Friday, February 10, 2012

Why Forbes, Capitalism, and Journalism Still Matter

At times, Stewart Pinkerton’s The Fall of the House of Forbes reads like a modern parable. As the third generation inherits a mighty dynasty, founding principles become dilute, and some sons love the family principles while others love the family money. At other times, Pinkerton’s tell-all resembles the “kiss of death” journalism that draws the very lurid audiences the author decries. It’s up to the committed reader to separate one from the other.

Scottish expat Bertie Charles “BC” Forbes founded his eponymous magazine in 1917 as a mix of stock tip sheet and fawning profile rag. BC’s son Malcolm made it a showcase for America’s glittering postwar aspirations, and Forbes set the tone of economic debate for a decade after Malcolm’s death. But in the new century, Forbes has foundered, becoming an in-joke and pale shadow of itself. It exists now as yet another tawdry blog platform and “content farm.”

Pinkerton, who clawed his way to managing editor, produced his book mere months after Forbes unceremoniously “retired” him in 2009. This explains the bitter edge to Pinkerton’s voice. But that edge gives his narrative a punch that rises above mass-manufactured crisis memoirs to make this book really work, when it does. Though he applies journalistic acumen, he also tells the story he lived.

BC Forbes left his media empire to his sons, but only Malcolm had balls enough to leverage his influence and seize control. The Forbes name rose alongside its flamboyant owner-editor. But none of Malcolm’s four sons captains the ship, though Steve inherited a controlling share. Pinkerton compares the resulting split vision among relatives to “having to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner every day.”

Malcolm Forbes
Pinkerton identifies only two specific missteps: Steve Forbes’ two tragicomic Presidential bids, and the failure to integrate with the print Forbes. Rather than one Sophoclean downfall, Pinkerton describes a pattern of mismanagement. Good writers and editors got squeezed, the heyday vigor fell prey to timidity, and the Forbes brothers’ compromises proved worse than the problems they solved.

My problem arises not with Pinkerton’s facts, which are robust, but with his storytelling. Pinkerton narrates the decline from 1990 to 2010 with no sense of the rise. BC and Malcolm Forbes are mere ciphers. BC alienated his wife through high-handed dicta that exiled most of his sons. Malcolm was personally, politically, and sexually ambiguous.

Both drove their company with their larger-than life personalities. And that’s all she wrote. Pinkerton spins transgressive anecdotes about Malcolm, whom he admits he never met, but never explains how that personality translated into media success. Rather than savvy, Malcolm appears merely squicky. Forbes, for Pinkerton, simply exists to decline.

Pinkerton introduces a cast of thousands with little regard for clarity. Keep notes on the endpaper. He has trouble keeping all the names in play. Lewis D’Vorkin, the villain of Pinkerton’s final chapters, disappears from the narrative for 140 pages, then again for another thirty. With such long gaps, Pinkerton has to introduce characters multiple times. Eventually, he should ask if every personality really advances the story.

Considering that Pinkerton blames Forbes’ decline partly on diminished editing and fact checking, he could use some of both. For instance, if the magazine hit its revenue peak in 2001, after Steve’s costly campaigns, after the worst of the print/digital feud, and over a decade after Malcolm’s 1990 death, I need an explanation of the gap into decline. An editor like Jim Michaels, whom Pinkerton lionizes, would catch that.

Likewise, his grammar, usually solid, occasionally turns haphazard. A few hours with a copy checker could save Pinkerton from some embarrassing moments. For instance, Pinkerton admits cribbing one-liners from David Letterman, billed in the bibliography as “David Le Herman.” Such a crude mistake suggests Pinkerton’s iPad can’t read his handwriting.

Reading what I’ve written, it sounds like I dislike this book. Not so. Pinkerton spins an interesting, if rocky, yarn about the pitfalls of capitalistic journalism. He shows why media enterprises need a solid defining vision unifying diverse parts. In an era of digital decentralization, he persuades me that journalism remains important: “Most people need an expert to filter, prioritize, and context [sic] information. A firehose of information without that is useless.”

But Pinkerton doesn’t connect the dots. He does what he accuses Forbes of descending into, if on a more professional scale. He cries out for someone to ask the question behind the question. Because if nobody does, Forbes will not be the last journalistic titan to crumble under its own weight.

1 comment:

  1. Editing and fact-checking are EVERYTHING. Without that, what you have is gossip.