Friday, August 30, 2013

Joseph was overly and insufficiently harsh with Nicholas Carlson's Mayer profile

First off, when my co-blogger Joseph called this piece "a clever hatchet job," he was wrong. Having read the whole damned thing, I feel fairly confident saying that Carlson was not setting out to be unfairly or excessively critical of Marissa Mayer, though it's clear that some of his sources were. Instead he gave us something that is, to me at least, quite a bit worse.

For starters, the traditional hatchet job is not the worst of all genres, particularly if you can identify the author's position and, if needed, correct for it. Mark Twain's treatment of James Fenimore Cooper was unquestionably a hatchet job and it remains both a sharp piece of criticism and a damned funny piece of prose.

Carlson's profile falls into another genre, a type of novelistic business journalism heavily influenced by Michael Lewis, long (and I do mean long) form reporting built around a central narrative with lots of time spent on character sketches and atmosphere. When done well (and Lewis generally does it very well indeed), it can be both highly informative and wonderfully entertaining. Done badly (and badly seems to be the norm), it can be simplistic and misleading and as annoying as all hell.

Lewis has exceptional literary gifts, a sharp understanding of business and, perhaps most importantly, a satirist's eye. Carlson has, if anything, the opposite. Behaviors that would have Lewis looking for his best scalpel actually seem to inspire uncritical sympathy from Carlson. Consider the following:
One by one, they walked in and sat down at a table across from Mayer. Then, she launched into questions. She asked: “Where did you get your education?” “Where are you from?” “What do you do here?” And so on.

As Yahoo executives answered, Mayer took notes on their answers with pen on paper, hardly looking up.

“It kind of felt like you were summoned to the principal’s office,” says one executive who went through one of these introductory meetings with Mayer.

“You would have thought a fair portion of [that meeting] would have been about ‘so what are you going through? How are you feeling? Sorry about Ross. We love him. We’d like to keep him. Realistically, he won’t stay but that doesn’t have any impact on you.’

“There wasn’t any kind of commiseration or any kind of bear hug. There wasn’t even a question of ‘Are you in or are you out?’ It was: ‘I assume you’re in. Let me know otherwise.’

“There was no time for short conversation or human emotions. It was very boom, boom, boom.

“Most people walked away from that meeting saying, ‘Holy shit.’”

Keep in mind the situation here, this was a complete management shake up at company that was generally seen as headed for the rocks and we have a group of well-compensated executives (over compensated by many metrics) whining about the lack of bear hugs. Like so many places in Carlson's piece, his sources here seem to be asking for mockery but they are allowed to slide, partly because Carlson seems to lack all sense of the absurd and partly because he displays a troubling lack of detachment when it comes to his sources (particularly worrisome since many of them appear to have strong personal agendas).

The tendency to let sources frame reality for him, especially when that reality matches his narrative,  causes Carlson to miss the real significance of much of what he reports. Again and again he describes incidents, both at Google and Yahoo, that indicate dysfunctional cultures where effective decision-making and time management give way to wounded egos. Carlson is so caught up in the mindset of his sources that the message he takes away from these confrontations is that Mayer is too robotic (or as most of us would call it, professional) rather than asking what kind of organization puts hurt feelings and petty grudges ahead of sound decision making.

As for the non-people-person narrative. Trying to find some simple personality trait that explains a subject's behavior is usually a bad idea, but seldom as bad as it is here. Carlson's attempt to build a fairly normal level of shyness for a teenaged girl -- enough for her to describe herself as painfully shy, not enough to keep her from going to prom or becoming head cheerleader -- into the secret key that explains all of her career is unbelievably hokey. I'm amazed people still write this sort of thing.

I know most of you regular readers are probably sick of hearing this but having non-critical journalists shoehorning complex stories into overly simplistic narratives is a bad thing. Among other problems, it makes those journalists gullible as long as what they're being fed matches the narrative. To see just how gullible Carlson was, read David Auerbach's masterful take down  (which arguably is a hatchet job, though I don't mean that in a bad way).

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