Send Lawyers, Guns and Money

Wow.  Wow.  Wow.  Monday, April 24th was a day like no other in recent history in the media business. By now you surely know what happened:

Tucker Carlson bounced from Fox.

Don Lemon bounced from CNN.

Jeff Shell bounced from NBC Universal.  (This happened the preceding weekend, but many people didn’t learn of it until Monday.)

The circumstances behind each of these bombshell dismissals were different so it’s reasonable to look at them as separate, discrete acts.  The fact that they all took place on the same day, or just about, could be seen as no more than a coincidence. But watching the news unfold I couldn’t help but think that while the companies didn’t not act in concert, taken collectively they are excellent reminders of some fundamental truths in the business. Truths that Warren Zevon captured best in his classic lyric, “Send lawyers, guns, and money, the shit has hit the fan.”  (Although thankfully no guns were involved in last week’s events.)

The fear of lawyers, or more specifically litigation, can’t be overstated in this business.  Nothing terrifies boards, c-suite executives, and HR managers more than lawsuits.  Of course, all big companies will talk a big game in public about not being afraid of litigation, defending their interests…blah blah blah.  But the exposure to potential litigation due to the actions of an employee, or multiple employees, leaves corporate execs with the same terrified feeling of a wounded gazelle on the plains surrounded by hungry predators.

The Fox News/Dominion lawsuit is case and point.  It did more than lead to Tucker Carlson’s dismissal, but it permeated the air surrounding everything that happened last Monday like Yoda’s ever-present, all powerful, invisible force.

No doubt much of the press outside of Fox, and probably a number of those inside Fox as well, reveled in watching the Murdochs and their merry band get publicly humiliated these past several months.  They richly deserved it.  And the reason we know they deserved it is the same thing that keeps corporate execs at every media company up at night – discovery that emerged from the litigation.

Fox News got hoisted on its own petard thanks to the leaks of damning and shocking emails, texts, and statements from the most powerful, well compensated people inside the company.  It exposed Fox News in ways that no whistle blower or piece of investigative journalist could.  If these revelations came to light through those sources they could have been dismissed as the acts of bitter, disgruntled employees or hit jobs from envious competitors.  But what Dominion achieved through discovery was beyond dispute and represents the sum of all fears for every CEO and board member in the business.

The entire sorry spectacle proved once again how really, really smart people can do really, really dumb things.  What were Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingram thinking by sharing such explosive stuff in email and texts, mediums where such correspondence is preserved and open to later exposure?  And as more details of Tucker’s texts leaks the depth of the bad behavior and exposure only deepens.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that statements by corporate leaders about integrity, upholding corporate values and maintaining safe workplaces are just lip service.  Leaders care about culture.  What I am saying is that human beings in these circumstances are driven more by their fears than their hopes.  Of course, leaders hope all their colleagues live up to the values the company espouses.  They hope when issues arise they will dispense justice fairly and equitably. But in reality, more so than anything else, it is the fear of litigation, and what could be unearthed during discovery, that motivates them to act.  It’s the reason why Comcast wasted no time engaging counsel as soon as claims arose against Jeff Shell. It’s the reason what happened to Fox News in this lawsuit will be seared into the brain every corporate counsel from Manhattan to Los Angeles.

Some commentators have noted that the fear of litigation can be so overwhelming that at time leaders overreact, as we’ve seen with successful countersuits in the past.  Regardless of whether the actions are justified (and in these cases they clearly were), my point is after watching what happened to Fox News it’s difficult to blame any CEO, HR leader or corporate counsel for moving aggressively to eliminate problems.  If the presumably smartest and savviest people at Fox could be so stupid, it’s a virtual certainty that other equally smart and savvy execs at other media companies have made the same mistakes.

There’s also a sad irony here.  These same news organizations don’t hesitate to use their financial and legal muscle to lobby for governments and other institutions to be more open and transparent with the public.  As they should, that’s the job of the press.  Yet when it comes to providing transparency for their own inner workings when facing litigation, there’s not a media CEO out there who wouldn’t choose a closed door settlement over a public discovery process.

Speaking of journalistic ethics and freedom of the press, what happened last Monday was another stark reminder that the news business is a business first.  The classic, cynical rephrasing of The New York Times’ famous motto – “All the news that fits, we print” – has never been more true.  And because the business comes first, preserving and protecting the brand – the goose that lays the golden egg – in the end is the only thing that matters.

Look at Tucker Carlson.  He was unquestionably a ratings juggernaut.  But it’s clear from the leaks that, in addition to be a first-class asshole, he considered himself bigger than his bosses, the owner and indeed Fox News itself.  My bet is he still feels that way after being fired.  But he’s not.  We’ve seen this movie before.  Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, both former Fox superstars, were jettisoned for bad behavior.  Tucker Carlson got his shot because of the O’Reilly fiasco.  In the news business no talent is bigger than the company they work for.  The Murdochs have proven time and again that the brand comes first and that they know how to make stars.  I wouldn’t bet against them this time.

Same is true for Don Lemon and Jeff Shell.  They may have thought they were essential, irreplaceable assets.  Few attain such heady levels, and because the world tends to heap praise on those who do it’s easy for those people to fall prey to the illusion of indispensability.  But in media business the only names that are indispensable are the ones on the door or listed on the controlling shares of stock. 

In the final analysis the business is better off because of the events of media’s “Bloody Monday.”  Bad actors were removed, and important values were reinforced.  But they also were a reminder that Warren Zevon had this right years ago – it’s lawyers, ownership (not guns) and money that matter most in this business.

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