Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy by James B. Stewart and
Rachel Abrams

Objectively speaking, I’m about as well versed as one could be in the intricacies of the perverse Redstone-family saga and their voting control over what’s now known as Paramount Global, the 2019 recombination of the CBS and Viacom corporations. I’ve probably written dozens of pieces about the late patriarch, Sumner Redstone; his various paramours, many of whom succeeded in fleecing him; his estrangement from his immediate family; and the raging battle to control his (much diminished) media empire.

Would it be Shari Redstone, in the end the only child with whom Sumner managed to have a modicum of a relationship? Or would she be outstripped by Les Moonves, the powerful longtime C.E.O. of CBS, who detested Shari almost as much as her father once had?

In 2015, at the prescient urging of Graydon Carter—then the editor of Vanity Fair (where I was a longtime special correspondent), now the founder and co-editor of AIR MAIL—I wrote the first piece that revealed how two opportunistic women, Sydney Holland and Manuela Herzer, had taken control of Sumner’s life and a chunk of his fortune as he drifted away into oblivion.

CBS and Viacom were worth some $10 billion in Sumner Redstone’s heyday, but now the number has dwindled to just $1.5 billion.

Soon enough, this story led to the defenestration of both Holland and Herzer from Sumner’s life, and the unlikely return of Shari to the inner sanctum of the family empire. I wrote stories about that too, and how Shari pretty much took control of CBS and Viacom with little opposition, and then imposed her will to merge them back together, even though her own father had been the one to divide them 13 years earlier.

Sumner had explicitly said he didn’t want Shari to succeed him. No matter, with Sumner all but comatose in his final years, Shari got license to do what she wanted to do by putting important legal documents under Sumner’s hand and slowly pulling the paper away, creating a signature of a downward sloping line.

I also wrote about how Moonves and his white-male allies on the CBS board of directors were hoping to thwart Shari’s plan to combine CBS and Viacom, and how they were well on their way to succeeding until Moonves got snared in multiple #MeToo scandals.

Unscripted is a chronicle of the myriad perversions that unseated Redstone, then Moonves, from the throne of CBS and Viacom.

I chronicled Moonves’s perverted sexual encounter with his diabetes doctor during their very first appointment, early one morning at the U.C.L.A. Medical Center in September 1999. That story, published in September 2018, was supposedly the final nail in Moonves’s coffin and sealed his firing from CBS, with cause. His behavior was atrocious.

So, I know more than I care to admit about this troubling and sorry saga. And yet, I can’t help but be utterly impressed by Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy, a bodice-ripping romp through even more of the gory details of the whole sordid affair, expertly reported and written by the very talented New York Times journalists James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams. (Disclosure: I know them both.)

Both have won or have been part of a reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize for other projects, and their reporting chops are very much on display on nearly every page of Unscripted. How they got their hands on piles of Moonves’s damning texts, let alone the transcripts of his supposedly confidential conversations with the two Wall Street law firms that were investigating his appalling treatment of various women, I’ll never know. In fact, that decisive five-page chapter has no sourcing footnotes at all.

The depth of the multiple perversions, as revealed by the authors, is really quite astounding. I didn’t know how relentless Sumner had been in pursuing Malia Andelin, a short-tenured flight attendant on the company’s private jet. He once sent her a jewel-encrusted handbag with a note, “I’m a panther and I’m going to pounce.” He was in his 80s; she was in her 20s. (Of Sumner’s ongoing harassment of her, the authors report that she “spent years in therapy trying to deal with the shame and embarrassment she still felt about it.”)

Then there’s the shocking, nearly unintelligible drunken text from Moonves to my late friend Gil Schwartz, who was CBS’s longtime head of corporate communications and a staunch Moonves defender until the evidence against him became overwhelming. The text arrived as the noose around Moonves’s neck was getting tighter and tighter. He wrote, “We need to lay their clowns think early on we are no hardship Barr no and will ill them handcuffs off.” It reads like a butt dial but is actually a rare window into the mad descent of one of the most respected business leaders in recent history. I had no idea.

There are no heroes in Unscripted. It’s clear that Team Shari was a major source for Stewart and Abrams, and she is treated sympathetically, with an occasional zinger thrown in for “balance.” She’ll surely be pleased.

As someone who had a front-row seat, I find that the authors do a disservice to the story by not holding Shari more accountable for the disruption she caused at the companies, and for destroying the value of both her own fortune and those of countless Paramount Global shareholders (including the usually astute Warren Buffett). What was once a family fortune of some $10 billion under Sumner’s watchful eye has dwindled to around $1.5 billion during his daughter’s reign. Some estimates put Shari’s current worth at only $500 million. This, no surprise, is not a topic that Stewart and Abrams broach.

Shari Redstone got her way by putting important legal documents under Sumner’s hand and pulling the paper away to create a signature.

Still, Unscripted is a breezy, gossipy, fast-paced read—a rocket ship from the get-go. It occasionally even takes on the tone of a morality tale, albeit one without enough context or historical perspective. It’s also cheekily divided into four “seasons” for a total of 33 episodes. In other words, it seems like someone is expecting a streamer to option the book lickety-split. But are people still anxious to read more about the Redstones, Les Moonves, and their tremendously unpleasant behavior? Well, for what it’s worth, I couldn’t put the damn book down.

William D. Cohan is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of such best-selling books as The Last Tycoons, House of Cards, and The Price of Silence. He is a founding partner of Puck. His new book, Power Failure, is out now