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A TIME TO REFLECT ON LEGACIES

Mar 1, 2004  •  Post A Comment

With media executives vexed by unprecedented competitive challenges, faced with the task of redefining their businesses and fighting for their professional lives, it seems an appropriate time to pose the fundamental questions: What do we stand for? What is the meaning of our work? What is our legacy?
They are questions as important to media chief executives as they are to the business journalists who write about them. We all are the sum of our actions and words. And in these times in particular, that still means something.
But lately, in unprecedented fashion, the wheels have been coming off the corporate and personal value machine. When pressed, many executives must pause to think about what they stand for, what the meaning of their daily work is and what legacy they want to leave.
It’s simply easier for many to point and say, I just don’t want to be one of them, referring to their troubled peers.

Beginning this week, former Adelphia Communications CEO John Rigas and two of his sons stand trial on charges of bank, securities and wire fraud. Embattled Walt Disney Co. Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner faces a huge “no confidence” vote from shareholders at the company’s annual meeting Wednesday that could prompt his removal by Disney’s board of directors.
Martha Stewart’s trial for obstruction of justice and securities fraud moves into closing arguments.
And that’s only the high-profile stuff.
Of course, there continues to be an abundance of aboveboard, principled executives and business dealings in the media and entertainment worlds. But the growing number of indiscretions and alleged wrongdoings is occurring against a backdrop of extraordinary events. Collectively, it creates a disturbing sense of a corporate world-and maybe even media-a little out of control.
Companies are being slapped with huge fines and being turned inside out by regulatory agencies in a long hunt, while some of their executives are hauled away in handcuffs and put behind bars.
In a very different vein, even bread-and-butter broadcasters such as CBS and Clear Channel have failed to remain above reproach. They are being scolded by legislators who are threatening tighter rules and are being slapped with hefty fines for resorting to “indecent” words and images on their highly regulated airwaves as competitive weapons against more liberal cable TV, recorded music and the Internet.
But it isn’t just the media that are under attack. It is the manner in which companies do business and the way executives choose to conduct themselves-an important difference, to be sure.
Personalities and intriguing backroom stories aside, some of what occurred on Mr. Eisner’s watch at Disney that is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission appears to have more to do with business practices and pressures than with mere content selection. The SEC also continues the second year of scrutinizing AOL accounting practices and other matters at Time Warner from the time around its bungled merger.
Those SEC probes could reveal minor indiscretions or could be ticking time bombs.
Just as troubling and perhaps for the moment more revealing is the sense that Mr. Eisner may have lost sight of some of the original goals and values he embraced when he first came to the aid of a troubled Disney two decades ago.
The base of support he built and protected for years has now collapsed in a flood of controversy and criticism that will reach into the upper levels of Disney management and its board of directors.
It is an extreme and stunning example of the marketplace taking care of business, even if it is on a much-delayed basis.
Whether it was personal greed, a power trip or good intentions gone bad, major institutional shareholders are sending a clear message that breaches of shareholder faith in such critical matters as executive compensation, succession, expenditures and prospective deals will not be tolerated.
The issue of character comes into play, whether it’s questioning the motives and judgment of Mr. Eisner or members of Disney’s board. Is this the inevitable end to the bigger stakes, bigger deals, bigger bonuses and bigger price tags that define today’s big media?
Many of Mr. Eisner’s executive peers, more guarded and cautious than ever, have delivered a resounding “no” during interviews and conversations I have had with them of late.
Even in the world of journalism, at the far reaches of the media universe, there appears to be great compromise afoot.
The Internet is a split-second town crier that loses interest in a news story virtually the moment it is reported. It provides a steady blur of headlines, or a seemingly bottomless well of data, with little of the much-needed contextual analysis and sorting out.
For a business journalist such as myself, who has become a true student of the media, it’s as much about connecting the dots for the big picture as it is about breaking the news. Context and analysis are imperative, and often the relevance and significance of facts and events are lost without them.
The issues are too important, the stakes are too high, the implications are too profound to reduce media coverage to the mindless regurgitation of the initial facts and quick conclusions.
Digging deeper is a journalist’s way of being more accountable and meaningful in these radically changing times, just as media leaders are doing.
As keepers of a public company, they must create and protect shareholder value and earnings while setting an enterprising and ethical agenda. Those goals are not mutually exclusive.
There’s more to this than chasing nightly program ratings, quarterly earnings and the day’s sensational headlines. In the rush of consolidation blunders, accounting scandals and malfunctioning metrics, the media world is growing a new conscience while at the same time pushing the envelope in a digital broadband arena where the rules and boundaries are changing all around them.
At the end of the day, we all must be able to attest to building better business, advancing a better collective understanding, using power for good and leaving the world a better place than we found it.
That’s hardly maternal rhetoric in a corporate world anguished by knowing what is right and paying an increasingly heavy price for not doing it.
And that raises the question of legacy.
Having interviewed all of the leading media and entertainment chief executives many times over the years, I never encountered one who appeared willfully intent on doing wrong. But some will be remembered that way.
Invariably, corporate matters do become matters of character because they are deliberated and executed by people. A gentle reminder of this came from one of media’s own last year in the late Peter Barton’s posthumously published autobiography “Not Fade Away.” Mr. Barton, whom I came to know well, defined legacy as the personal and professional contributions and relationships that shape our days. It is about family and work, in that order-a view I heartily embrace.
The swirl of dramatic events and issues will likely bring about some much-needed change in corporate ethics and practices.
Focusing on any of it the way they should will be a challenge for media and entertainment companies that already are highly distracted by embracing and capitalizing on the full breadth of the digital, interactive broadband revolution, in which all the rules of play and economics will change in less than a decade.
That is already a tall order. But it is all the more reason why what we stand for, how we view our work and what we want our legacy to be are important, regardless of which end of the media business we are on.
For the press, that means not taking the easy way out at a time when industry decision makers are begging for more thoughtful analysis and dialogue, depth of reporting and big-picture thinking.
That, too, requires a firm set of ethics and dedication to preserve the integrity of the job. It’s a common goal and a common challenge that some of us can’t wait to embrace each day. We’re the lucky ones.
Surely, Jerry Levin would much rather be remembered as being years ahead of his time with the Full Service Network than as the chief executive who sabotaged the AOL Time Warner merger by not knowing enough of the facts that supposedly drove the union.
Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons will be the executive credited with skillfully picking up the pieces-until the SEC delivers its verdict against the company, most likely setting off fines and shareholder lawsuit settlements.
In the end, it could have the same devastating impact as the flood of institutional shareholder objections and damaging court documents that will likely cost Mr. Eisner one or both of his Disney titles and perhaps pave the way for a proposed takeover of Disney by Comcast Corp., where executives have created a culture that appears more accountable, even-handed and genuine than most.