The media can be a force for exposing mean men, but it could be a lot more powerful. Even stories that strive to be a drumbeat for action come across as sounding as hollow as a toddler’s toy bongo. Rarely does the press linger long enough on business leaders’ abusive behavior. Walter Isaacson did serious damage to Steve Jobs’s reputation by revealing what a terrible person he was, but Isaacson’s book came out after Jobs had passed. And while plenty of other writers and former colleagues had chronicled and spoken out over the years about Jobs’s personal flaws, the mainstream business press seldom drew on those reports in a way that would have given the public a more balanced portrayal of Jobs as a leader.
In 2009, for example, Fortune named him CEO of the decade. Beyond briefly noting that he was a “tyrannical perfectionist,” the fawning article had nothing specific to say about his treatment of people. The stock-option backdating scandal was mentioned only in passing, quoting Jobs as saying that it was “completely out of character for Apple.” Overall, the CEO of the decade emerged from the article as a towering hero.
Of course, some business leaders do receive negative press for their bad behavior. Gossip-driven online publications such as Gawker, the Drudge Report, and, to an extent, Business Insider act like an extra set of eyes on the streets, at high-society gatherings, and in boardrooms—and no one is exempt from their critical gaze. But still, even the most serious of offenses are relegated to click-bait status. In addition, reports of abusive or offensive behavior are often accompanied shortly thereafter by lavish praise and the rationalization that being a monster simply comes with the territory of being a genius.
Case in point: Harvey Weinstein. His assault on a reporter and his threats to the chair of the DNC were such high-profile outbursts that they were impossible to ignore, but articles recounting these instances tended to be positive overall. In one New York magazine profile, David Carr wrote: “All the legendary bad behavior cannot obscure an objective fact: Harvey Weinstein is a cultural good.” For all the “titans” he threw around in reference to Weinstein, Carr might as well have written cultural god.
Larry Ellison is another leader whose bad behavior has been widely noted by the business press only to be swiftly excused. As one reporter wrote about Ellison: “By all accounts, he is a bad listener and a big talker, whose brash, take-no-prisoners approach tends to alienate employees and customers alike. Yet, in the past 35 years, the jet-flying, sailboat-racing renegade has built Oracle into one of the most important tech firms on the planet, with annual revenues of $27 billion.”
In other words, so what if a guy would make the worst friend and golfing partner on earth and you would never let your daughter date him—he’s got great toys!
So why does the media tend to overlook or excuse lousy or abusive behavior?
Like so many of the board directors and investors who surround mean men, business reporters tend to focus on a leader’s short-term results rather than their character. Tech reporters in particular tend to be interested in innovation and what’s new, regardless of how nasty the creator behind it is. Rarely is thought given to whether a leader’s style will drive sustainable results.
Personality traits of business leaders only get attention to the degree that they feed into a bigger narrative—one that includes jets, sailboats, and multiple zeroes after the dollar sign. Many business reporters overlook the fact that leadership style and organizational culture can be central indicators of a company’s health and chances of success. For instance, the toxic culture that Mark Pincus created at Zynga started to get attention only when the company began to struggle, even though his behavior had been well known amongst his cohort for years. His board even saw fit to reinstate him recently.
Business reporters—like many of us raised to believe it’s a dog-eat-dog world—may buy into the assumption that good leaders need to be brutes in order to get results. Sure, when the going gets tough, the tough need to get going, but just because business is competitive and the stakes are high, does this mean sharp elbows are always necessary? Is doing whatever it takes to survive—including driving straight over others to get to the top—always an asset?
So much of what we read or see on television leads us to believe that the answer to the questions above is yes.
Granted, some reporters do attempt to present balanced portrayals of mean geniuses, and it isn’t always easy to get sources to open up about abusive behavior. But if you watched the first season of House of Cards, you know it takes nerves and perseverance to get the full scoop. Digging up damaging information about a leader’s personal style and behavior can quickly place a journalist’s press pass at risk.
The fact that an entrepreneur is a bullying egomaniac may seem like a side note to some, or fodder for an over-the-top tale meant for the big screen à la The Wolf of Wall Street. But if those who have access to the inner chambers of the mean men who are in charge of our nation’s wealth and culture are not acting as watchdogs, how is the American public being protected from those who would shred it to pieces?