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Apocalypse Now

The press keeps pretending that the tumult at the top of the big media conglomerates is just an unfortunate, fleeting chapter. Guess what? It's actually the end of the world as we know it.


Oh, c'mon. Let's all just imagine the worst. Predict the most extreme outcome for the media business. Pretend it's a contest: What's the most outlandish plot development you can come up with? The most unexpected, jaw-dropping turn of events?

Granted, many comically exaggerated scenarios have already taken place. A year ago, who -- except me -- would have predicted the ignominious end, in rapid-fire succession, of three of the world's most prominent media executives: Messier, Middelhoff, and Pittman?

But not even I could have imagined what now seems like a fair bet: a felony conviction for Martha Stewart. (I love this Rosie thing, too -- the revolt of the brands.)

Obviously it's not going to end here -- if only because too many people are enjoying this. So tell me your fantasies. Confess. What's your most satisfying darkness-at-noon vision? Who do you want fired and humiliated? Who do you want convicted?

Or is this too morbid for you? Possibly, you think your fantasies are too vengeful and malevolent (after all, if you're a Time Inc.–er, you've had your life savings wiped out). And in the end, does anything really ever change? Even with revolution in the air, it always turns out to be more of the same.

Certainly, there continues to be a weird disconnect between all this management violence and share-price mayhem and the still-measured tones of professional analysis. When you listen to the journalists and analysts covering the media business, you can actually think it's an orderly, self-correcting world we work in. Reporters might spend a day ripping Messier or Pittman or Middelhoff to shreds, but then, shortly, return to defending Vivendi or AOL Time Warner or Bertelsmann.

"In fact," says the Times, "once all the broken promises about being a new breed of company for a new millennium are discounted, AOL Time Warner does not seem to be in such bad shape, considering the economy."

Media frenzy can be vicious, but it's almost always short-lived. Reporters resist following to the end the cold logic of breakdown and collapse -- even for the fun of it. They can't seem to help themselves from thinking that invariably, rationality will emerge out of the current mess. If Martha goes to jail, the world will have been righted. It's all ultimately part of a healthy process. After this period of resignations, terminations, investigations, and reorganizations, normalcy will return.

AOL Time Warner "is a company that has a strong balance sheet, a portfolio of businesses that are No. 1 or No. 2 in their fields, and high levels of free cash flow," Christopher Dixon, the almost-always-quoted, carefully coiffed media-stocks analyst, recently told the Times. "No company can fire on all eight cylinders at once. Here they are firing on seven of eight."

This is, I would argue, a serious failure not just of analysis but of imagination -- that, at this moment, instead of professional optimism, we need, more helpfully, some determined fatalism. We really ought to be preparing for the worst to happen.

But the rules of reporting and analysis are that even if you have good reason to suspect that the end is near, that events are largely out of control, that very bad things will invariably happen to very bad companies, you're not allowed to say it. There's no formula or model for applying any sort of chaos theory, or gut sense, to business reporting or corporate analysis.

For instance, it's impossible to report what would, at this point, seem pretty obvious: that nobody knows how to run the superaggregated and radically transformed companies of the past decade. And this is not necessarily because these are bad men who are trying to run them (although, of course, they may be bad) but because the companies they've built, or which they've had handed to them, defy control -- they're too vast and far-flung and composed of too many recalcitrant people and inimical functions. This, together with the fact that the guys who run these companies often have no idea what they're doing. Don Logan, for instance, who has just taken over responsibility for AOL, may not ever have sent an e-mail.

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