Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

The dark side of co-creation: Lance Armstrong, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and their country’s press corps

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lance Armstrong and Dominique Strauss-Kahn have long shared a common ability: both have parlayed their extraordinary talent into a relationship with the national press corps that has protected them from seeing their dubious ethical behavior exposed (at the minimum) or from being held accountable for their alleged crimes (at worst). It took many years and a recent CBS “60 Minutes” interview of one of Lance Armstrong’s team members on the Tour de France for the American press to finally realize what had been a fairly obvious reality to many observers of professional bicycling, namely that most professional cyclists, including Armstrong, have used performance-enhancing drugs for years. Similarly, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund and ex-future President of France, was known to have behaved inappropriately with women for many years, with a suspicion of at least one outright rape attempt. Yet the French press corps had created a kind of omerta around him until he was recently arrested in a New York hotel for attempted rape. Why this journalistic conspiracy of silence for the two men in their respective countries?

As a humble student of communities of all types, I believe there is merit in studying even destructive communities. Journalists are an essential ingredient in a democracy. By exposing the secrets of rich and powerful people, they are supposed to “keep them honest,” as CNN advertises the late-night program of one of its journalists, Anderson Cooper. In the cases of Lance Armstrong and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, though, journalists became co-dependent with the subject they were supposed to cover. Instead of investigating the objectionable activities or crimes of their global sports or political star, they moved into a pattern of silence. This is the dark side of co-creation, and it behooves us to find out how such a negative form of co-creation develops.

For Lance Armstrong, American journalists seem to have wanted to believe the fairy tale: the inspiring story of Lance overcoming cancer, Lance becoming a global star in a sport traditionally dominated by Europeans, Lance mobilizing huge resources for a great cause with his cancer foundation. As a result, they deliberately ignored the growing evidence pointing to Lance’s doping, including some high-quality investigative journalism done by the French sports daily L’Equipe. Somehow, the US sports journalism community seems to have coalesced around a collective belief that accusations of Lance’s doping in the French press were the result of sour grapes because Lance had stolen the limelight from French cyclists in a major French sport. Instead of collectively rallying around this orthodoxy, wouldn’t their job have been to investigate these claims? Why didn’t they? Where were the Woodward and Bernstein of American sports journalism? Why weren’t they running around asking Lance’s team members, nurses, team managers, doctors, mechanics, hotel keepers, anti-doping authorities, and law enforcement officials about what they had observed? How could they miss a story with so many protagonists and involving so many daily interactions with prohibited products?

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) story is equally troubling. Like many other people who occasionally travel in French power circles, I had heard stories of DSK’s womanizing behavior for years, including some rumors of outright predatory behavior. French people profess to be amused by the peccadilloes of their political and corporate leaders (but hopefully not their crimes!). They often blame the American investigation of inappropriate sexual behavior by powerful people on American puritanical tendencies, conveniently ignoring that these investigations often point to human weaknesses that degrade leaders’ ability to lead, or make them vulnerable to corrupt behavior to protect their shameful secrets. When US politicians are suspected of inappropriate behavior, a pack of journalistic hounds gets unleashed in quest of a scoop, and editors rejoice over the possibility of a page one exclusive on the topic. By and large, France does not have a tradition of investigative journalism, which represents a gaping hole for a democratic country of its size and importance on the international scene.

Even more worrisome is the lack of willingness on the part of French journalists to take on the country’s political and corporate leaders. The co-dependency that exists between journalists and French leaders is palpable. French power circles frequently interfere with journalistic independence and utilize access as a blunt instrument, and there have been numerous stories of phone calls being placed in strategic places to de-fang ambitious journalists who tried to practice American-style journalism. The sad thing is that intimidation of this kind has largely neutered the French press, producing more and more daring behavior by some of its leaders. I fear that DSK’s behavior at the New York Sofitel will turn out to be but the ugly head of a larger beast.

The greatest perversion arising from this lack of transparency about the reprehensible behavior of French leaders is that women who have been victims of these behaviors have understandably refrained from speaking out, thereby allowing these horrendous behaviors to continue unchecked, and exposing more women to these predators. Why haven’t Le Monde, Le Figaro, or the major French TV and radio channels interviewed the women who have described DSK’s inappropriate behavior? Why haven’t they spoken to IMF employees, hotel front desk employees, members of DSK’s Socialist Party, or staff members at Socialist Party conventions? Why did news editors not encourage their journalists to follow up on the rumors?

There is no co-creation without transparency. Both the Lance Armstrong and DSK stories are illustrations of the fact that co-dependency can develop in the dark alleys of power. Journalists operate in a difficult economic world, with advertising revenues, circulations of major newspapers, and television audiences at major news networks all down. Finding the courage to take on the Lance Armstrongs and DSKs of this world and reinvigorating the old-fashioned investigative journalism tradition may be the profession’s best hope.

 

The redemption of business journalists

Monday, August 10th, 2009

I never liked business journalists. Their articles always struck me as editorially slanted toward “good” or “bad” stories, without much interest for the subtle tapestry of most business issues. At the personal level, I found many business journalists to be cynical and arrogant. By definition, they’d always have the last (written) word and relish their ability to make or break you at the stroke of a pen, a power (and lack of accountability) they ferociously defended under the guise of journalistic independence. Fourteen years later, I can still remember waiting all night for the appearance on the BusinessWeek web site of a negative article calling out the reputed inconsistencies between my firm’s strategy (Gemini Consulting, now integrated into Cap Gemini) and a book I had just co-authored. I can even remember agonizing over how to explain to my then 12-year old daughter that her dad was not a hypocrite, in spite of what was being implied about him.

This morning, I woke up with a new faith in business journalists. It all started two weeks ago with the discovery that McGraw-Hill is considering selling BusinessWeek, after owning it for the last 80 years.

I was first animated by a vague sense of poetic justice in seeing my old tormentor deal with the same business downturn issues my firm had faced long ago. When I opened up the BW web site, I found, much to my surprise, that John Byrne, now head of BusinessWeek.com, was inviting readers to suggest stories BW should write about (I remember meeting John a couple of times when he was Management Editor and he struck me as wicked smart, but not particularly interested in co-creation at the time).

Still skeptical, I then ran across another blog on the BW site, written by one of their senior writers, Stephen Baker, which is downright touching in its honesty and the transparency it fosters. For the first time, I found myself connecting with a person of flesh and blood at BW, who talks about his own uncertainties on the value of his writing and editorial work, and who genuinely invites readers to think with him about new ways to create value for his magazine. If BW and McGraw-Hill have any sense, they will engage this gentleman and others like him in becoming the transformation agents for the magazine, rather than rely on some hypothetical new business model provided by a private equity firm or investment banker.

As for me, dear Stephen Baker, I want to thank you for reconciling me with your profession. I do not know you – the title of Senior Writer leads me to believe you must be a very old man with a long white beard — but any journalist who writes as you do clearly understands the power of co-creation in publishing. Please send me your invoice for your counseling services in helping me overcome my journalistic phobia.

Defending WaPo – the journalist as a co-creation agent

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Late last week, the Washington Post received a spate of unwanted coverage. In a nutshell, the paper sought to recreate the salons of its past – intimate dinner gatherings of decision-makers, hosted in the home of famed, former publisher, Katharine Graham. While the salons were clearly rooted in precedence, the attempt this time around to seek corporate sponsorships caught the ire of the news media, Post journalists included.

In fact, the press has been unanimous in its condemnation of the current Post publisher’s idea to host a sponsored dinner on healthcare (and potentially other topics) that would bring together regulators, corporate providers, and its own journalists. (The current Post publisher is the late Mrs. Graham’s granddaughter, Katharine Weymouth).

The idea of charging corporations $25,000 to participate in such a dinner is indeed objectionable in that it amounts to selling access to both regulators and the paper’s own journalists. (The Post has explained the intended fee-basis as an over-aggressive marketing ploy.)

But underneath this stinky wrapper lies the more intriguing idea that the journalists’ role is to participate in the co-creation of a point of view on the industry across the interests of regulators and corporations. Doing this job requires access to both, and the idea of a dinner platform to foster an off-the-record dialogue between all three constituencies encourages a modern and accurate view of journalism, particularly if compared with the popular myth of the independent newsman writing penetrating articles from the sanctuary of his paper’s newsroom.

While investigative journalism does indeed require protecting one’s sources in the best tradition of Deep Throat and Watergate, most business writing should come from the transparent brokering of points of view defended by players with a stake in the game, be they regulators or corporations. In that spirit, having the Washington Post organize such an event to institutionalize a dialogue between parties does not sound bad to me.

However, given the vigorous and swift coverage of the pay-for-play gaffe, the proud journalistic profession clearly prefers its long-standing, journalist-centric view of value creation. They may be in for a rude awakening…