A Very Close Reading

Representatives of former HBO head Chris Albrecht have been diligently monitoring coverage of Felix Gillette and John Koblin’s recent book about the rise and fall of the cable channel, leading to corrections and additions to a New York Times book review, a Bloomberg news article, and Dax Shepard’s podcast

It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO by Bloomberg enterprise editor and Businessweek feature writer Felix Gillette and New York Times media reporter John Koblin, is the kind of catnip business book for those at the nexus of the entertainment, media, and finance worlds. After its sale in 2020 to Viking Books and before it was published on November 1, the tome has also attracted a fair amount of attention from lawyers and publicists for former HBO chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht. Last month, The Hollywood Reporter noted that an early draft it had reviewed revealed “new details” about Albrecht’s 2007 exit from HBO and reported that Legendary Television, which Albrecht joined as president in 2019, had placed him on administrative leave. In his statement about the move, Albrecht took issue with the book: “After more than 30 years, an old, flawed story is now being refurbished and recycled for the sake of sales.”

Last month, Puck’s Matthew Belloni reported that Albrecht’s camp had sent legal letters to Viking as early as February (even before they obtained a pre-publication copy of the book in September) disputing Gillette and Koblin’s characterizations of two incidents in Albrecht’s past: one in 1991 where Albrecht allegedly shoved and choked Sasha Emerson, an executive who worked under him, in her office, which resulted in Time Warner, which owned HBO at the time, paying a $400,000 settlement to her, and another in 2007 where Albrecht was arrested on assault charges in Las Vegas after, according to a police report, allegedly grabbing his girlfriend by the throat and dragging her in a parking lot. Albrecht resigned from HBO days later “at the request of Time Warner,” as he said in a statement at the time.

Prior to publication, the only change the legal letters resulted in, Belloni reported, was Gillette and Koblin putting a denial from Albrecht in a footnote rather than an endnote. But Albrecht’s representatives’ dogged post-publication campaign of responding to coverage of the book has resulted in more substantial revisions to a news article, book review, and podcast centered on It’s Not TV. A source close to Albrecht said that his publicist David Shane’s firm aggressively monitors coverage of their clients, including actress Amber Heard, boxer George Foreman, and snowboarder Shaun White, to ensure the accuracy of the portrayals. In this instance, that monitoring seems to include reading coverage of Gillette and Koblin’s book and listening to podcast appearances more closely than the average media obsessive.

One of their more high-profile efforts came after The New York Times published a review of the book by Sam Adler-Bell on November 2. The next day, a somewhat oblique correction appeared: “An earlier version of this review referred incorrectly to a 1991 encounter between Chris Albrecht and Sasha Emerson, a colleague at HBO. Emerson alleged that Albrecht choked her, but no police report was filed in connection with the incident, and Albrecht was not charged with a crime.” It was an odd two sentences: The first did not spell out what had been incorrect in the original version; the second added information that did not appear to contradict the review, which included the line when recounting the incident, “The police were never involved.” A few days later, on November 6, at a party celebrating It’s Not TV’s release at Bloomberg’s midtown offices, New York Times books editor Gilbert Cruz, who took over the job from Pamela Paul earlier this year, was cautious. When The Fine Print asked if a letter from Albrecht’s lawyer had triggered the correction, he said, “I’m sure if that happened, I couldn’t comment.” A spokesperson for The Times similarly had nothing to add beyond the text of the correction. Adler-Bell was consulted on the correction and did not dispute it. Nevertheless, when reached by The Fine Print, all he said was, “I stand by my review.”

Comparing the Internet Archive’s first capture of the review to the current version shows that only a handful of words were changed when the correction was made, all of which were in two grafs concerning the 1991 events: “Albrecht’s attack” was changed to “the incident”; “her assault” was changed to “the assault allegations”; a reference to Michael Fuchs, then HBO’s chief financial officer, was changed from “his C.F.O.” to “Albrecht’s C.F.O.” (likely a change for clarity after removing Albrecht’s name in the previous sentence); and adding the word “allegation” to the phrase “The assault allegation and payout.”

These changes closely track with those sought in a letter sent by Robert E. Allen, an attorney for Albrecht who works at the firm Glaser Weil, to Times deputy general counsel David McCraw on the day the review was published. Allen headed his letter, “RE: The New York Times’ Defamation Of Chris Albrecht.” Allen claimed that while Adler-Bell included the denial cited in the book, he “continues presenting the allegations in the Book as if they were facts.”

Allen pointed to three lines in the review as the basis of his objection. The first: “And she would suffer the bulk of the consequences for Albrecht’s attack.” (Formatting is Allen’s.) Allen claimed, “Adler-Bell knewthat this was not true,” before laying out how “at best, Adler knew there was an alleged attack, not an actual one.” The second line Allen took issue with read, “The assault and payout were successfully kept secretuntil 2007.” The lawyer pointed out, again, “there was an alleged attack, not an actual one,” and, pointing to another line in the review, “Non-disclosure agreements appear to have been signed,” added that neither the book nor the review definitively stated that there was an NDA, so “there may have been a non-disclosure agreement that may have required secrecy, not that these events definitely occurred as Adler-Bell has described in the Article.” The corrected review did not change the wording of “were successfully kept secret,” meaning The Times didn’t budge on the latter note. The lawyer didn’t take issue in his letter with the rest of the sentence, which read, in both the original and current version: “when Albrecht, by then HBO’s chief executive, strangled another woman.” The final matter Allen raised was the penultimate line in Adler-Bell’s review that the talent who made HBO shows “could’ve done so just as well without a serial batterer writing their checks.” “This statement is truly outrageous and goes well beyond a book review,” Allen wrote. “Indeed, the Book never describes Albrecht as a ‘serial batterer.’ At best, there was one altercation involving Mr. Albrecht in 2007, which does not make Mr. Albrecht a serial anything (nor would the ‘serial’ label apply to two alleged altercations over 18 years).” That phrase also remains in the review.

There have been at least two other instances where Albrecht’s team have successfully lobbied for corrections or updates. One came in early October, according to the source close to Albrecht, when Shane’s firm reached out to Bloomberg in response to a short article about Legendary placing Albrecht on leave amid the renewed interest in the allegations driven by the book. Bloomberg updated the story to include a line about Albrecht denying the allegations; a spokesperson for Bloomberg declined to comment on how that update came about.

Another came later last month. On October 27, the Armchair Expert podcast, hosted by Dax Shepard and Monica Padman, released a more than two-hour-long episode featuring an interview with Gillette and Koblin. A letter to the show’s producer Rob Holysz, sent later that same day by Michael J. Kump, who identified himself as “litigation counsel for Chris Albrecht” and is the same attorney Puck reported wrote to Viking about the pre-publication changes, claimed that “while the authors did have many complimentary things to say about Mr. Albrecht and his successful tenure at HBO during your podcast, they also continue to traffic in false and defamatory statements about Mr. Albrecht.” On the alleged 1991 incident, Kump emphasized that “the book solely relies upon one purported unnamed ‘source who spoke about the incident with [the person involved].’” (All formatting is Kump’s.) The lawyer cited previous successes in the campaign before saying what he wanted. “Viking Press has agreed to place a footnote after this portion of the book stating that Mr. Albrecht denies the event as described took place, and we ask you edit the podcast to note Mr. Albrecht’s denial about the alleged 1991 incident,” he wrote.

The podcast producers soon after spliced in a clip of Shepard into the episode: “I’m breaking in to update this episode and say we received a kind letter from the legal counsel for Mr. Albrecht and we want to make it very clear to everybody that Mr. Albrecht denies unequivocally about this characterization of what allegedly happened in 1991.” Holysz did not respond to The Fine Print’s request for comment.

At the book party, Gillette declined to comment on Albrecht’s legal team’s work. Asked whether it felt weird to be shadowed by Albrecht’s lawyers, Koblin laughed and said, “So, you work for them, don’t you?” He said he’d been unaware of the Armchair Expert update. “I don’t listen to podcasts,” he said. And there’s nothing to indicate that Albrecht’s team has actually shadowed Gillette and Koblin in person. Before the authors spoke at McNally Jackson in Williamsburg on November 3, their interlocutor, New York magazine’s Choire Sicha, promoted the event in his very occasional newsletter. The book, he wrote, “has already gotten legendary TV exec and serial woman-choker Chris Albrecht suspended from his job. This is exactly what we love to see.” Albrecht’s representatives didn’t reach out to him about that, but Sicha said Albrecht didn’t end up coming up in their conversation in front of the sold-out crowd. At the party, speaking in something more akin to legalese, Sicha noted, “the authors did not speak on the matter.”