Journalists and editors aren't immune to prejudice, of course, and stories written to prevailing media archetypes are the result. Previously I've written about the "David and Goliath" archetype in which the perceived "little guy" is given a free pass on any journalistic scrutiny in his battle against the big, "evil empire" (which may just happen to be the company you represent).
In my previous post, I wrote about the seven-years of anonymous stock investor chatroom rants by John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, praising his own company and panning the stock of a smaller, rival company that would just happen to become his take-over target. I described the archetypal blinders that seemed to be restraining both mass media and bloggers from going after Mackey (left) with the fury that surely would have been unleashed if, say, the CEO of Exxon or Wal-mart had done the anonymous postings praising himself and putting down a smaller rival in advance of a hostile take-over. As a "good company" committed to social responsibility, Whole Foods earns a lighter treatment than other corporations might. Companies that do the right thing often do earn at least a temporary benefit of the doubt but should not abuse that right. Whole Foods' Board of Directors should act quickly to investigate Mackey's behavior separate from ongoing FTC and SEC investigations. Even if the government agencies decide that his actions were not technically illegal, the company's board should hold Mackey to a higher standard consistent with the high ideals portrayed by Whole Foods.
Back to the media and blog analysis. This Mackey matter illustrates two other media archetypes to consider: "laissez faire" and "wacky Internet Age genius."
An editorial in today's Wall Street Journal opines that the SEC shouldn't unleash its legion of ambitious "27-year-old lawyers" investigating what the WSJ sees as innocuous actions by Mackey. This "laissez faire" archetype holds that government regulators should back off interfering with business practices as long as they aren't demonstrably criminal. This archetype is only prevalent in the libertarian press, however, so don't expect blanket exemption from scrutiny if your company strays from the straight and narrow.
The other archetype is a newer one, that of the wacky Internet Age entrepreneur. His or her maverick behavior is excused as part of some mythic genius. We certainly see this archetype played out in much of the "what's-the-big-deal?" blog coverage of the Mackey musings, like this and this.
But being a unique character will only buy you so much slack. As the FTC and SEC continue their investigations, and maybe even the Whole Foods' Board shows a little backbone, Mackey's actions ultimately will be judged against the same ethical standards any publicly traded company face.
It is interesting to look at the coverage today vs. last Friday when the story first broke. Media now are taking a deeper cut, focusing on the SEC investigation and the blogs now are leaning decidedly against Mackey's behavior, such as this one.
Note: I have sought comment on this matter from both Whole Foods and from Wild Oats and will update the Force for Good blog if they respond.
- Jon Harmon