, Turner has called Murdoch a “scumbag” and accused him of buying off politicians and using his vast global empire (which in the U.S. alone includes Fox Broadcasting, cable’s Fox News Channel, 20th Century Fox and the tabloid New York Post) to advance his conservative personal agenda the way Hitler used the press in Germany.

Murdoch, meanwhile, has accused CNN of “brown-nosing foreign dictators.” And his Post wondered in a story whether Turner was “veering dangerously toward insanity” or had “come off the medication he takes to fight his manic depression.” The Post also briefly omitted CNN from its TV listings last year, appearing to retaliate for Murdoch’s new Fox News Channel, a competitor of CNN, being blocked from appearing on the Time Warner cable system in New York. Murdoch accused Turner of issuing that veto in his new role as Time Warner vice chairman.

The HBO movie’s likeness to these petulant long-time rivals is coincidental, according to Gelbart, who traces his teleplay to talks he had in October 1994 with Robert Cooper, then-president of HBO Pictures. That preceded the shrill headlines recently generated by Murdoch vs. Turner.


“Bob wanted to do something about the tabloidization of America, all this celebrity mongering,” Gelbart said recently. He has no affection for the so-called mainstream media that increasingly swim in tabloid muck. “It takes our eye off the ball,” said Gelbart, 68. “We’re more concerned with who is sleeping with whom and who is having a baby. The real problems in America and in the world go unnoticed while the prurient side of us is appealed to.”

But “Weapons of Mass Distraction” ranges far beyond the tabloids themselves. “I went from that to the idea of the people who create the tabloidization,” said Gelbart. “Among other things, what if that process got turned back on them and they got eaten by their own machinery? And that’s what this piece turned out to be.”

Gelbart earlier exhibited his ability to divert battling corporate titans to comedy by writing the seductively witty script for Emmy winner “Barbarians at the Gate,” HBO’s novel-based 1993 movie depicting the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. Although a tome about Wall Street insiders easily could have rendered viewers comatose, this one was swinging entertainment, ingeniously managing to extend laughs even to the manufacturing of cigarettes.

The combatants of Gelbart’s latest HBO movie puff and choke on their own egos.

Gelbart, whose most acclaimed credits include TV’s “MASH,” the big screen’s “Tootsie” and Broadway’s Tony-winning “City of Angels,” is also executive producer of “Weapons of Mass Distraction.” His story finds Lionel Powers (Byrne) and Julian Messenger (Kingsley) seeking to buy the same professional football team, with each ruthlessly using his global media empire to try to destroy the other. There was surely nothing accidental about Gelbart naming them Powers and Messenger.

“These people have an agenda, and that agenda is the bottom line,” Gelbart said. “The two of them, combined, own networks, cable firms, magazines, publishing firms, movie firms and production facilities, which produce fodder for their outlets. They intimidate or buy politicians so they can get legislation favorable to them. They are dynastic, training children and grandchildren to continue the operation. They own communications.”

So what’s wrong with giving the few so much control?

First the Gelbart joke: “It kind of worked for Nazi Germany, why wouldn’t it work for us?” Then his answer: “It’s a bad thing to shape events so that they sit on the anvil of someone’s opinion, rather than being an impartial collector of news and opinion.”


Increasingly, those impartial collectors are disappearing, and big media companies merging with even bigger ones won’t bring them back.