Baby boomers at the helm

Daniel Henninger delivers a powerful essay [subscription required] in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL today.  It’s about the fuzzy boundaries over what he calls the "infallible children" of baby boomers, the coarsening of our culture and the misappropriation of First Amendment rights to free speech.  The chief consequence:  a general lack of civility, reflected in language as well as behavior, expressed in every possible communication medium.

I’d like to take the point to another level.  Corporations, now led by the boomer generation, could step up to the plate.  Hit a few home runs for civilization.  The example du jour:  the Imus incident.  Look at it in terms of Mr Henninger’s thesis. 

NBC’s cancellation of the Imus program coincided with the departure of key advertisers.  Still, the network cited the outrage of its staff as a primary driver of its decision to cancel the program. 

I, for one, cannot believe that this incident was the first time that journalists and employees of the network complained about the language and behavior used on the Imus program.  So why didn’t management act earlier?  Because two boomer-based factors were at work. 

  • First, a general reluctance to confront problems of management’s own making because they can’t believe their ideas would fail. 
  • Second, the almighty buck and caving in to the ever-ridiculous standards for profitability and growth, at any cost. 

I say that by waiting until a crisis emerged to address a longstanding problem, NBC management demonstrates why short-term thinking is chipping away at this country’s leadership positions in everything from culture to corporate excellence.

It doesn’t matter that the crisis was exacerbated by some grandstanders who are playing the race card while indulging in name-calling themselves.  What matters is, NBC did not anticipate this scenario, even when it had multiple opportunities by way of prior incidents to do so.

Here’s what NBC, and probably CBS/WFAN, could have won by dealing with reality months ago instead of just counting the greenbacks.

  • Credibility.  It’s pretty hard to believe that the decision to cancel or suspend Imus was due to integrity, when even this time, it took a week for the networks to act.  They make a big point of wanting to hear what stakeholders think.  In a situation like this, integrity means taking the risk of making an unpopular decision when you know it’s the right one.
  • Long-term revenue.  What’s better?  Forecasting profits by the quarter or by the year?  Edgy programming doesn’t have to be inappropriate to be sustainable.
  • One-of-a-kind programmingDon Imus is one of the top interviewers of political figures, authors and pundits.  Instead of emphasizing and franchising this unique strength, however, he and his babysitters permitted the increase of locker room antics until they destroyed the Imus sub-brand and tarnished the NBC and CBS brands.
  • Internal loyalty.  Professional journalists might stay with NBC, but just because their employment options are few.  If management had acted on a more timely basis, it would have sent a clear message of respect to its own employees.
  • The ability to emerge as media thought leaders when the country really needs them.  NBC and CBS could have been the first to use the professional bench to take programming to a level of dialog without ugly, nasty diatribes.  Whatever card they play, the exploiters feed on those diatribes.  Afterward, they retreat to their gated enclaves, leaving networks and sponsors to hold the bag.

At some point, someone is going to have to stop hiding behind "but it’s what the audience wants."  That kind of thinking has created an emptiness of our collective soul.  I hope, as Mr Henninger asserts, that the someones are finally beginning to come out of hiding.  It would be terrific if American corporations could back them.

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