The Manic Gamesmanship of Steve Ross  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   May 1994

The Manic Gamesmanship of Steve Ross   

Master of the Game: Steve Ross and the Creation of Time Warner
By Connie Bruck
Simon & Schuster

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     



Master of the Game: Steve Ross and the Creation of Time Warner
By Connie Bruck
Simon & Schuster
400 pages; $25

Like many biographies of the super-successful, this is the story of a man obsessed. In the case of Steve Ross, the obsession was deal-making, and the main deals — more or less coincidentally, as it turns out — were in the mass media.

Ross, who died in 1992 of prostate cancer, was a reverse Jonah, a regular guy who swallowed nearly everything bigger that he came across, from small businesses to conglomerates to the egos of celebrities drawn like iron filings to his hyper-magnetic personality.

Former Time Chairman Richard Munro once endured a marathon cross-country flight in which Ross talked deals nonstop for six hours, draining his companion, and then, on arrival in Beverly Hills, turned to the punch-drunk Munro and exclaimed, "Let's just order some Chinese food and keep going."

That manic gamesmanship helped Ross, a Brooklyn builder's son, spin a job at his in-laws' funeral home into a parking lot-car rental enterprise that in 1969 pulled off an unlikely underdog takeover of Warner Brothers-Seven Arts. Catapulted into the big time and captivated by its glitz, Ross traded on his "charming, beguiling, eager, deferential" personality to shoot to the top of Hollywood.

Early on he recognized the potential of cable and computer software and harnessed them into a global distribution network that never stopped growing. Eventually he masterminded a mega-media deal for the ages, a $14-billion merger with Time Inc. that created the world's largest entertainment company (and earned Ross $78 million in 1990 alone).

It was a crowning triumph for a man with a junior college education. Though the merged company was named Time Warner, that seemed largely a bow to alphabetical order. Mainly, Time was Warner's. Ross and his cohorts dominated Time's suave Ivy League braintrust.

Bruck, a staff writer for the New Yorker and a seasoned investigator, tells the Ross story in dry but balanced chronological detail. Much of the ground has been covered (for example, in Richard Clurman's 1992 book "To the End of Time"), but Bruck seems to have painstakingly gathered her evidence and woven a perceptive portrait of a complex man.

What set Ross apart was that his killer deal-making skills were leavened by a softer side, a natural affinity for people that won fierce loyalty and affection.

ýis trademark was disarmingly simple: He loved to make people happy. "Steve was very much what I wish my father was," Steven Spielberg said. To his friends, he gave lavishly. Barbra Streisand, who sang at Ross' funeral, received numerous art treasures from him. Once, she recalled, she lost a prized piece by bidding too low at an auction; months later at a dinner party at Ross' home, she found the sculpture waiting for her. Somehow, he had tracked it down.

To executives who worked for him, Ross offered the rare gift of latitude. "It's your company," he would say. His paternal style, combined with generous pay and benefits, engendered loyalty and longevity.

At the same time, Ross never hesitated to indulge his own appetites for the grand life, often at company expense: corporate limousines, jets and helicopters; a Mexican resort villa; imperial jaunts to Europe's finest hotels and restaurants; and five-figure gambling flings in Las Vegas.

Through it all, Bruck believes, a dark side haunted Ross' rise. Questions persisted about the possible use of cash slush funds "to finance his munificent lifestyle." He tended to "wax eloquent about things that did not exist," including a self-perpetuated myth that he had played football for the Cleveland Browns. Worst, perhaps, was the lingering shadow of a mob-related scandal involving Warner's connections to the troubled Westchester Premier Theatre; though Ross was never indicted, a federal prosecutor issued a startling public proclamation that "the real culprit was the chairman of the board of Warner Communications."

ýhile the Ross story in itself makes fascinating reading, it gains even more power as a metaphor for the media industry at the turn of the century. Like Ross, the media are on a wild ride of expansion and conglomeratization. The deal's the thing. The fun lies in outmaneuvering the opposition, and staying a step ahead of the sheriff. In the upstairs-downstairs world that divides media masters and workers, the journalism of it seems, all too sadly, of little concern upstairs.

You can read this entire book and find little if any notice about the content of Warner products or the journalism at Time Inc. As the title says, Ross was a master of the game. About the profession, apparently, he didn't much care.

###