James B. Stewart, UNSCRIPTED: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy

James B. Stewart, UNSCRIPTED: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy

Zibby interviews Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart about Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy, a jaw-dropping and explosive Succession-esque account of the fight for power at Paramount Global. James describes billionaire media mogul Sumner Redstone’s questionable behavior (and fashion sense) and his fascinating, fraught relationship with his daughter and successor, Shari. Then, he shares the details of his own career (from lawyer to award-winning journalist), his hobbies, his experience working with his co-author Rachel Abrams, and his best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, James. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest book, Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy. Welcome.

James B. Stewart: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I have to tell you I have been such a fan of yours for so long. This is a podcast I’m giddy excited to be doing. I have read so many of your books. I read Den of Thieves. I read DisneyWar on my first honeymoon to my ex-husband. The entire honeymoon, I sat there and read this book. Now Unscripted and all your articles and everything. I’m a huge fan. I love the way you write and your amazing reporting and all of it.

James: Thank you.

Zibby: Why don’t you tell listeners a little about Unscripted?

James: This is quite the saga. Early in my career, I sometimes wondered, where’s the next story going to come from? At this point, I realize there’s always another story. Sometimes I think nothing’s going to surprise me. Then everything about this surprised me. This is the saga. Really, the arc of the story is, the billionaire Sumner Redstone is entering his final years. He was, at his peak, arguably the most important figure in media and entertainment with an empire that controlled the CBS network, Paramount movie studio, the Viacom cable channels, Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central. He was increasingly estranged from his family, especially his daughter Shari. The story really is, she is drawn back in to both the family business and her father’s life by a bizarre set of circumstances. She confronts one obstacle, one hurdle after another towards restoring her relationship with her father and regaining family control of this multibillion-dollar empire. A lot of people have compared this to a real-life Succession. I get that. In some ways, I think it’s stranger than Succession. Ultimately, I think it’s a family drama, and particularly about a very rich and powerful father and a daughter. That fascinated me. Especially in nonfiction, you don’t see that many depictions of that relationship. Fathers and sons, mothers/daughters, much more common. This is the dynamic that really drives the plot here.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. Did you read the new Jim Patterson book with Mike Lupica, The House of Wolves, or something like that? What’s it called? Something with wolves.

James: No, I haven’t read that, but I should read it. I will admit to you something that I have not said in any public forum. I’d just started writing this book. I was on vacation. We rented a house in the Virgin Islands. They had a bookshelf there of books people had left. There was a James Patterson novel there. I’d never read one. I thought, wait a minute, this guy has sold how many million? I couldn’t even count. I thought, you know, don’t be an elitest here. I’ll just take a look at this. I started reading this. I’m telling you, it’s you on your honeymoon or whatever. We’d be at the beach or something. I’d say, “Can we get back? Can we go home? Can we go home a little early? I’ve got to keep reading this book.” I was obsessed with it. I loved it. After that, I scouted around online. I saw that James Patterson gives these courses in writing. He charges some huge amount of money. I wasn’t going to sign up for that. Then I saw some of his former pupils had distilled a lot of what he wrote, and so I eagerly read all of that. Honestly, I did follow some of those suggestions here, including to write shorter chapters. I had always written these ten thousand-word chapters before. Suddenly, I thought, that’s an interesting idea. His chapters are three pages or four pages. I didn’t go that far, but I definitely chopped it down. It’s really interesting because you have to craft that. You’ve got to be thinking, okay, the end of a thought, an end of a scene. How do you get people going? It really sped up the momentum, I think. People have been complimenting the book and how readable it is. I’ve never said this before, but I have to give some credit to James Patterson.

Zibby: That is so funny, oh, my gosh. I love it. I love that you didn’t pay for the class and you’re getting the cliffs notes of the class.

James: I’m sorry, if James Patterson’s listening to this. I hope he doesn’t miss that income. I got it secondhand.

Zibby: His latest book is about — I just had him on the podcast for this, which is why I’m bringing it up. I don’t usually just talk about other people’s books. Featured the daughter of a very powerful man who has to then take on the company. I think you’ll find it interesting.

James: Some real similarities there. I’ll have to take a look at that.

Zibby: In fact, the two of you should really go on the road. You should do an event together. I’ll moderate. I’ll be the moderator if you want. Anyway, it is interesting, and especially this withholding of parental love or what it does to a child to not have the consistency of love. How do you handle that? How does that affect your personality and therefore, of course, your leadership style, but really, everything that you do in life?

James: Absolutely. It’s a theme that runs throughout the book. Sumner Redstone, the billionaire mogul, has many — I don’t know quite how to put this in a polite way. He’s not exactly a role model, to put it mildly. He himself said, I’m going to go to hell anyway, so I might as well do whatever I want, or something to that effect. Clearly, throughout the story, his daughter Shari is still yearning for his approval and his love. There’s an incredibly poignant scene right almost at the very end where Sumner has finally died. His daughter reaches out to his closest confidant and says, do you think he really loved me? It gets me even now. I was thinking, after all that, all that she did for him, the fights that she went through, she doesn’t have the peace of mind of even knowing that, which is probably the one thing she really wanted. I think that’s a lesson for anybody in a family. To some extent, I know we all feel that about our parents.

Zibby: It’s true. I feel like she might have benefited from maybe a little bit of a better therapist or something. After a while, you have to make peace with that if you’re going to be a successful person emotionally.

James: Her brother just abandoned the family completely. He sold out his interest. He took his $250 million, and he went to a ranch in Colorado never to be heard from again. I don’t know that that’s the answer either. That’s just running away from the thing. I don’t know what kind of peace of mind he has. I don’t know that that’s the best way to deal with it either.

Zibby: True. You describe in the book, some of the ways in which he is not the most role model of a guy.

James: To put it mildly.

Zibby: Can you tell the story here about the fire? I hadn’t known that until I read this book.

James: I think this was a very formative episode as well. It might have been. He was from the Boston area, but he was staying at the Copley Plaza hotel one night, which is a famous old hotel on Copley Square in Boston. A fire broke out on the floor. He had to escape from the room. He went out the window and tried to climb out of there. He was hanging from the window ledge. Eventually, he was hanging by only one hand because the flames were lapping out of the window. They seriously burned his hand. Somehow, he managed to hang on until the rescuers got there and he escaped. He was in the hospital for serious surgery. His hand was disfigured for the rest of his life. He seemed to take away from that episode, the sense that he was invincible, that sheer willpower had saved his life. That willpower went on to conquer the media world. He outbid one suitor after another to acquire all these properties. That survival instinct seemed to shape much of the rest of his life. He went around later in life saying, I’m never going to die. He cannot literally believe that, but he certainly said it on many occasions. I think you can trace a lot of that to that episode. One thing that was not disclosed at the time was that he had a mistress in the room with him. She got out first. To his credit, he let her go. She was relatively unscathed. It took twenty years for that to emerge. It was just the beginning. His philandering was notorious and only got worse as he got .

Zibby: You were so funny, too, because you described how he dressed and the size of his lapels or his tie or the shirt. You’re like, he’s so unlikely to be this lothario, the way that he looks and dresses.

James: I know. There’s one detail there that — he came to a meeting. I think it was a closing or something in New York with all these high-powered investment bankers.

Zibby: With Sam’s Club or something? No. What did you say? T.J. Maxx? No. You were saying there was a tag. Now I’m trying to remember if it was T.J. Maxx or where you had said it was from.

James: I think it was Filene’s Basement. I might be wrong on that detail. It was one of those things where they marked the price down week after week. The longer it sits there, the cheaper it gets. They could see that several prices had been crossed out. He dressed terribly. In fact, the cover of the book shows a portrait of him, the black shirt and the silver tie, one of his trademark looks.

Zibby: You’re not a fan?

James: He was always saying his favorite movie was The Godfather. I agree it’s an excellent movie, but I don’t know that I would want to dress like one of those characters, and with the implications involved. Then that’s just me.

Zibby: I feel like my life keeps circling around The Godfather. Did you watch that show about Bob Evans?

James: Oh, my god, Bob Evans. No, but Bob Evans was Sumner’s so-called best friend. Seems to have been a bad influence, but I sometimes wonder if it was the other way around. There’s a scene in the book where Bob Evans sits down at one of his birthday parties to one of the younger women who he was sort of dating. He was living with these two mistresses in the mansion. Bob Evans says, you’ve got to save him from these women. I was thinking, oh, my god, that’s rich coming from Bob Evans given his notorious philandering.

Zibby: You have to watch it when you have a sec. It’s the best show.

James: I’ve got to read the James Patterson book. I’ve got to watch the Bob Evans show. You’re going to keep me busy for a while.

Zibby: You do. I am. I guess I should ask, when you’re not doing what I’m telling you to do and you’re not writing books like this, what do you do? Are you working nonstop? We’ll come back to the book. In your spare time, what do you normally like to read and write and do?

James: I have a lot of interests. I don’t know where to start. I was writing this book with my coauthor during the pandemic. The weekends just blurred. I probably did work virtually every weekend during that period, but not all the time. I have a number of hobbies. I’m a very avid pianist. I play classical music. If life is sort of normal, which it’s not at the moment, I practice every day. I try to practice an hour. Of course, I don’t get to do it every day. Maybe I do five out of seven. I play a lot of chamber music. That’s one very nice hobby. I also like gardening. I have a garden, but here in the city, a small one in the backyard. Then we have house in Upstate New York where I have a garden that’s way too big, as I realize now. I’ve had to get a little help there. I really enjoy all that. I read a lot. I teach at Columbia as well. I encourage my students to read both fiction and nonfiction. This, to me, there was such rich, raw material. It really gave me an opportunity to write what I would call a nonfiction novel. It has all the elements of fiction, even though all the facts are verified and accurate, I certainly hope. There’s enough material there that you can evoke these broader themes. I mentioned the generational issues, the family drama, the corrupting influence of great wealth, or at least the opportunity to get it. All of that emerges without me having to take a baseball bat and hit the reader over the head. I do read fiction. I read nonfiction. I’m busy.

I like to cook. I like to cook too. I find that very soothing, especially after writing all day. A weird thing about the pandemic is — you think writing’s kind of a solitary enterprise anyway. You’ve got to hole up somewhere and churn this out. In normal times, the day ends, and you can go out. You can go to dinner. You can see your friends. You can let off steam. You can say, you won’t believe what I found out today. I think there’s a reason why I live in the West Village of Manhattan. There are all these bars around where famous writers used to go hang out, probably drink too much. You do sort of need that. Then with the pandemic, that was gone. I found that at the end of the day, a little cooking is very therapeutic. You have to — at least, I have to concentrate. I’m not one of those people who can cook and talk at the same time. I like to concentrate. It really, I found, was very soothing and a nice change of pace. I don’t do anything fancy, but I do like it. I like the shopping too.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I feel like my husband also used to love to cook until the pandemic when he cooked for the four kids and me the entire time. He’s like, “I never want to do this again.”

James: I don’t have to do it three meals a day. I can’t imagine what my mother was doing all those years.

Zibby: I know you started your career as a lawyer and morphed into this whole other piece of your career afterwards. Did you want to be a writer when you were a lawyer? By the way, I feel like most lawyers want to be writers. We should take a poll. The next great place to find fiction. We should poach all the law firms because I bet there are a lot of books lurking there.

James: Of course, there’s John Grisham. I was in litigation. I certainly didn’t go to law school and spend three years with a lot of work and a lot of tuition knowing that I was going to go into what would be otherwise considered a relatively low-paying alternative to practicing law. By the time I was working in a big law firm, I was giving more thought — I’ve written about this at some length. I think it was one of the most important lessons I learned in life. I was working at a big law firm in New York, Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Very competitive. I saw the people who thrived there and did the best were the people who absolutely loved what they were doing. They have such a competitive advantage. Even though I enjoyed it and I did like getting the paycheck, I realized I didn’t love it nearly as much as they did. Ultimately, I don’t think that you can compete. I thought, what would I love as much as they do? I’d been editor at my college newspaper. All the time, I was dreaming up story ideas that if I was a journalist, I’d write. I realized, it seems like a radical change, but I’m going to make the leap into journalism because I think that’s something I would really love to do. You don’t love any job every minute of every day. That’s completely unrealistic. I’ve really never looked back on that. I do love what I do, for the most part. A good part of your life is spent working. If you can enjoy that, what an advantage. I really feel very lucky that I learned that lesson working at Cravath and then went on and put it into practice. Here I am all these decades later.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I learned the same lesson. I went to business school. I thought I wanted to be in marketing. Then I went to business school and met people who loved marketing so much. I was like, oh, no, I don’t want to do it like you do. You should take those jobs, then. It’s so true. There are people who love everything. Finding passion is wonderful. What topics are you digging into these days, writing about, thinking about?

James: I did a really big piece for The Times on this AT&T management of the Warner assets. I’m not, per se, a media or entertainment person. I guess partly because I was working on this book, which was set in the world of Hollywood and media and entertainment, I developed some sources. That story is about the colossal mismanagement, if you want to call it that, of these incredibly valuable and historic media assets by phone company executives. It’s more about a cultural clash than it is any technical business thing. That was a big story that I was working on. Then that led right into the Succession drama at Disney. A lot of people, as I said, have compared Unscripted to the TV series Succession. I can sort of see why. Then there are these other Succession issues arising all over the place. That was an interesting drama that I wrote some about.

I haven’t started on another book project. I can never get my head clear. It’s going to take me a little while before I get Unscripted out of — I’m not talking about it so much and have put that sort of behind me. Of course, I’d like to do another story. I do have the germ of a few ideas. I look back on my career, and not that I planned it, but I do seem drawn to stories of people who seem to have everything, but yet it’s not enough. Then they misbehave. They do the kind of bad things that they know they shouldn’t do, and it gets into trouble. Those stories go way back. Shakespeare’s an obvious place to start. Those themes have reappeared in literature for centuries. I think it’s because at their core, they’re really about fundamental issues about human nature and how we as people process information and wealth and relationships and then act on those, drive and ambition. Because it’s a lot of people, it’s endlessly fascinating to me. I seem to be drawn to those kinds of stories.

Zibby: I wonder if over time we’ll see similar patterns emerge from more and more women in power. The generations of women who are leading all the companies is just —

James: — This is the first book — Shari Redstone, she’s the protagonist of the story. She’s drawn into this fray initially kind of against her will. She grows. She changes. She matures. She ends up, if you want to call it that, victorious at the end. This is my eleventh book. This is the first one where I’ve had a significant protagonist who’s a woman. I think that is a sign of the times. Although, there’s still a long way to go. By the way, certainly, one of the themes of this book is the, to me, astonishing misogyny and sexism that permeated the upper ranks of the boards and management in these companies. Again, I only delved into this particular company, but I have no reason to believe this is an isolated example. To see it laid out — people don’t even want to admit this, but you see it in their emails, their texts, all the documents we got. Somebody told me that after reading this book, no CEO’s ever going to write a text again. Maybe that’ll be the case, partly because there were so many lawsuits about all this. Advantage of being a lawyer, the lawsuits generate a trove of valuable information when you can get access to it. Even things that were supposed to be kept secret, a lot of people did hand over to us. We got the raw material. We could demonstrate that.

Zibby: Wow. How did you like collaborating on this book?

James: It was great. I’ve never had a coauthor. Rachel and I, I don’t think we knew each other at all. I guess I’d seen her in the newsroom. When she bumped into me one day and we realized we were working on parallel tracks on kind of the same story, which was about the oust of Les Moonves at CBS, then we went from there. She had this incredibly valuable source who we still can’t identify at this point but who provided an amazing trove of information. That was fundamental to getting the book deal and doing the book. Then I also had some sources funneling additional information. We ended up having maybe a half dozen sources we can’t name. Nevertheless, I think motivated because they didn’t want this story swept under the rug, they contributed really valuable information. We put it all together. I was very happy that in talking to someone since then, they said, “I can’t believe I gave you all this, but then you got all this other material.” It is true in reporting that every additional fact tends to lead to more. The more you know, the more you can find out. That proved to be the case here.

Zibby: My big takeaway is that people actually listen to the tip line of the newspaper.

James: Oh, yes. That’s where the source came from kind of out of the blue. Yes, those get taken very seriously, even though, honestly, ninety-nine percent of them don’t go anywhere. The one that does, boom. Also, people have said the fact that I ran into Rachel and we went down this path together is a case for in-office work because that would never happen if we were just sitting in our bedrooms or whatever tapping away.

Zibby: Very true, yes. You never know what happens around the watercooler or walking by each other. I know you’ve mentioned this. I was going to ask you what advice you have for aspiring authors, but maybe I should ask what other advice you got from James Patterson for aspiring authors.

James: I do have some advice. I teach at Columbia, which I really enjoy. One of the things I stress to my students is that it’s not what you know that’s so interesting. It’s what you don’t know. People aren’t used to thinking that way. You have to kind of train your brain over a period of time. I was an editor at The Wall Street Journal for a number of years. I was a Page One editor. We had to come up with fifteen front-page stories a week, three five days a week. That was an excellent exercise because I was constantly — of course, many of the reporters had their own ideas, but we were also sending out ideas for stories. To me, what’s interesting is what questions you have that you might be able to answer. What don’t we know? What has happened that seems inexplicable? That’s what I think turns into good stories. Too many of my — not so much my students, but people, they think — there’s an old saying for writers. Write what you know. My variation on that would be, figure out what you don’t know but want to know. Find out, and then write it. Over the years, I’ve had reporters or writers come to me and say, “I have writer’s block. I can’t write. I’ve been in a room eight hours, and I can’t. I’m throwing everything out.” I don’t really believe in writer’s block. It’s invariably that they have nothing to say because they have not gone out and gotten the information yet. Almost always, I would say, “You’re not ready to write. Go do more reporting.” What don’t you know? What are the questions? How can you find out? Go out and do that work. Then you’ll be able to write it.

An interesting thing that happened in this book, which made a great impression on me — I’m always telling my students, don’t have any preconceived ideas about what a story is. You might think you know what it is, which is fine, but be open to facts that take you in another direction. I’m writing this. We kind of thought, oh, it’s the Me Too movement. It’s the corporate boardroom. Then we got in touch with this guy, George Pilgrim, who was the boyfriend of one’s Sumner’s mistresses. I figured, at most, he’d be a minor character in all of this. Rachel went out to interview him. He’s an unbelievably interesting character. He was telling us everything. He saved emails and texts. He turned everything over. He was a fantastic source, even though he was also an ex-convict. I was thinking to myself, this is incredible, but he’s taking over the story. I was kind of annoyed. I was like, this is not the book that we set out to write. What’s going on here? One morning, I woke up, and I had this flash of insight. I said, let him take over the story. He is the story. He is a key part of the story. We threw everything out and started all over again. He’s in the opening scene. It was incredible how the whole story just fell into place.

Zibby: Wow. All thanks to George Pilgrim, his Facebook posts and all of that. We have to be careful now about our texts and Facebook posts and everything else that comes out of our fingertips. You never know what’s going to happen. James, thank you so much. It’s been really fun talking to you. I love this idea of you cooking and gardening and playing the piano. It’s so relaxing. I feel relaxed just even talking to you about it. It sounds so nice.

James: I have to go practice the piano right now.

Zibby: You should. You go for that. Thank you so much for your time. Congratulations on Unscripted.

James: Thanks. This was really fun. I really enjoyed it. Bye.

Zibby: Good. Me too. Take care.

James B. Stewart, UNSCRIPTED

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

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