Kara Swisher

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Lloyd Braun's Not Going to Take It Anymore: "I Am Not an Umbrella Thief" (and He's Not, Actually)

There it was again–like the gnarly ghost of Christmas past–in the Los Angeles Times this week. But this time Lloyd Braun wasn’t going to take it anymore.

The object of his ire was dropped right in the middle of a blog post on how Yahoo was “reversing its Hollywoodification” with–egads–no more reserved parking spaces for top execs at its Santa Monica offices.

The Times said the new rule “signals a stark new era of austerity that overshadows the elimination of the last vestiges of the corporate culture war spurred by the hiring of former Warner Bros. chieftain Terry Semel and ABC’s Braun.”

Knock, knock, L.A. Times! Because that war is actually still raging at Yahoo (YHOO)–although the parking spaces carry little symbolic weight anymore at the company, which has much bigger problems to solve these days.

But even more unusually, the piece also abruptly dropped in old allegations the newspaper had included in a devastating story in November of 2005 by Chris Gaither about Braun and Yahoo’s media push at the time, titled “Can Yahoo Sign on to Hollywood?”

It was noted in the post as an aside:

(Braun also converted a conference room with a patio into his personal office and requested a corporate jet for the Santa Monica office. Oh, and there was the time he reportedly took an umbrella without paying for it from the Yahoo store on a rainy day and then asked the clerk who requested payment: ‘Do you know who I am?’ He later explained that he just wanted to make sure the clerk knew he was good for it. But we digress).”

Digress is right, because it turns out, the bulk of those juicy anecdotes about him in the new blog post and the old story actually don’t check out, after extensive reporting BoomTown had done previously and this week too, talking to a range of key execs at the company at the time.

Thus, when I saw the Times post this week, I contacted Braun (pictured here) and sent him the link. He quickly responded via email:

“I am not an umbrella thief–and I promise I never will be. I never once asked for a corporate jet. I was and continue to be a big fan of Southwest Airlines. And I certainly never engaged in any kind of office construction while at Yahoo.”

Braun–who now runs his own online and traditional media production company called BermanBraun in L.A. with Gail Berman–also said he had immediately asked the Times for a correction of the blog post, as he says he did three years ago when the original story ran.

Times Business editor Sallie Hofmeister, whom I also contacted (but who was not in charge at the time of the 2005 piece), said the Times was looking into the situation and wrote in an email to me:

“The story we published in 2005 was a reflection of the sentiments within Yahoo at the time. We worked very closely with Yahoo on the story, so the company’s top management had every opportunity to challenge our reporting. After the story ran three years ago, neither Yahoo nor Lloyd requested a correction and no correction ran. What you hear from people today probably would be different than what they would have said three years ago. Lloyd is long gone and so are the tensions of entertainment’s invasion at Yahoo. People’s recollections also change. Enemies then are friends today.

“As for blog post, we strive for accuracy and when people in our stories take issue with our coverage, we take them very seriously.”

So do I.

Thus, it is long past time to set the record straight and put to bed a fable of raging Hollywood high-handedness–with too-good-to-be-true-because-they’re-not, clichéd lines like, “Do you know who I am?” and filched umbrellas.

Why bother looking into it at all these years hence? Well, for one, it is just not fair for inaccuracies about Braun to remain, complete with a never-die life on the Web and a nagging perception that he was some digital version of Ari Gold from “Entourage.”

But, more importantly, the struggles at Yahoo back then have everything to do with what is going on now. And that is a company culture at war with itself about what it is and should be.

I have, in fact, been collecting string on Braun’s alleged escapades for years, mostly from Yahoos. I was fascinated since, like a game of telephone gone awry, those who worked with Braun closely and would know, told a different story from some of those in Sunnyvale, who might not.

That did not stop many there from telling various stories about Braun, almost none of which were accurate when I actually followed up.

Because of that, I started to look very closely at Yahoo to figure out why such fallacies went unchecked about him and later, about an ever longer string of departed execs.

But let’s start with what was clearly true in that 2005 piece, which began with another parking kerfuffle and a hissy-fit email from a new Yahoo exec, recruited from Fox, threatening to tow “someone” who parked in his assigned place.

It was a classic opening, trying to show in an anecdote the clash that was going on at Yahoo at the time.

And it was an apt one. There was indeed a lot of resistance to the decision by then-CEO Terry Semel, who was pushing Yahoo as a media company.

To do it, Semel hired Braun–a highly successful Hollywood figure (think being key to initiating and developing “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” and you have a good idea of his stature)–to pull it off at a big new and splashy office complex in Santa Monica.

Thus, the lines were drawn by some at Yahoo HQ, where execs mostly work in cubicles and where a we’re-all-equal ethos prevailed among some of the techie old guard especially, at least in their skewed perceptions of themselves.

(Guess what? They do work in cubicles, but some Yahoos in Sunnyvale are more equal than others.)

Still, back in 2005, it was easy to make an ebullient, brash and sometimes abrasive entertainment exec like Braun into a tidy little caricature and mock the idea of his task.

And who was hired to make new and innovative kinds of online programming hits, much as Braun had on television so well.

There is no doubt there were tensions. The Times story began focusing on the level of distrust, which in my estimation–I also was watching Yahoo closely at the time–was mostly from the tech side and mostly without interface with those in Los Angeles.

But, as Gaither noted correctly:

Yahoo’s ability to blend the cultures, milking each for what it does best, will be key to reaching its ultimate goal: to build on its success as the most visited destination on the Web by leveraging the links between content and the technology used to create and deliver it.”

Unfortunately, the Times story then launched into a series of really broad clichés about Hollywood versus Silicon Valley, using the typical “conspicuously expensive car” in LaLaLand versus the “energy-saving” one in Geekville.

(Again, my experience is that the tech folks always seem to have Porsches too, much as many Hollywood slickies drive Prius hybrids.)

The story went on to talk about the arrival of Semel, whom Gaither reported was seen as not as Hollywood at first as was expected by some wary Yahoos. He then got to Braun, who apparently was.

That’s where the problems come in, first by making it seem as if Braun was responsible for the pricey lease for the new Santa Monica offices at the Colorado Center.

Actually, according to top execs like Dan Rosensweig–Braun’s direct boss–as well as sources close to Semel and many other execs involved, that facility’s planning was directed largely from Sunnyvale, as most such projects are.

Braun did give an interview when the lease was announced, but was in no way the driver of the building’s renovation, which was actually being done by the company Yahoo rented the space from.

Next, came an assertion that the execs in Santa Monica got “Hollywood-style perks,” pointing out that Braun had “converted a conference room with a patio into his personal office. He also reserved a parking space close to the elevators for his car.”

Well, Braun did have a reserved space, which was no real crime to my mind, and which was actually not particularly close to the elevators.

How do I know? I have walked Braun to his car in the parking garage, which is about as nonluxurious as it gets, as opposed to Yahoo HQ, which used valets.

More importantly, Braun converted no office space and was assigned a temporary office elsewhere during the renovation, according to a panoply of execs and workers at Yahoo, such as Rosensweig, Jeff Weiner, Scott Moore and sources close to Semel.

It was a good office–after all, Braun was the boss of the Media Group.

And while both offices did have patios, the large outdoor spaces were also kind of dingy, especially compared to the manicured lawns of Yahoo HQ. And the patios were accessible to many parts of the floors, as I noticed on my many visits.

(As an added note, after the renovations were complete, Braun’s official office was not by any means fancy and was very standard in its drone-like look.)

The worst part was the next line: “Yahoo’s top executives drew the line when Braun asked for a corporate jet,” which was followed by a stunning quote by Semel.

It read:

The reaction was basically, ‘No,’ said Semel, who does not ask Yahoo to foot the bill when he flies to Northern California in his own private plane. ‘A lot of the more traditional media companies are doing their best to scale back on some of the perks and put the investment into the products and the consumers.'”

But, top Yahoo execs have uniformly told me over the years and this week that such a request from Braun never happened.

What was actually occurring, again directed by Yahoo’s Sunnyvale HQ, was an analysis about whether the company should start a charter air shuttle for the many engineers in its Burbank facility, working on its then-Panama search project, and employees at its growing Santa Monica facility.

There could be up to 20 workers going back and forth north daily, and the Southwest Airline bills were getting high.

Thus, a look-see to determine if an L.A.-Sunnyvale shuttle for everyone was needed. But it was conceived as a less-than-high-end plane, essentially a puddle-jumper that left at 7 a.m. and came back at 7 p.m.

Braun thought it was a good idea to examine and told Rosensweig, who was in charge of looking at the charter idea. But Braun was not part of the consideration of it.

Ultimately, Semel nixed the idea as too costly, and Braun did not object.

Why Semel seemed to tell Gaither that is curious. But a person familiar with Semel’s thinking said he was only referring to an company shuttle for everyone and not a corporate jet just for Braun and his minions, as the story opaquely implied.

“The discussions over the charter had nothing to do with Lloyd,” said the person. “And he did not ever ask for a corporate jet ever.”

Rosensweig, Weiner and several other top execs at the highest echelons–many of whom did not get along with Braun–support this version, on the record.

“I never saw anything out of the ordinary or Lloyd playing by Hollywood standards,” said Vince Broady, who worked for Braun, after being brought to Yahoo by Rosensweig. “I mean, Lloyd is a colorful character, which makes people notice him, but the idea that he was more difficult than anyone else was overblown.”

There is no doubt why Braun would attract attention–he is very noticeable and had a long and bruising career in Hollywood, with lots of stories of his dishing it out. He’s a genuine character, indeed, but not really that unusual compared to others in the entertainment sector, except perhaps to some at Yahoo.

Thus, I have no doubt, though, that such a story went around that Braun did desire a jet of his own and that Gaither heard it told, just like this most incredible of anecdotes in the piece.

The infamous umbrella!

Here is what Gaither wrote:

Braun’s long career in Hollywood has led to some awkward moments and misunderstandings inside Yahoo–and provided gossipy fodder for critics eager to cast him as a technically illiterate egomaniac.

According to one widely recounted tale, on a rainy day Braun took an umbrella from the Yahoo merchandise store without paying for it. Then, when asked for payment, he reportedly berated the store clerk, asking, ‘Do you know who I am?’ In fact, Braun’s representatives say, it was an innocent question to ensure that the clerk knew he was good for the money.

A Yahoo spokeswoman said the umbrella ultimately ended up in a pool of umbrellas available to all employees.”

I could not, obviously, find the clerk to whom Braun allegedly said this. But I can say that there are free baskets of umbrellas for staffers all over Yahoo, and top execs like Braun can also buy them at company stores and just use their names as part of an account system.

And while I have no proof, the use of such a clearly hoary Hollywood phrase–“Do you know who I am?”–seems like it was simply made up to me by critics bent on making it a much better story than it was.

To be fair, Gaither does portray it as a “tale” that was circulating around Yahoo. But that probably should have alerted him that it was a very tall one indeed and not very reliable–a kind of digital urban legend rather than an actual event.

That’s why I would not have used it, without a much more explicit explanation that it was more an example of the tensions at Yahoo between the media and tech units than it was reality.

Perhaps worst of all was the impact of the piece, which forever cemented Braun’s reputation as a Hollywood-gone-wild exec.

Most interesting was that, according to both the Times and Yahoo sources, the company complained about the tone of the piece, but never asked for a correction.

Why? Sources familiar with Semel’s thinking said that he and PR execs thought it would cause more attention to focus on Braun, if they contested the piece, and it was better to just let it go.

It was probably a bad decision, given it was in the L.A. Times, which had a lot of credibility.

And, indeed, the high-profile Braun was later slapped silly by Valleywag, as the Times piece kept circulating within Yahoo. By the next year, Braun became one of the gossip blog’s first targets.

Valley–which knows a good character when it sees one and likes to poke and prod many, many such Silicon Valley-linked figures in mocking glee (with varying levels of accuracy)–even had a countdown to when Braun would be fired.

Because of this kind of thing, Braun said he tried to get Gaither to take another look at the stories about him, and met with Times editors to get them to make corrections.

The Times said Braun never formally asked for a correction and instead just complained about the story. To me, that is the same thing, but I am not privy to the Times’s internal corrections process, and Hofmeister declined to elaborate.

In any case, looking back, Braun told me this week the lack of support from Semel and Yahoo to fight the story was hugely disappointing and was the moment he realized he felt he would probably have to leave Yahoo.

Eventually, the feeling was mutual, as tensions escalated even further after the article appeared.

Braun–who had a particularly rocky relationship with Rosensweig, which is now patched up–was eventually pushed out in late 2006, after Yahoo moved away from its media focus to drill down in search.

That turned out to be a bad move, as Yahoo got its head handed to it by Google in search efforts. And it has since seriously been in tailspin in the wake of a series of jarring events.

Those include: the sudden departure of Semel mid-2007; the appointment of Co-Founder Jerry Yang as CEO; a painful public struggle to redefine Yahoo; a botched takeover fight with Microsoft (MSFT); a messy proxy battle with Carl Icahn; a collapsed search partnership with Google (GOOG); a decimated stock price; a scarily declining graphical advertising market; wrenching layoffs; and the stepping down of Yang and the thus-far uncompleted search for a new CEO.

You get the idea.

More importantly, with the cutting off of its more vaunted media aspirations, Yahoo closed the door on possible innovative directions that could have made it more competitive now, as it continues to struggle to define itself.

One of Yahoo’s great strengths–and it still is–has been its content properties, which are the most popular, by and large, on the Web. Instead, stinging from the article and the fallout of it, the company retreated from pushing forward aggressively in media.

Had it not, I can imagine a host of stuff it might have done.

And, ironically, Braun is now working on an online project with Microsoft, a celebrity site that will debut early next year and use a lots of the concepts he worked on at Yahoo.

In the 2005 piece, Gaither quoted Yahoo exec Jeff Weiner as saying, in a Yin-Yang concept: “We’re often asked, “Is Yahoo a media company or a tech company?”

Sadly, that question never got resolved then and still has not today.

It almost makes one nostalgic for stolen umbrellas, controversial parking places, questionable patios and wrangling over corporate jets.


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— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo