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Be honest and forget the hagiographies

September 30, 2020

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Credit: Pixabay user DomyD

There were a lot of bad things about Sumner Redstone and how he ran a business. He could be utterly ruthless. And yet, in the obituaries, what you could see was a split between his time as a media mogul and someone at the center of a lawsuit by a jilted lover and arguments about his competency.

Missing was the effect of his actions as a human being and business leader. His drive and business acumen were impressive. But how did the little people fare?

None too well, if you consider the tweet thread of Gideon Yago, a former journalist and current award-winning television writer. To put together a few of the tweets:

Redstone’s media empire was almost entirely built on ‘reality’, ‘live’ and ‘free’ content. made and paid for by other people (music labels, comedy clubs) on to cable. And to fill the gap with non-union, unprotected ‘perma-lance’ innovation in-house. Reality and music television was just union-busting. Plain and simple.

He went on to claim that some of the hot ideas came from production assistants and associate producers who got no credit, no money. People worked without healthcare, residuals, and other forms of compensation because they were all required to work as contractors or temps, not as employees. Yago wrote, “So rest in peace, Mr. Redstone. You cost a lot of my friends a lot of sweat and a lot of years… shout-out to all my Viacom alums, who got paid peanuts, fired every 11 months and rehired days later to avoid being paid health benefits and had their ideas stolen. I see you and I love you all.”

He also asked, “So why is Redstone’s anti-union, anti-labor content playbook scrubbed from his final obituary?”

Why, indeed? Perhaps all that seems to disturb the tidy narrative. Redstone is hardly the only example. Back in March, former GE CEO Jack Welch—nicknamed both the “manager of the century” for growing earnings and “Neutron Jack” for slashing thousands of jobs—died. His bio also received a burnishing.

Eventually, people like Joe Nocera questioned the image of Welch as the super manager. Good? Yes, but also lucky in his timing and how markets perceive “success.”

A few years ago, James Stewart in the New York Times wrote about how Welch’s reputation might have been overblown:

“I don’t think Jack Welch was ever as good as he was made out to be,” said Mr. Damodaran, who has spent years trying to value G.E. During Mr. Welch’s tenure, “he benefited from the growth of financial services in the American economy and the growth of GE Capital,” Mr. Damodaran added. “That’s what made it untouchable for so long.”

That strategy backfired in 2008, years after Mr. Welch had left, with the arrival of the financial crisis. “It turned out G.E. had no competitive advantage in financial services,” [Aswath Damodaran, a finance professor at the New York University Stern School of Business] said. “If anything, their risk controls were even worse” than those at other large financial institutions. Warren E. Buffett had to come to the rescue with a $3 billion infusion.

It’s important to portray not only how things happened in the past, but what they are like now. Less hero worship and more skepticism and honesty.

And maybe get more of the full story into the obit file while a person is alive so a more rounded piece on their death is possible under time pressure.


  • Erik Sherman

    Erik is an independent journalist and author who primarily covers business, economics, finance, technology, politics, and legal/regulatory, while elegantly expressing the complex and often incorporating data analysis.

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