Did Sumner Redstone Really Just Try to Bribe a Journalist?

Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom
Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom

Someone needs to save Sumner Redstone from himself.

It was bad enough that the 87-year-old Viacom (VIA) chairman somehow became smitten enough with girl group called the Electric Barbarellas that he ordered MTV to pick up a show about them. But the truly embarrassing part was what came after that.

Angry about a report in the Daily Beast that he had pushed the show ahead despite objections from MTV development executives, Redstone called up the reporter, Peter Lauria, and tried to coax and cajole him into revealing his anonymous sources. "We have to have the name of the person who gave you that story," Redstone told Lauria in a voicemail, which the latter then posted online. "You will be well rewarded and well protected."

Redstone also insisted the source himself would come to no harm: "We're not going to kill him. . . . We're not going to fire him. We just want to talk to him."

Acting on His Own

If Redstone was hoping to undo the perception that his personal patronage rather than talent was responsible for the Electric Barbarellas' shot at MTV stardom, then his call to Lauria was exactly the wrong move. (And just how personal this is was made clear by the Viacom spokesman who told All Things D that Redstone was acting on his own, not as part of a wider investigation.)

But it's worse than that. Redstone doesn't just head a media and entertainment conglomerate. He also, as chairman of CBS, is in charge of a news organization, one that for many years was considered the premier TV news operation. It's one thing if the guy in charge of Jersey Shore and SpongeBob SquarePants doesn't get why bribing journalists to void their promises of anonymity is wrong. It's another thing entirely if the guy in charge of 60 Minutes doesn't get it.

In his ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit against CBS, Dan Rather suggested that he was forced out of his job as the network's anchor as a result of Redstone's desire to curry favor with the Bush administration. Rather didn't present much in the way of concrete evidence to back his claim, but episodes like this one make it easier to picture Redstone using his considerable power to trample journalists and their sources.