Open Mic

You Know That Executive the Network Just Hired? What an A-Hole!

Chuck Ross Posted October 7, 2013 at 12:49 PM

Well, that was pretty simple. Name-calling that’s easy for me as a columnist/blogger to do, and a terrific attention grabber. Thanks for clicking on this piece.

So who’s the asshole I’m referring to in the headline? Don’t have one in mind. Instead, I want to have a discussion with you about name-calling in the press, and honesty in journalism.

What got my attention was the media column published on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013 by Michael Wolff in USA Today. It became the talk of the town at NBCUniversal and at other media shops, judging from the number of folks who have mentioned it to me.

In it he skewers present and former NBCUniversal executives Lauren Zalaznick, Steve Burke, Cesar Conde, Joe Uva and Randy Falco. He also attacks Patricia Sellers of Fortune magazine, who covers media.

Over the years I’ve known Uva and Zalaznick fairly well, Burke and Falco much less so, and I’ve never met nor spoken to Conde or Sellers.

In the piece, Wolff calls the TV executives above “empty suits” and, with the exception of Falco, paints them pretty much as buffoons as he writes about their recent losing and gaining of various executive jobs.

Wolff does this with great skill and, I am sure, by the end of the piece many consumers, as well as those in media, are having a great laugh at what Wolff has painted as a travesty of a mockery of a sham, to borrow a line from Woody Allen.

But honest journalism it is not.

Wolff writes that some “personnel shifts at NBCUniversal have brought an onslaught of self-congratulatory memos from top management and slavish coverage in the press, while many sentient insiders are doubled over with laughter at the real story.”

I question whether “many” insiders are laughing hysterically at the plight of these various executives.

And here’s what I know about almost all personnel shifts in the business world. Rarely, if ever, does a company say that someone has been “fired.” And it is a rare executive who says that he or she has been “fired.”

So what most responsible journalists do, when faced with someone leaving a company, is recount the positive accomplishments achieved by the executive, as well as what are generally acknowledged to be that executive’s shortcomings.

Furthermore, Wolff writes that “media writers are often trying to sell projects to the people they are writing about.” In fact, most legitimate journalists covering the TV beat are not doing that.

I’ve been covering the TV business for more than three decades. I have rarely interviewed a top executive who I actually thought was an empty suit, and it is certainly not a fair description of the NBCU executives in Wolff’s story. As most of us know, even the failings of various media endeavors are not the result of someone being an empty suit.

Wolff, of course, knows this. He’s held a number of other jobs himself over the years. I have met him a few times and we have spoken to one another once or twice. I don’t know whether he would recall any of those encounters.

Years ago, when I was at “Inside Media,” one of my colleagues there was quite friendly with Wolff and thought he was one of the finest media minds around.

On the other hand, another friend of mine, who worked at Adweek when Wolff was in charge there, dislikes him and has described him to me as, well, an “empty suit,” and as a rather unpleasant person.

Personally, I live in a glass house and have no illusions that some people like me and that others think I’m an A-hole.

But I’d never write a piece such as the one Wolff wrote Monday morning. It’s not honest.

Yes, executives have egos. And they have sides of themselves that aren’t pretty. But it’s actually a rare executive, in media or otherwise, who is both the fool and the clown as Wolff says the executives are that he wrote about in his column.

Wolff is also wrong about what he says at the conclusion of his column: “These are, clear to all, the emperor’s empty suits, the assets who descend in the elevator each night from their phony-baloney jobs. That’s network television! As it has always been, and as it remains, even with just about everyone saying how passionately they are focused on reinventing the business.”

I don’t know what he’s talking about. The people named in his column and the jobs they have and had are not phony-baloney ones. The jobs are real, and these executives -- like most everyone involved in network TV, from those at the studios to those at the stations to those at the networks themselves -- are working their asses off trying to figure out how to put on programming that most of us want to watch and will tune in to.

THAT is actually network television. As it has always been, and as it remains.