Wednesday, July 11, 2007

How Happy I'd Be with Either of You If the Two of You Left Me Alone

Poor businesses. They would be so much easier to run if only they didn't have to have employees.

At least that's the message we seem to get pretty much everywhere these days. For instance Major League Baseball seems insistent on reminding us as often as possible that baseball had a steroid problem despite having a strong drug testing program now that few of its athletes are failing. Of course much of that is the Bonds Problem, for Barry is pretty much a jerk whether he took steroids or not so it's easy to want to hate him as he approaches Aaron's homerun record. Instead of grinning and bearing it, instead of celebrating the moment--Commisioner Beelze-Bud might not even be there--, they make a huge hand-wringing deal of it. As if we aren't all smart enough to know his record will come in an age of medical wonder, just as Aaron's came in an age of greenies, and Ruth's records were originally set when you couldn't play if you were green, brown, or yellow. People can know these things on their own without asterisks.

Here's what Joe Sheehan said on the Baseball Prospectus website [it's behind the pay wall, but they are worth subscribing to] a couple weeks ago about the Giambi brouhaha that sums up what's particularly dumb about all of this:

Forcing Jason Giambi to talk to the Mitchell Commission under threat of suspension as an act of retribution for Giambi’s pointing out the obvious does what, exactly, to eradicate the use of PEDs by baseball players? The takeaways here are:
  • The commissioner’s office is desperate to sustain the illusion that no one other than players knew about PED use.
  • The commissioner’s office is desperate to buoy the image of the Mitchell Commission.
  • The commissioner’s office is desperate to win the PR battle, even if that means reverting to a confrontational relationship with players and taking positions that will be impossible to defend in front of a third party.


I’ll say it again: the Mitchell Commission needs to be disbanded, because it can’t do anything positive for the game of baseball. All it does is keep alive a story that should have been ended by the implementation of professional sports’ most stringent drug-testing and punishment policy.

I think Sheehan doesn't just give enough credit to the owners' (and remember, the commish was an owner and serves at their pleasure) distrust of their employees, who, after all, make a very lucrative living playing a game. On some level all of the steroid scandal is merely a battlefield upon which owners express their condescension towards their charges.

But it's not just players who tend to be disliked by management. One of the most mystifying elements of the News-Press saga here in Santa Barbara is Wendy McCaw's nearly pathological views about journalism itself. Much of this in her case is she probably doesn't like to have anyone tell her what to do and she feels her money should insulate her from having to listen to anyone from which she doesn't want to hear. In her latest screed written to Lou Cannon McCaw said:

Today the hue and cry of "journalistic ethics" by your journalist elite, rather than being the noble words you assert, instead have become little more than the chant of an ancient priesthood long discarded by their former flock, our readers. Newspaper owners now realize these elitists were simply trying to preserve their caste which provided them with the sinecure of full employment without responsibility. The reading public knows this, as exemplified by the recent PBS Frontline documentary* referenced in my prior letter. The PBS series evidences the distrust the public has today for your formerly sacred "journalists." It does not trust them for the very reason I deemed it necessary to take action to ensure that the news was reported fairly and accurately: Your brand of reporters write what they want, when they want. That is not good journalism. That is not in keeping with the tenants [sic] of fairness and integrity. Simply put, that is the reason changes were needed at the News-Press.

The good news for McCaw is she's got what she's wanted--a newspaper without any journalists. Of course she doesn't realize that a real reporter doesn't feel beholden to an owner or an ideology but a belief that truth must out. That's where the whole public trust idea of journalism comes into play, but she can't be bothered with that. Instead she's out to market her product by saying anyone who would create it for her sucks. It's like calling your best players drug addicts.

Instead McCaw and Bud Selig and who knows how many other employers (is the UC negotiating a contract with anyone right now?) could all learn a thing or two from a wise column written by Roy Peter Clark on Poynteronline today. Here's a few excerpts, but it's worth reading the whole thing:

Managers of news organizations are forced more often these days to tell the Big Lie.

It goes something like this: "By making these changes, we think the Daily Blank will be a better paper. It will be leaner, more efficient, and will focus more on what our local readers say they need." In other words, they are going to lay off or buy out some of their best people to meet profit margins. The Big Lie is that this will make for a better paper.


Think for a moment of how many journalists' expectations of what a good career should look like have crashed into a wall of diminishing resources and technological change.

"A good storyteller," argues [screenwriting coach Robert] McKee, "describes what it's like to deal with these opposing forces, calling on the protagonist to dig deeper, work with scarce resources, make difficult decisions, take action despite risks, and ultimately discover the truth."


Now think of all the inciting incidents that have shaken the stability of the news business: layoffs, buyouts, cutbacks, declining circulation, loss of classified advertising, increase in the cost of paper, the sale and dismemberment of Knight Ridder, Murdoch lurking in the wings of The Wall Street Journal, the loss of prestige and threats to credibility, and on and on and on.

What do we do with all that bad news? If we followed McKee's advice, we'd start telling each other and the world outside stories of how good journalists did great work against all odds.

It's not just an issue of focusing on the positive. But if employers could get over this sense that employees are just a necessary evil maybe we could all do more than just get along.

*I couldn't pass up how this Frontline documentary doesn't really do what McCaw says it does, too. You can go read the entire transcript of all 4 shows if you'd like. What she jumps on is a teaser quote at the beginning of each episode (maybe that's as much as she watched)--"The public has a terrific disdain for the press"--but a lot of that disdain is because of things like the press's inability to see through all the lies the Bush White House put out about Iraq before the war. I doubt anyone in Santa Barbara holds Jerry Roberts accountable for Judith Miller.

Indeed, looking at that transcript it's interesting that McCaw fails to quote lines like:

JOHN CARROLL: A typical newspaper makes a 20 percent operating margin. That's roughly double what the typical Fortune 500 company makes. People think of this as a poor, washed-up old business. It's not. It makes tons of money.

LOWELL BERGMAN: So what's the rationale behind that? I don't understand. I mean, why do you have to cut costs when you're making hundreds of millions of dollars?

JOHN CARROLL: Because you have to make more every year than you made the last year in order to keep the shareholders happy. And so even if you made barrels full of money one year, you've got to make more than that the next year.

And McCaw doesn't even have shareholders.

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Blogger Marty said...

"Tenant." Nice catch. Proof (underlining the whole theme of this post) that the plantation mentality is alive and well in the 21st century.

10:40 PM  

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