Lyne Disease

The affliction of journalists who want to be CEOs.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Last week, Susan Lyne, president of ABC, became the latest in an endless line of executives to wash out of Disney’s long-faltering network. Lyne’s firing was surely bad news to sitcom and drama writers whose projects she had green-lighted. But it also came as a blow to a different group of writers: journalists who aspire to business success. Lyne had chucked a great journalism job for a higher-paying, much more prestigious post at Disney.

Almost every journalist envies his sources sometimes. Most journalists find that the executives or celebrities or politicians they’re covering have far more power and money than they do—even though they share similar educational credentials and backgrounds. Journalist envy is particularly acute in business, where even the dumbest source makes oodles more money than the smartest reporter. After interviewing mutual fund managers, investment bankers, and CEOs—especially folks who are underperforming—some journalists conclude they could do the job better. Sometimes they can. But mostly they don’t.

Consider Peter Kann, a courageous and swashbuckling Wall Street Journal reporter who won a Pulitzer for his writings on the 1971 India-Pakistan war. He has had a less distinguished tenure as CEO of Dow Jones. His recent efforts to boost his own pay while cutting back on the Journal’sbenefits for reporters have inspired a revolt.

Dot-com crossovers have had mixed results. Donald Katz, the author of Home Fires, was a big shot magazine writer before he founded, where he is still chief executive officer. Michael Wolff, on the other hand, managed to get only a decent book, Burn Rate,and a host of columns out of his efforts to become a player in Manhattan’s new media game. When the dust settled, he was still a columnist—albeit a highly paid one for Vanity Fair.

As Adam Lashinsky points out in this fine profile, Silicon Valley heavy Michael Moritz, a partner at Sequoia Capital, was a reporter at Time. But in his bio, Moritz makes only the vaguest reference to his time at Time.

In New York, where many financiers’ greatest ambition is to write—see Soros, George; and Cramer, Jim—many writers have turned to finance. Steve Rattner was a Washington correspondent for the New York Times before he shifted into investment banking. He now runs his own private-equity firm, Quadrangle Group. Because Rattner had the job that many of his peers wanted when he was in his 20s, and because he has the job that many of his peers want now that he’s in his 50s, he is widely envied. (Click here for Michael Wolff’s unwarrantedly ugly profile of Rattner.)

Lyne’s appointment as “executive vice president for acquisitions and development of intellectual material and new opportunities” at Disney in 1996 gratified many journalists because she had been the editor of Premiere—a smart magazine that wasn’t a celebrity suck-up book. Suddenly, a woman who had worked at alternative publications—the Village Voice and New Times—now sat near the top of the ultimate mainstream company.

Lyne at first exceled by restoring something that had been missing from television in the sitcom-soaked 1990s—narrative. She commissioned and aired ABC biopics on Judy Garland, Anne Frank, and Cleopatra. And in 2002, when the network had ridden Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? into the ground, Lyne was promoted to president of ABC, where she was essentially the chief programmer.

Lyne’s skills as an editor should have translated directly to prime-time programming. Both editing and programming require you to be a tastemaker and expert zeitgeist surfer, and to help other creative types formulate and frame stories. But journalism doesn’t prepare you for the real skill required for being a successful executive. Editing a magazine, or being a reporter for a newspaper, is not preparation for life inside a big corporation like Disney.

Senior executives must view buzzwords and clichés—teamwork, vision, corporate culture—as essential to their work, not as terms to be deconstructed or parodied. Disney is a place where company literature refers to employees as cast members and people wish one another magical days. A tendency to irony may get you some assignments from Premiere or even a column at Slate. But it won’t get you to the top of the organization chart at a Fortune 500 company.

Veteran reporters and editors know that their highest allegiance is to the truth. (Make your own Jayson Blair joke here.) Make a mistake and you have to correct it. But at a corporation, the highest loyalty is to something else—the corporation itself, or its shareholders, or its CEO, or its profits. A journalist-turned-executive must often suppress her instinct for truth and openness. Lyne could have learned a nice lesson in this from her boss in the weeks before she lost her job. In March, Disney President Robert Iger, who, along with Michael Eisner has been complicit in ABC’s programming failings in recent years, spoke glowingly of Lyne. “Our job right now is to support her, to give her both the time and the room to perform, and I think that’s critical,” he said. “I believe in Susan strongly, and I think she has the goods to turn it around.” A few weeks later, he fired her.