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Media madness

In his Media Life column (in New York magazine) this week, Michael Wolff cheerily expounds on his own virtues: He's smarter than any other journalist, and less insane than any corporate chief. It's a tragedy he's just a columnist — he should be installed as the head of the Wall Street Journal, or at least AOL Time Warner, you can't help but think.

Wolff's thesis (which he goes into when he's not talking about himself) is that the way the big media conglomerates have been shedding executives lately (with Vivendi, Bertelsmann and AOL/TW all ousting their top dogs) indicates that the End (of them) is Near. And not only does he think they're doomed, he can't believe no one else sees it:

What we have learned over the past many months is that all of these companies (that is, all of these companies that have seen themselves as part of some new, freer, liberating economic condition) are emotional creations — they are psychological as much as management case studies. And to understand them, to be able to analyze them, you have to have some appreciation of the unique dysfunction of their top managers — the nuances of their hyperacquisitiveness and unsettling mood elevations. But even now, business reporters can't break the habit of assuming that even the most imperial CEO is a tempered and rational being. And if he isn't, he's a crook — an anomaly, a terrible and unfortunate exception.

Much of what Wolff says is true. No one knows how to actually run such huge, diverse companies as today's media giants. Faith in their executives is exactly that; it's like when Andrew Wiles said he'd proved Fermat's Last Theorem, before anyone else had learned the necessary mathematics to see if he in fact had — except that in Wiles' case, of course, there was actually a way to find out.

But even if you accept that these corporations are nothing but a facade of a business plan, built on human desires and not any actual understanding of an actual market — even if you accept that, Wolff's critique of business reporters seems almost perverse, coming from such a vaunted media analyst.

For one thing, the rise in power, and abuse thereof, of the corporate CEO surely has been discussed and documented, from where I sit. I mean, it's not news, is it? For another, while business reporters (and reporters in general) typically lack for candor, there's a reason you won't see many news or even analysis pieces announcing they can't explain something: It's not interesting or informative. Instead, they try and tell their readers what they can explain — and chalking things up to sheer corporate lunacy isn't part of that effort. Sometimes, focusing only on the purported reasons for a thing and failing to observe that, in fact, it's hard to figure does readers a disservice, but any savvy reader — especially one like Wolff — should realize that almost nothing you read gives you the whole picture.

None of this is all that interesting, really, but what really has me grinning back at Mr. Wolff is how he so nicely falls in with his fellows. I mean, if Wolff is right to fault the faceless cadres of business reporters for foisting sound reason on their subjects, what are we to say for him, and his? His diagnosis of big media — "what has happened at these companies is merely a reverse psychosis — the flip side of the same condition. We have just moved from the manic phase into clinical depression" — even more aptly applies to the reporters themselves, after all; you could even argue that they've been ahead of the curve. And yet, somehow, Wolff doesn't say anything about it. How could he possibly leave something like that out?

August 23, 2002 10:34 AM

Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer


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