Time Warner CEO Defends CNN Over Liberal Bias Charge at Shareholders Meeting

Jeff Bewkes

Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes saw his 2012 pay remain pretty steady at $25.9 million. The company's stock rose around 30 percent last year, but his compensation was virtually unchanged. His stock awards amounted to $6.9 million, up from $6.1 million in 2011, but option awards declined from $3.96 million to $2.96 million.

Executives also responded to shareholder complaints about women being underrepresented in Warner Bros. movies.

Shareholders at Time Warner's annual meeting on Friday re-elected the company's board members and rejected a proposal to split the CEO and chairman roles, as expected. Judging by the level of audience participation, though, attendees seemed most energized by a discussion of female superheroes and an accusation of liberal bias at CNN.

Chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes showed several video clips to the audience, and none was better received than Gotham, the Warner Bros. TV show set to air next fall on Fox. Gotham focuses on the origins of the Batman characters and the trailer, embedded below, shows an adult James Gordon (the future Commissioner Gordon) meeting a child named Bruce Wayne for the first time.

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The video earned applause and even audible gasps of approval, but later a shareholder griped about the lack of female representation in terms of creative control and the content produced by Warner's DC Entertainment unit, which is, ironically, run by a woman.

After noting that most of Time Warner's board members are "white males," the shareholder said it was "embarrassing" how Warner Bros., in particular DC, portrays women in the stories it tells. He added he's also not impressed with the way Disney's Marvel Entertainment ignores women.

"I would challenge you that there are simply not enough in-creative-control women at Warner Bros. that can develop these characters in ways that appeal to the audience."

Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara spoke in general terms about the opportunity to exploit DC's superheroes in TV, film and video games. Then DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson addressed the shareholder's complaint.

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"At DC Entertainment, we talk frequently about how we heighten the presence of female storytellers and creators with our comic books — digital and physical. How do we bring the female characters to light more?" she noted.

More female characters are coming in both TV and film "built with the potential to be spun off," she said. "It's something we're very conscious of. We have more work to do. But I think if we talk again in a couple of years, you'll be pleased with the results."

Her remarks earned applause, as did a question from another shareholder who charged CNN with liberal bias and gave several examples, including CNN president Jeff Zucker insinuating that Benghazi isn't newsworthy and saying that he'd like to see more coverage of global warming even though CNN's audience might not.

"If a terrorist attack that kills four Americans, followed by a coordinated cover-up by the White House, does not constitute 'news,' then CNN should remove the middle 'N' from its name," said the shareholder. "CNN is going to try to force its viewers to eat their peas on climate change while continuing to ignore the Benghazi scandal."

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He accused CNN's Chicagoland producers of coordinating with Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to ensure a positive portrayal and chastised Zucker for promoting David Chalian to political director even though he once said Republicans are "happy to have a party with black people drowning."

"If 40 percent of Americans identify as conservative, 40 percent is independent and 20 percent is liberal, why cater to the 20 percent and ignore the 80?" the shareholder asked after a burst of applause from roughly half the audience.

"We are trying to — and you're judging it a failure — we are trying to be independent and objective in our news reporting," Bewkes said. "We aren't making our news judgments and our news selection … based on serving a given part of the political spectrum, religious spectrum or anything else."

The same shareholder, Justin Danhof, a representative of the Free Enterprise Project of the National Center for Public Policy Research, challenged Bewkes on CNN bias a year ago at the shareholders' meeting, and Bewkes didn't seem to mind Danhof's repeat performance.

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"I hear your views. I understand them. I'm not admitting what you ask — that we have any deliberate agreement or belief that we're following one or another political point of view," Bewkes said, adding that he thought the question was "very constructive" and then even encouraging Danhof to keep monitoring CNN.

Bewkes started the meeting by noting that all segments of the company reported record profits in 2012 and that from 2008 to 2013 Time Warner returned nearly $21 billion to shareholders. Plus, in the past five years, the stock has risen 282 percent compared with a 128 percent gain for the S&P 500.

HBO, Bewkes said, is "really hot" with four of the five most popular shows in its history on the channel now, pointing out that the popularity of Game of Thrones has surpassed that of The Sopranos.

Email: Paul.Bond@THR.com