The NYT’s Curious Praise of CEOs As Moral Leaders | #SocialEthics on Blog#42

The NYT’s Curious Praise of CEOs As Moral Leaders | #SocialEthics on Blog#42

I happened upon the strangely titled article, The Moral Voice of Corporate America, in the New York Times’ business section. Intrigued, I clicked the author’s bio before beginning to read.

The piece is written no differently than an opinion piece. While it includes many quotes from CEOs, it is almost completely devoid of any nuanced analysis to go with the contrasting facts chosen for the piece, links to assertions made, data, or examples that buttress the arguments made. In short, the piece is nothing more than a glorified ode to CEOS without so much as a thin veil of journalistic ethics, at the very least, presenting the reader with a requisite minimum of background in a larger context, nuance, counter-argumentation, and some analysis. Nothing.

There isn’t serious background reporting on why some of those CEOs might have chosen to throw their lots behind issues having nothing to do with Charlottesville. For example, while Gelles tells readers that Apple’s Tim Cook came out as gay, he could also have informed them that he’s a Southerner. Surely, his distaste for the Trump administration’s bent stems from strong personal views that were informed by a lifetime of exposure to bias of all kinds? Cook has given interviews to the media in the past and spoken out about social issues that he cares deeply about. Why not include some of that, aside from the fact that he’s gay and proud?  I am sure that the decision by Cook (not mentioned in the article) to award $1 million each to the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, with a promise to match 2:1 every dollar Apple employees donate to those two organizations. This was Cook’s response to Trump’s Charlottesville comments. It has nothing to do with his sexual orientation, and everything to do with the sour look on Cook’s face whenever he’s been in the presence of Trump.

The same goes for Gelles’ approach to his coverage of Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation’s mission is social justice. A reminder of that to Times readers would have contextually placed Walker’s statements. Of course Walker would make such comments! That is what he does on a regular basis, among many other things.

Gelles quotes Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce:

“’When I went to business school, you didn’t see anything like this,” said Marc Benioff, the founder and chief executive of Salesforce. “Nobody talked about taking a stand or adopting a cause.’

Now, Mr. Benioff is at the vanguard of a group of executives who are more connected — to customers, employees, investors and other business leaders — than ever before, and who are unafraid to use their influence.”

Marc Benioff is two years younger than I am. By the time he went to college, business ethics had long come under the influence of Milton Friedman’s 1962 tome, Capitalism and Freedom. Social activism most definitely would not have been a covered topic at USC’s school of business administration by the mid-1980’s, anymore than it would have been at Wharton at any point in time. Such teachings would have been considered heresy.

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Politics, particularly in the last nine years, have increasingly clashed with the common-sense business practice of not offending one’s customers. Does that mean that Benioff’s activism was purely motivated by his bottom line? No! But one cannot discount how much of his bottom line would have been affected had he remained silent.

The same holds for many CEOs who have come out of the woodwork both in favor or against a particular social issue that they are both passionate about and affects their particular business’ bottom line. Perfect cases in point are the owners of Chick-A-Fil and Hobby Lobby. Chick-A-Fil distinguished itself a few years back for its openly hostile policy against the LGBTQ community. Hobby Lobby’s owners sued the Obama administration, along with others, not to cover contraceptives as a part of employer-provided health insurance benefits. While one can try and call these behaviors social justice for the extreme right, they are decidedly anti-social when one takes society as a whole, not to mention the fact that both of these businesses cater to conservative customers first and foremost. Once in the fray, they made the conscious choice to forge ahead. Theirs were calculated decisions, both business and moral, to act as they did. Neither corporation has suffered as a result of their calculated risk, whereas Google or Apple, given the same set of choices, would most definitely have suffered serious blows.

One of the relative few counterpoints used in the piece come by way of Travis Kalanick, former Uber CEO. Kalanick is an outlier, as much as recently convicted Pharma Bro, Martin Shkreli. They are not representative of the “dark side” of business.

Proof Tim Cook smiles… Happier times for Travis Kalanick and Tim Cook.

The son of Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News, gets a mention for his now publicized email urging his friends to make donations to organizations that are fighting for social justice, in addition to the revelation that Murdoch made a $1 million contribution to the Anti-Defamation League. While it is entirely possible that young Mr. Murdoch is a social justice-minded sort, Fox News is a family-owned business that, at the moment, is saddled with having to contend with a long-running reputation for racism and, more recently, sexism and sexual harassment by their top talent, costing them tens of millions of dollars in settlement fees. All of these things must be weighed, in addition to the fact that James Murdoch was taken aback by Trump’s racist commentary. Murdoch’s shock and resulting benevolence don’t make him, or any one of the other CEOs who have spoken up, moral leaders.

Tech companies get praise for stepping up and obliterating the presence of neo-Nazi website The Stormer, deleting white supremacist content, and the financial accounts of known supremacists. There is no mention of the fact, especially in the case of The Stormer, that these tech companies’ lax policies with fringe elements have long been a bone of contention, particularly with African Americans involved in movements for social justice. For example, it is well-known that Facebook has been suspending the accounts of prominent Black activists as it had been allowing white supremacists to exercise their free speech. Facebook, in particular, has been the subject of much criticism in that regard. It behooved these tech companies to step up and speak out for those reasons, first and foremost.

To his credit, Gelles does include a reminder of some of the more spectacular faux-pas we saw recently:

“When Pepsi this year released an ad featuring Kendall Jenner offering a police officer a soda in the midst of an apparent Black Lives Matter protest, the condemnation was swift. Two years earlier, Starbucks drew wide ridicule when, as part of an effort by Mr. Schultz to start a national conversation on race relations, baristas were encouraged to write “race together” on coffee cups.”

But what’s missing is the obvious mix of ham-fistedness, mixed with a bit of social consciousness, mixed with a whole lot of obvious naked commercialism at a time of deep social anxiety. Starbuck’s attempt came at the height of police brutality cases and while it may have been well-intentioned, the initiative was most definitely ill-planned. The image Starbucks has always fashioned for itself is one of a socially-conscious enterprise, particularly in its partnerships for the overseas procurement of the main ingredient for its business. The leap from that to the national conversation on race was a huge leap.

Egregiously missing from the conversation in the Times piece is any mention of the fact that so many corporations are represented in the highest levels of the Trump administration and dictating the rollback of a dizzying number of regulations, to the point where corporations and the U.S. government are virtually indistinguishable. Add to that the deep corporate influence in the deregulation of everything to the real problem of American jobs not returning to the U.S., and the perception problem becomes far more acute than ever. For Apple, who used to manufacture everything in a Mac right here at home, the lingering specter of Cook’s unfulfilled promise to bring back at least some manufacturing to the U.S., against the backdrop of that really bad deal Wisconsin made with Foxconn, Apple’s Chinese manufacturer, just signed in Wisconsin. For those companies that still maintain their long-time affiliation with the Koch Brothers’ lobbying arm, ALEC (American Legislative Council), whatever comes out of this first Trump term is sure not to be remembered in a positive light. Goldman Sachs already has its reputation as in charge of the Treasury Department no matter who is in power. Gary Cohn, Stephen Mnuchin and all the half dozen or so former Goldman executives who are sticking with Trump will not change that reputation or improve it. These are the kinds of problems that underlie the reasons why so many CEOS now feel real pressure to completely disassociate themselves from a government with which they eagerly allied themselves and now cannot afford to be tied to in any way.

Curiously, a related article appeared in Business Day three days earlier, presenting the views, pro and con, of Walmart customers following that company’s CEO’s statement in opposition to President Trump. The piece, with a byline of “New York Times” oddly mirrors the corporate ethics piece both in the things it highlights and the things it fails to analyze.

Walmart’s C.E.O. Had Plenty to Say About Trump. So Did His Customers

“Peter Caprio, 64, had just started pulling out of his parking spot when he realized the cooler he had put in his trunk was holding the rear gate of his BMW sport utility vehicle open.

Mr. Caprio, a school business administrator, said Mr. Trump had made fair points in his news conference on Tuesday, when he said the violence was not just the fault of the white supremacists. “He was right; it’s on both sides,” he said.

But even if he might have agreed with Mr. McMillon’s position, he suggested it was not appropriate for the chief executive of a big company like Walmart to comment on politics.

“The C.E.O. has to worry about stockholders, nobody else,” Mr. Caprio said. “If it doesn’t affect stockholders, best to let it go.””

The comment is both a rather odd and typical one. Our culture has been inculcated in Milton Friedman’s “CEO responsibility to shareholders” mantra. The odd part is hearing it in a Walmart parking lot… One can easily observe the divisions of views that belie our nation’s polarization. The older respondents tended to give conservative responses. The younger respondents gave opposing views. Again, no mention is made of the inextricable association of corporate and government in the Trump administration.

Had this piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal, I would hardly have batted an eyelash. But this piece appeared in the New York Times, a publication that is supposed to be the flagship of liberal media and, as such, one we can count on for a more balanced view. This sort of journalism isn’t honest reporting. It is nothing more than pandering to a skittish corporatocracy that is caught between the hyper-capitalism of our new oligarchy and the simmering ire of an electorate that was already angry with the neoliberal establishment.

Subscribers of any newspaper ought to be able to count on reporting that is neutral, thorough and conveys a modicum of depth. This wasn’t it. Corporate self-interest is morphing with our politics. This isn’t the same as suddenly getting religion and abandoning Milton Friedman’s libertarian business ethics. The addition of a white supremacist president is just the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This is a distinction that the corporate media must make in this kind of reporting. Anything less gives the appearance of shilling for the corporate world they, themselves, are a part of.


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