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CEO Astrology: Reading the Stars for Barry Diller, John Thain, Chuck Prince, and Steve Schwarzman

Thain, Prince, Schwarzman and Diller
Many of you know celebrity astrologer Susan Miller as the uncannily accurate predictor of your fate. You're in good company: She's got A-listers like Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom paying her to do their charts and gets fifteen million page views a month on her Website, Astrologyzone. She's asked to analyze the stars for actors, musicians, and starlets all the time — but when we got the chance to talk with her, we wanted to know what the future holds for a group of guys even nearer and dearer to our heart. Guys like embattled IAC CEO Barry Diller, Blackstone CEO Steven Schwarzman, ousted Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince, and Merrill Lynch newbie John Thain. After all, these people have much more power to wreak havoc in our lives if the stars choose not to shine on them. After the jump, read Miller's uncannily prescient analysis (it would be more precise if she knew the times of day they were born) and learn what warnings these four financial powerhouses need to heed if they want to come out of 2008 on top.

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‘Us Weekly’: Keeping ‘OK!’ Honest

MEDIA • NBC golden boy Ben Silverman sells his production company, Reveille, to Rupert Murdoch's daughter, Elizabeth. [LAT] • CNN producer Chez Pazienza is forced to pack his bags after blogging for the Huffington Post. [TVNewser/Mediabistro] • Us Weekly reports that OK! magazine "sensationalized" Grey's Anatomy star Eric Dane's battle with cancer in a cover story. (Actually, he only had some malignant cells on his lip frozen off in a doctor's office.) "This isn't the first time OK! has been wrong," they note. But is Us really crusading against yellow journalism? Or are they just annoyed they didn't get the scoop? [Us Weekly]

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‘Post’ Ruins Man’s Life Because He Has Weird Sex

MEDIA • The Post violated a man's privacy by publishing his name after he was injured in an S&M sex tryst. They also, um, called his wife and published where he lived. While activists protest, a spokesman says, "The Post will happily name every adult caught in a dog collar." One day we need to really start "happily" naming every married Post editor caught at a strip joint. [Portfolio] • Sam Zell's Tribune Co. will cut staff by two percent. Is it the same two percent that he's already cursed out? [LAT] • Times scribe Alessandra Stanley spends a column (a few days late) talking about how MSNBC's "Best Political Team on Television" is in disgrace. Sadly, it's CNN that incessantly uses the "Best Political Team" moniker, which causes Gawker to ask whether the TV critic actually "owns a TV." [Gawker]

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Have You Heard? There's a New Economic Freak-out Happening!

FINANCE • William A. Ackman of Pershing Hedge Funds got everyone freaking out about bond insurers by issuing a report yesterday afternoon predicting that MBIA and the Ambac Financial Group might just lose $24 billion on mortgage investments. “Here comes Ackman at the 11th hour upsetting the apple cart,” Douglas M. Peta, chief market strategist at J.& W. Seligman & Company, told the Times. “I don’t think anybody has really thought it all through, but we all understand the implications of real trouble in the bond insurers could be far reaching.” [NYT] Related! MBIA announced a $3.5 billion write-down this morning. [CNN] • Wharton is still the number-one place in the universe to pick up an MBA. [FT] • Following in the steps of other CEOs with giant mortgage-related losses, Merrill won't give its top brass any bonuses. But they will give them stock options "to promote the continuity of the management team as they continue to navigate through challenging market conditions in 2008." That's one way to hang on to staff. [Reuters]

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John Thain Keeps His Cool, Continues to Be Hot

Thain
Our new boyfriend, Zeppelin-loving new Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, seems to be keeping his cool remarkably well, despite his firm's announcement yesterday that it was writing down $14.6 billion and lost nearly $10 billion, which caused its stock to drop 10 percent and fueled the growing perception that the economy is, or is about to be, in the shitter. But why shouldn't he be calm? After all, "I didn't cause this problem," he told the Journal today. But he does plan to solve it: by expanding international operations, and adopting some of the hierarchical strategies of his former employer, Goldman Sachs. Thain's hired Noel Donahue to run risk management and hopes to hire former Goldman co-head of sales and trading Tom Montag (no relation to Heidi). "The problem is not a zero, but it is for the most part behind us," Thain told the Journal. Can Thain, with his Clark Kent good looks and cool-headed fixer attitude, transform into Superman, steer Merrill back on course, and save us all? We kind of think maybe. Oh, and there's good news for media Chicken Littles, too: The Journal didn't bring up the poop incident, which we take to mean that Rupert Murdoch hasn’t wrapped his soft hands around their editorial coverage just yet. Merrill's Risk Manager [WSJ] Related: Setting The Story Straight On The Merrill Bonus Rage [Dealbreaker] Related:Who Is NYSE CEO John Thain? [NYM]

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Can John Thain's Hotness Save Merrill Lynch?

Thain
Merrill Lynch lost $9.8 billion in the fourth quarter, the brokerage announced this morning. As with many of the other lenders reeling from mortgage mess, this is the firm's biggest quarterly loss since it was founded, which, in Merrill's case, was 94 years ago. In a scary bit of synchronicity, new Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain used the exact same words Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit used the other day when his firm lost nearly $10 billion. The results are "clearly unacceptable," they said. Yeah. Remember in It's a Wonderful Life when Uncle Billy lost $8,000 and the Bailey Brothers Savings and Loan nearly went under? That was unacceptable. This is way worse. But on the bright side, Thain, who replaced recently deposed Stan O'Neal, has lately brought in some liquidity by selling a commercial-finance unit and almost $13 billion worth of capital investments overseas. “We’re very confident that we have the capital base now that we need to go forward in 2008,” he said in the conference call this morning. Well, he should be confident. After all, he is hotter than his predecessor, which, according to a recent study, bodes well for his success. Live-Blogging The Merrill Earnings Conference Call [WSJ] Merrill Posts Steep 4Q Loss [AP]

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Ellen Dethrones Oprah, Finally Has a Real Reason to Dance

MEDIA • Ellen beat Oprah as the nation's favorite TV personality, dethroning the Queen of Talk who held the top spot for five years. [HR] • Will Schwalbe quit Hyperion after seven years as editor-in-chief. His decision seems to have come as something of a shock, and the publisher has no immediate successor planned. Schwalbe, co-author of Send, the recent guide to e-mail etiquette, won't divulge his own plans. [NYO] • Christopher Hitchens quits smoking! Really, we're excited and interested! [Radar]

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Steve Schwarzman Takes the Fun Out of Buybacks

FINANCE • Steve Schwarzman found yet another way to stiff his investors, using the GSO deal as an elaborate cover to buyback shares of Blackstone without the typical benefit a buyback program gives to other shareholders. No wonder the Chinese, who have lost $1 billion on Blackstone, hate him. [DealBook/NYT] • Bank of America bought Countrywide Financial, the huge mortgage company teetering at the edge of bankruptcy, for $4 billion in stock. Some observers worry the deal will take the bank down, but considering Countrywide was worth $30 billion before the mortgage meltdown, it may yet make B of A CEO Ken Lewis a king. [Deal Journal/WSJ] • Merrill Lynch will likely take a $15 billion write-down next week, far in excess of the $12 billion some already bearish analysts had predicted. John Thain is looking to rescue the bank with still more foreign investment capital, but with the Senate getting anxious, that stream dry up. [NYT, NYP]

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CNBC to Roger Ailes: ‘Nanny Nanny Boo Boo’

MEDIA • Despite Roger Ailes's declaration that Fox Business Channel would start a “revolution” against rival business channel CNBC, this war appears to have petered out after a skirmish: Only about 6,300 people a day, on average, watch the babes of FBN, compared to the 283,000 who tune in to CNBC for that dreamy hunk Charlie Gasparino. [NYT] • Let the stunts begin! David Letterman plans to shave off his beard on the air next Monday: "Can we get a guy in here Monday to shave me? Now, a good guy, because the last time we did this, I looked like—when he was done, I looked like I'd been in a knife fight." No word yet on whether Conan O'Brien, who's writers unlike Letterman's are still on strike, will lose his whiskers. Meanwhile, Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel turned down Colbert's invite to appear on his show, showing solidarity with the strikers. [NYDN, NYO] • The Writers Guild is facing its own little labor problem: The East Coast branch's internal staff claims that the contract they signed back in October was later changed without their permission. Let's see, what's that word … something writers always love. Oh, right, irony. [NYP]

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The ‘Times’ Touches Upon Checkbook Journalism — With Two Fingers, Of Course

MEDIA • "OK!, the celebrity magazine, could not possibly have purchased all the attention it enjoyed in late December after it got the scoop that Jamie Lynn Spears, the younger and until then less sensational sister of the troubled pop queen Britney Spears, was three months pregnant. Or could it?" [NYT] • Josh Stein isn't actually leaving Gawker; Emily Gould will write for Jezebel; Choire Sicha will continue contributing columns; and recently departed Wonkette editor Ken Layne returned after just a few months off the job. Can anyone escape the tentacles of Nick Denton? [HuffPo] • The Writers Guild plans to picket Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, and Conan O'Brien as the three late-night hosts return to the air. Letterman gets off easy since he struck a deal with the writers and may get a big boost since big stars (like Robin Williams, natch) won't have to cross the pickets to go on his show. [NYO, NYT]

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Merrill Lynch CEO Asks Jeff Kronthal to Bring It

Thain
Oh no he didn't! In what looks like a fuck-you to his predecessor, new Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain has announced he is hiring back Jeff Kronthal, one of six top trading executives former CEO Stan O'Neal fired back in the summer of 2006, reportedly after they resisted his directive to increase risk-taking by underwriting mortgage-backed securities. O'Neal, of course, was fired himself this past November for precisely that — his enthusiasm for the subprime poison apple left Merrill with record losses. Awesomely, Kronthal's new role at Merrill will be fixing the mess his old boss made; he's been hired, according to Merrill co-pres Gregory Fleming, to "advise on the firm's fixed-income business and risk management." The job is temporary — Kronthal has his own hedge fund launching in mid-2008 — but the gesture is still meaningful, as many have said that had Kronthal and the other sacked fixed-income veterans not left, the bank might not be in the shape it is today. According to the Journal, Kronthal received a standing ovation when he appeared on a Merrill trading floor yesterday. Basically, it's kind of like the second half of that seminal film Bring It On, after high-school cheerleading squad the Rancho Carne Toros are embarrassed by their spirit-fingers performance, and Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst) takes control back from Courtney and Whitney and leads the squad to victory with an original routine. Go Merrill! Kronthal to Return As Merrill Advisor [WSJ]

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Cravath's Good Ol' Boys Miss the Good Ol' Days

LAW • One old lawyer reminisces about his time at Cravath in the fifties and speculates on why big law used to be — used to be? — such a man's world: "Obviously, male bigotry played a major role. But I think something else was involved — an attempt to protect certain values that mattered greatly to the practitioners of that time. They wanted a workplace free of the messiness of male-female relations. They liked to say, 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, sir,' and be done with it. Women might bring distractions: flirtations, gossip, dating. No more male bonding." Aw…! [American Lawyer] • Everyone's talking about Robert Morgenthau stepping down after 33 years as Manhattan D.A. — except Robert Morgenthau. [NYT] • NYU Law School listserv smackdown! First e-mail: "I decided to compile a list of the easiest professors at NYU Law for those of us who: 1. Want an easy A, and 2. Don't care about the grade and just want a B without doing a thing." Second e-mail: "Does your mom still teach here? Because I heard that she's REALLY easy." Third e-mail: "If you came to NYU Law school thinking to take shortcuts to get easy As as opposed to taking classes that you would find challenging and helpful to your understanding of law practices, here's my nugget of advice: save the money and go to a state law school." Fourth e-mail: "We come to NYU to take made-up classes like 'Jesus & the Constitution,' 'Inter-Animal Contracts,' and 'International Law.' Coming to NYU for anything other than intellectual masturbation or an easy job is a waste of money." [Above the Law]

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For Viacom Freelancers, Neither Happiness Nor Health for Christmas

MEDIA • Viacom screws over its army of freelancers by rolling back benefit programs drastically. Merry Christmas! [MixedMedia/Portfolio] • The Washington Post is sending veteran reporter and inveterate partier Keith Richburg to town to take over the paper's New York bureau. He's well known for throwing parties with, get this, as many as 30 people! Will Manhattan will be able to handle it? [NYO] • No holiday party at Time Inc. or the New York Times. Suckas! [Radar]

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Lies and the Lying Arabs Who Tell Them

MEDIAThe New Republic pulled back on its long-embattled "Baghdad Diarist" series, admitting they could no longer stand behind the author, an army private serving in Iraq. Meanwhile, The National Review suffered its own Middle Eastern credibility scandal and struck back in a novel way: "As one of our sources put it: 'The Arab tendency to lie and exaggerate about enemies is alive and well among pro-American Lebanese Christians as much as it is with the likes of Hamas.'" Yikes. [NYT Mixed Media/Portfolio] • Big layoffs ahead at NBC News? "There are going to be firings very soon — everybody is terrified," according to a "former network insider," who claims tens of millions in cuts will happen in the next two weeks. [Jossip] • New NBC programming honcho Ben Silverman is looking to clear up a conflict of interest and cash in on his old production company, which Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter to Rupe, is buying for around $200 million. Not bad for a guy who built his career on stealing foreign shows like The Office and Ugly Betty and then repackaging them for the U.S. [NYP]

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Jon Stewart Suddenly Not Looking Like the Nice Guy

MEDIA • Is Jon Stewart really the only late-night host not currently covering the salaries of his laid-off, non-striking employees? [Mixed Media/Portfolio] • The key lines from the n+1 essay that helped convinced Choire Sicha and Emily Gould to quit: "The purpose of Gawker Media was always to improve on the print publishing business model. It was never, as the content of Gawker sometimes seemed to suggest, to produce critiques of the waste that model created. The content at Gawker, like most Condé Nast titles, is a service to the advertisers. … You could say that as Gawker Media grew, from Gawker's success, Gawker outlived the conditions for its existence." Joshua David Stein announced his own departure, due mostly to personal loyalty, on Saturday. [n+1, Media Mob/NYO] • Meanwhile, Portfolio's Jeff Bercovici proves that Condé and Gawker really are at the same level: "By the way, those who feel wronged by Gawker over the years can take some satisfaction in the uniquely terrible timing of the walkout for Denton, who is pumped full of painkillers after a recent back injury. Last week, the pain became so intense he needed an ambulance to get to the hospital. As he was being loaded into the ambulance, he says, his greatest fear was that he would be spotted by someone from Gawker, which is headquartered just down the block from his home." [Mixed Media/Portfolio]

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Stan O'Neal Disinvited to the Literal and Figurative Party

FINANCE • Stan O'Neal wasn't invited to a big Merrill Lynch reunion party thrown by Evelyn Juan, the son of a Merrill founder. Guess Stan will just have to drink himself to sleep in his board-provided office. [DealBreaker] • Goldman's unbelievable success is forcing all the other top banks to dig deep into the honey pot and pay out a record-setting $38 billion in bonuses, despite losing $74 billion in market value. Goldman, of course, accounts for almost half of the bonus pool. Let's just say it's good to be Goldman. [Deal Journal/WSJ, Bloomberg] • Steve Schwarzman spared no expense for his son's wedding and the tab ran to $150,000, including a $20,000 BBQ supper, $7,000 for drinks, and $50,000 to rent an entire hotel and keep the riffraff out. Still pales in comparison to Schwarzman's $3 million birthday bash. [NYP]

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Rove, Regan and Rather: Crazy? Or Crazy Like Foxes?

MEDIA • How did Judith Regan's high-level lawyers let her bat-shit-crazy legal complaint get through? Oh that's right, she's Judith Regan. [Legal Pad/Fortune] • CBS finally got around to filing their motion to dismiss Dan Rather's suit. The network claims they are "mystified" by Rather's "bizarre allegations," and that the lawsuit amounts to a "regrettable attempt by plaintiff Dan Rather to remain in the public eye, and to settle old scores and perceived slights, based on an array of far-fetched allegations." [NYO] • Karl Rove signed on to become a regular contributor to Newsweek. Maybe they should consider changing their slogan to "fair and balanced"? [Mixed Media/Portfolio]

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Merrill Lynch Hopes John Thain Will Be the Piper Who Leads Them to Reason

Thain
Mother Merrill's devoted sons (and daughters) may be a little bit freaked that the board has named NYSE CEO John Thain, whose background includes a dozen years at their archrival Goldman Sachs, the new CEO of Merrill Lynch. "It's shocking [they picked] someone from a Goldman Sachs background," the bank's former CEO Dan Tully told the Journal today. Tully also said Thain didn't seem to be a "folksy" "people person" consistent with the culture of Merrill. "I understand he's very cerebral," he said. Au contraire, Monsieur Tully! You must have missed New York's seminal profile of Thain back in January. “I did not grow up in an upper-crust, aristocratic background,” Thain explained. In fact, he grew up in Antioch, Illinois, where he went to public school and was on the wrestling team. It doesn't get much folksier than that! Plus, it's pretty much guaranteed that Thain's risk-management skills will bring Merrill back from the brink of disaster, so … A note to folks over at Merrill, if you'd like to bond with the boss, here's a tip: Zeppelin. Dude loves Jimmy Page — he even has one of his autographed guitars, from the day Warner Music went public. “He played the guitar section of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and timed the final chord for the bell,” Thain told New York "with uncharacteristic enthusiasm." So may we suggest a few rounds of Guitar Hero? Hey, it worked for Serena and Vanessa on Gossip Girl. Merrill Taps Thain as CEO [WSJ] Related: Who Is NYSE CEO John Thain? [NYM]

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Stephen Colbert Doesn't Make the Ballot

MEDIA • Hollywood and television writers have decided to strike and will announce a walk-out deadline by noon today. Late night will be most immediately effected — guess we'll find out just how funny Jon Stewart and David Letterman really are. [NYT] • The South Carolina Democratic executive committee rejected self-proclaimed "favorite son" Stephen Colbert's attempt to get on the ballot. Colbert now has to accumulate 10,000 signatures to make the ballot as an independent or pay the Republicans $35,000. Tough decision. [HuffPo] • Don Imus signed a deal with Citadel to return to radio, broadcasting on WABC in New York and syndicated nationally on ABC Radio. The I-Man had to settle for $5 million a year, half of what he made with CBS. [WSJ]

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