Sunday, September 01, 2002

Papier Mache

This week's Memphis Flyer cover story, "Paper Lion," is an embarrassment. It purports to be some kind of definitive overview of Commercial Appeal Editor in Chief Angus McEachran, but the story is so full of holes and missing information, so littered with weak material striving to plug those holes, that it leaves as many questions as it purports to answer.

For starters, the story never actually speaks with him! The closest they come is sending a reporter to a professional association talk he gave. The writer, Mary Cashiola, says that "we caught up with him." That implies some kind of face-to-face contact, as its normally used, but in this case the reporter simply transcribes remarks from the podium. They were, however, able to get a photographer to take close-up pictures of him, even at the CA offices. No explanation.

No one who currently works with him is directly quoted. Some are anonymously quoted. And some former colleagues are quoted.

The story talks about several events, but only incompletely. The worst example is when they discuss his involvement in the Pittsburgh Press unionization strike in 1992. The story sets up something good, qoted a Press colleague as saying
There was a hope," says Haurwitz, "that Angus would lead
the paper back to publication. As the strike wore on, it
became apparent that things had turned very sour."
And that's it! Nothing about how the strike ended or the role played by McEachran! Who edited this?

Later we learn
When McEachran came back to Memphis from Pittsburgh in
1993, the Pittsburgh Press, the dinosaur he had molded into
a Pulitzer Prize-winning publication, had been sold to its
competition and the staff dispersed to other industries and
other papers.
So what really happened? According to these bits, found through ended with the closure of the Press by its owners who avoided settlement, and the relaunch of a sister newspaper. Oops! Bad end for McEachran, who as best I can tell, apparently had little effect, and certainly no positive one, on the outcome. It's also interesting to note that he came to the CA when they were in the middle of a strike! I've never heard how that one turned out.

Another glaring hole is the "error court." The story makes much hay about McEachran's legendary temper, much hay. It's really the only notable thing about it and it's mostly just stuff they picked up. It's not explored in any detail, nor is it used to examine the inner workings of McEachran nor his philosophy. The "error court" is mentioned, but it's a few paragraphs before we learn more. Even then, we don't learn the important parts. Turns out that
He instituted the paper's "error court," a
more politically correct forum for reporters to explain their
mistakes and themselves. It's not the public routing in the
newsroom that staffers once suffered through but has been
known to make more than one reporter cry....

The walk down the corridor to error court is called the walk of
shame. If reporters make too many mistakes, they can lose
their beat or even their job. "Like it or not," said McEachran,
"I can tell you, in the three years we've been doing it, we've
reduced errors by about half and reduced the number of
stupid errors by three quarters."
And that's it. No finding out what goes on inside. That's the problem with the whole story, right there.

Cashiola writes
But not everyone likes McEachran or his management style.
It's loud and blustery, meant to intimidate subordinates into
And the story has more than a few examples, almost all from his past. No one she quotes, anonymously, from his current CA stint has a story. It seems he's mellowed since the Press closure, though no reason or insight is given.

That's what's frustrating. We don't get a view of the man, rather we get a man-shaped hole that's defined by what's missing, by the pressure on those around him, not by what's there or inside the man.

And there's nothing about his "legacy" at the CA, as the story headline promises. His actual impact on reporters, columnists and editors is completely absent.

It's a bad story. It really is.

You have to go to editor John Bramston's sidebar viewpoint column (at the bottom of the Cashiola article) to get what's missing from Cashiola's piece. He dissects McEachran's lackluster term at the CA and points out the many, many problems at the CA. It's what the larger article could have been. But wasn't.

Until next time,
Your Working Boy

No comments: