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GREED BECAME GOOD! On the front page of the Washington Post, we learn of a change in the culture: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JUNE 21, 2011

In which we request your support (for two ongoing projects): Keith Olbermann is back on the air, doing Countdown over at Current. The caption to this kick-off photo is designed to make you feel like one of the gang. It’s intended to make you feel like you belong to the club.

Olbermann’s return produced an intriguing report in yesterday’s New York Times. Incredibly, Brian Stelter described a fight to sign journalistic “contributors” for competing liberal TV programs! Ten years ago, could anyone have imagined such a thing?

Just a guess: These liberal programs want contributors who will be highly “regular.” For that reason, a potential problem lurks in the highlighted facts:

STELTER (6/20/11): Already, Mr. Olbermann seems to have succeeded in one respect: in creating a robust marketplace for liberal television talent. Since he left in January, MSNBC has signed prominent contributors like Eugene Robinson, the Washington Post columnist, to new long-term contracts, in some cases staving off Current's attempts to poach them.

[…]

Few of Mr. Olbermann's producers or regular guests from MSNBC are joining him on the new show. His entreaties to MSNBC employees set off something of a bidding war, according to people involved in contract negotiations who insisted on anonymity to avoid distressing executives at MSNBC or Current.

''The threat of Keith's new show meant that MSNBC had to spend a little bit of extra money—and Phil was willing to do that,'' one of the people said, referring to Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC.

Guest bookings are important for cable news channels because viewers come to recognize and expect regular guests with opinions on the left and the right. The channels pay some guests—called contributors or analysts—for exclusive access to them, and also nurture new and influential voices in politics.

At Current and at MSNBC, “contributors” have scored some extra swag due to this “bidding war.” There’s nothing automatically wrong with that—but therein, a problem does lurk. Alas! The more money such “contributors” get paid, the less likely it is that they will ever stray off the political plantation. Let’s think about MSNBC alone, although what follows also applies to the “talent” at Fox.

As Stelter notes, viewers of MSNBC “come to recognize and expect regular guests with opinions on the left.” The more those regular guests get paid, the less likely it is that they will challenge any twaddle on their own channel. This tendency has been quite clear for the past decade, especially on Fox.

The more such regular guests get paid, the higher the likelihood that they will be very regular in the things they do and say on the air. For one example, watch the performances by David Corn and Alex Wagner supporting Chris Matthews on Hardball last night. If it’s pure pre-packaged piffle you like, you got it in this worthless segment. (Full disclosure: We have never misjudged anyone the way we misjudged Brother Corn.)

Indeed, compensation can be quite good at the upper ends of the “journalistic” world. Like many other people, “journalists” may be disinclined to put such pay days at risk. They tend to fall in line with the program—whether the program is set by a CEO like Jack Welch or by producers who are constructing an easy-to-follow, corporatized version of paint-by-the-numbers “liberalism.”

Today’s contributors and analysts can do quite well—if they get with the program. What the best way to lose that pay and exposure? Simple! Just challenge the work of the mainstream press; just challenge the established framework of your own cable channel. And that is why we approach you today, and all this week, asking you to consider making a contribution to this incomparable site.

Elsewhere, you may get a bought-and-paid-for brand of “liberalism.” You may get something else here.

We’ll be discussing the goals of our site each day this week. But for today, here are the basic goals for the coming year:

First, we plan to extend the history lessons in our on-line book, How he got there. The children of the “career liberal” world are telling this story very slowly, and with exceptional caution. (Poor Romney! And poor Pawlenty! Why won’t the press corps be fair?) We think the remarkable history detailed in How he got there should be part of the public record. It should be available for future generations to use.

(Current “liberals” will never tell you the truth about the era in question. They have made their decision abundantly clear over the past fifteen years, dating back to their refusal to discuss the books by Gene Lyons and by Lyons and Joe Conason. They flushed these stories away long ago. It’s obvious why they did so.)

Second, we plan to continue discussing the most intriguing topic in journalism today—the development of the “liberal” journalistic world. When we started this site in 1998, there was very little “liberal” journalism anywhere in the land. Today, two cable networks are competing to sign up “liberal” contributors! The sputtering development of MSNBC strikes us as the most interesting story in journalism today.

A simpering form of pseudo-liberalism is relentlessly churned at that channel (though some good work is also done). In part for the reasons explained in Stelter’s piece, career liberals will never serve as honest brokers in critiquing that burgeoning world.

Let’s review! We’re going to give you recent history involving the work of the mainstream press. Beyond that, we plan to pursue the fascinating story of the burgeoning “liberal” journalistic world. Trust us: No one has asked us to serve as a “regular” liberal contributor. On those burgeoning liberal outlets, they like their contributions to be more “regular” than anything we would provide.

If you want an analysis from the outside, we hope you’ll consider contributing here. We wouldn’t ask if there wasn’t a need. Indeed: In our thirteen years at this post, this is only our second annual fund drive! You can contribute through PayPal, or by check. To do such things, just click here.

Thanks to Olbermann’s return to the air, the “regulars” got some extra swag! If you want to see them sing for their supper, just watch that clip from last night’s Hardball. Or watch the same program tonight! Except when penis photos emerge, this repurposed cable program is now extremely “regular.”

Is that what you want? Does that sort of scripted packaging serve progressive interests?

Special report: Greed became good!

PART 1—A CHANGE IN THE CULTURE (permalink): Gordon Gekko told no lies.

Over the course of the past fifty years, greed really did become good. On the front page of Sunday’s Washington Post, Peter Whoriskey described the wages of that change in our American culture.

What occurred when greed became good? As he started, Whoriskey described the life of a little-known CEO in the 1970s:

WHORISKEY (6/19/11): It was the 1970s, and the chief executive of a leading U.S. dairy company, Kenneth J. Douglas, lived the good life. He earned the equivalent of about $1 million today. He and his family moved from a three-bedroom home to a four-bedroom home, about a half-mile away, in River Forest, Ill., an upscale Chicago suburb. He joined a country club. The company gave him a Cadillac. The money was good enough, in fact, that he sometimes turned down raises. He said making too much was bad for morale.

Say what? Douglas “sometimes turned down raises?” Later, Whoriskey offers more recollections from the age when CEOs would reject pay hikes. But first, he described the life of Douglas’ present-day counterpart as CEO of Dean Foods.

CEO Douglas had it good back in the 1970s. He was paid the equivalent of $1 million per year. (We’ll let Whoriskey use the word “earned.”) He drove a Cadillac when we went to the club; he lived in an upscale Chicago suburb. But Douglas was living the life of Ralph Kramden as compared to the lucky ducky who holds his post today:

WHORISKEY (continuing directly): Forty years later, the trappings at the top of Dean Foods, as at most U.S. big companies, are more lavish. The current chief executive, Gregg L. Engles, averages 10 times as much in compensation as Douglas did, or about $10 million in a typical year. He owns a $6 million home in an elite suburb of Dallas and 64 acres near Vail, Colo., an area he frequently visits. He belongs to as many as four golf clubs at a time—two in Texas and two in Colorado. While Douglas’s office sat on the second floor of a milk distribution center, Engles’s stylish new headquarters occupies the top nine floors of a 41-story Dallas office tower. When Engles leaves town, he takes the company’s $10 million Challenger 604 jet, which is largely dedicated to his needs, both business and personal.

The evolution of executive grandeur—from very comfortable to jet-setting—reflects one of the primary reasons that the gap between those with the highest incomes and everyone else is widening.

Even after adjusting for inflation, CEO Engles is paid ten times as much as his predecessor. He lives in a $6 million Dallas crib—unless he has jetted to Vail.

For the record, Whoriskey describes no instance in which Engles ever turned down a raise.

CEO life-style has soared at Dean Foods in the past forty years. Before long, Whoriskey describes what has happened to the pay of the company’s workers—and he quotes the son of the former CEO, commenting on the change in the corporate culture:

WHORISKEY: Other recent research, moreover, indicates that executive compensation at the nation’s largest firms has roughly quadrupled in real terms since the 1970s, even as pay for 90 percent of America has stalled.

This trend held at Dean Foods. Over the period from the ’70s until today, while pay for Dean Foods chief executives was rising 10 times over, wages for the unionized workers actually declined slightly. The hourly wage rate for the people who process, pasteurize and package the milk at the company’s dairies declined by 9 percent in real terms, according to union contract records. It is now about $23 an hour.

“Do people bitch because Engles makes so much? Yeah. But there’s nothing you can do about it,” said Bob Goad, 61, a burly former high school wrestler who is a pasteurizer at a Dean Foods plant in Harvard, Ill., and runs an auction business on the side to supplement his income. “These companies have the idea that the only people that matter to the company are those at the top.”

[…]

[C]ritics question why so much of the growth in income should go to the wealthiest. Douglas, the Dean Foods chief from the ’70s, died in 2007. But his son, Andrew Douglas, said his father viewed wages in part as a moral issue.

If his father had seen how much executives were making today, Andrew Douglas said, he’d be “spinning in his grave. My dad just believed that after a while, what else would you need the money for?”

The late CEO Douglas can’t speak for himself; his son thinks he would have disapproved of this change in the corporate culture. But in that passage, Whoriskey describes a national trend that is captured in the anecdotes from Dean Foods:

After adjusting for inflation, executive compensation has roughly quadrupled “even as pay for 90 percent of America has stalled.”

Whoriskey’s long, detailed report is built upon research by three economists (Bakija, Cole and Heim). Whoriskey isn’t the first journalist to describe the results of that research—but his report is quite clear, and it appeared on the front page of a major Sunday newspaper. Whoriskey is describing a change in American culture. This change took place in the past fifty years, during which time greed became good.

That change in our American culture has affected the whole business world; almost surely, it has lessened the pay of most people who work within it. But a culture of massive over-compensation affects the world of journalism too. This helps explain the tons of crap currently getting shoveled to liberals—to liberals who may not see the way they’re played by the hustlers of the earth.

Has greed become good in the journalistic world too? Even among fiery liberals?

Tomorrow: A photograph of a large house