Journalism Leadership and the Peter Principle

March 9, 2010

Much has been written about the changing role and significance of mainstream media and the myriad factors that continue to erode its once-vaunted credibility.   Chief among them is, of course, that the field is rife with unethical individuals who fabricate and plagiarize, a trend I wrote about last May when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was caught using prose previously published by a blogger (my take here).  Since then, at least two other high-profile cases of journalism plagiarism have emerged, as outlined in this column by New York Times columnist Clark Hoyt.

Another major factor for mainstream journalism’s decline is the profession is plagued with failed leaders who, despite their less-than-stellar track records, continue to hold their senior positions.  Mainstream journalism is in desperate need of radical visionaries, yet the industry continues to be led by people who are part of the problem rather than a source for the solution.  Is there any other business where failure and myopia is so frequently and handsomely rewarded?  If ever there was a single industry that illustrates the concept behind The Peter Principle, today’s mainstream media is it. 

Marcus Brauchli, the former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, is a prime example.  Under the leadership of Brauchli and other senior editorial leaders, the Journal went into a near-irreversible economic spiral.  A very senior Dow Jones executive confessed to me that the company quite possibly would have gone bankrupt had Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. not come to the rescue.  As part of the deal, Brauchli retained a degree of “veto” power over anything Murdoch might want to do with the paper, ostensibly to protect the Journal’s editorial integrity and standards.  Once the deal closed, however, Brauchli reportedly received a whopping $6.4 million to go away instead.  In this market, Brauchli’s payout is sufficient to finance the hiring of at least 10 reasonably experienced reporters.

Brauchli has since been named Executive Editor of The Washington Post, another newspaper that has suffered a significant erosion of prestige, talent, and national influence.  The paper is badly in need of an innovative editorial leader to regain the previous glory it once had under the editorial leadership of Benjamin Bradlee in the late sixties through early nineties.  Brauchli is no Bradlee; if he is doing anything of note to save that newspaper, it isn’t readily apparent.  Indeed, the newspaper’s one known attempt at, ahem, “innovation” — soliciting lobbyists to pay a hefty fee for exclusive meetings with editors and reporters — was the biggest journalism ethics debacle in recent memory.  Brauchli claims he wasn’t told of the pay-for-access program, a possible indication of how he’s regarded by the business side of the newspaper.  

Stephen J. Adler, who also held senior editorial positions at the Journal before being named editor of BusinessWeek in 2005, is another example of how journalism rewards failure. BusinessWeek, a once grossly underrated magazine that long eschewed gourmet sizzle for solid meat-and-potatoes reporting and analysis, badly stumbled under Adler’s four-year leadership.  Under his tenure, the weekly magazine essentially became the Reader’s Digest of American finance, replete with oversized typeface, condensed stories, and bulky photos and graphics that badly reduced the magazine’s news hole. The magazine was on the brink of failure when Bloomberg picked it up for next-to-nothing last fall.  Adler resigned shortly after the deal was announced, subsequently moving on to Thomson Reuters where he was named senior vice president and editorial director of its Professional division.  Since the sale, BusinessWeek is fast returning to its previously high editorial standards, which is to Bloomberg’s great credit.

The disturbing state of journalism leadership was, ironically, further demonstrated recently at a meeting held by a trade group called the Committee of Concerned Journalists who are “worried about the future of the profession” (I guess non-members belong to the Association of Reporters Who Don’t Give a Damn). As reported by Fox Business News Senior Correspondent Charles Gasparino (Full disclosure: Gasparino is a longtime friend of mine), the high-minded committee last week held a seminar to breast-beat themselves for their failure to warn the public that the U.S financial system was on the brink of collapse.   

Hank Paulson, the former Treasury Secretary and CEO of Goldman Sachs in the period leading up to the economic collapse, gave the keynote address.  If anyone there could have shed valuable light on the subject, clearly he was the one.  However, according to Gasparino, the “concerned” journalistic luminaries on the panel, including Fortune editor Andrew Serwer and New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta, never availed themselves of the opportunity to ask Paulson the tough questions about his own failure to anticipate or prevent the economic collapse.  

Hmmm…just a wild guess here, but reporters who don’t act like reporters could have something to do with the professional pickle they collectively find themselves in. 

Personally, I don’t buy into this notion that reporters should have been able to predict the financial meltdown.  It takes unabashed arrogance for journalists to believe that they are so well-steeped in economics and high finance that they can possibly forewarn the nation of a pending financial collapse.  They are on the sidelines, not in the game itself.  Most business journalists tend to mime conventional wisdom of the day, which explains why the leaders of Enron, Worldcom, and Tyco were heralded in newspaper and magazine cover stories before those companies blew up.  Journalists would serve their audiences best if they reported as many informed perspectives as possible, rather than spew out their too often misinformed and biased opinions about the companies and subjects they supposedly objectively cover. As for the prescience of mainstream journalism about Goldman Sachs and Paulson, check out this fawning profile that Fortune published in 2004.

According to a study by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, less than 30 percent of Americans believe what they read in the mainstream media.  That’s a fairly sobering statistic, and one that the Committee of Concerned Journalists should be focused on rectifying above anything else.  Sadly, absent a real change in the vision, mindset and competencies of the bold-faced names that occupy the upper echelons of the business, mainstream journalism will likely only continue to go downhill.