Saturday, September 1, 2012

A venerated editor, a rookie reporter, and the sparks that flew between them, leading to a brilliant expose of Avon

I am about to finish reading a most interesting book, The Fall of the House of Forbes. I have already come across some passages, though, that will fascinate journalists and media students in India.

In Chapter 17, the author, Stewart Pinkerton, a former managing editor of Forbes, introduces us to Jim Michaels, "the most important editorial architect" of the magazine. Michaels, who graduated from Harvard in 1942, tried to enlist in the army during the Second World War, Pinkerton writes, but his eyesight wasn't good enough so he became an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in Burma.

After the war, and this is where it begins to become engrossing for us, Michaels signed up with a news agency, UPI, to report from India, "a place the founder of Forbes once characterised as a 'filthy country' ".

Working out of the New Delhi bureau, Michaels was the first newsman to write about the war in Kashmir, travelling on horseback to get behind Pakistani lines. In his dispatches, he described Pakistani military units marching up to the border in regimental regalia and changing into civilian clothes before crossing the border.

When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, Michaels's news report was, apparently, the first to reach the outside world. From The Fall of the House of Forbes:

Here in his own words, as described in a private e-mail decades later, is the scoop behind his scoop: 

It's hard to visualise, but in those long-ago days there was little automotive traffic. It took me ten minutes to get to Birla House. I got there before the police had cordoned off the property. There was immense confusion, of course, but I scribbled notes and rushed to file what, I believe, was the first detailed report to reach the outside world.

In those days, pre-Internet, pre-mobile satellite phones, one had to file overseas from Delhi by cable from the CTO (Central Telegraph Office) at Eastern Court near Connaught Place. By the time I got there to file my first dispatch and returned to the scene, Birla House was cordoned off: No entry to anyone. I knew the place fairly well so I climbed a low stone wall in the back only to confront an astonished constable, who let me pass after I flashed a credential he could not read because he was illiterate. My agile trespass gave me a leg up on most other foreign journalists because they couldn't get inside for some time.

Michaels's reporting, Pinkerton writes, showed up the next day on the front pages of newspapers all over the world. The following day, Michaels also reported "for all the world to read the details of Gandhi's funeral on the banks of the Yamuna".

Later, in Chapter 20, titled "Let's Really Stir Up the Animals", Pinkerton serves up a juicy appetiser in the intro:

Cutting stories by at least 15 per cent without shedding any facts was a Michaels trademark — the key to making Forbes readable for busy executives overloaded with information. Said one of his former proteges: "Jim could edit the Lord's Prayer down to six words, and nobody would miss anything."

Nor would Michaels tolerate a story that read like a press release. "THIS ISN'T REPORTING, IT'S STENOGRAPHY! WHY IS THIS PERSON STILL ON STAFF????" he wrote on top of one particularly credulous piece. "WHY DON'T YOU JUST SEND THEM A VALENTINE!!!" was another favourite skewer.

An editor after my own heart!

Pinkerton tells us in the same chapter that Michaels, who was editor of Forbes for an unbelievable 37 years, loved to take down big companies riding high on Wall Street and being gushed over by the competition. We then learn about a young reporter, Subrata Chakravarty, a Harvard grad, who wrote a highly critical report on Avon...

...a company with a spectacular growth rate and a high-flying stock. Chakravarty said the growth rate was a sham and that the company had been built by exploiting women. It was counter to what everyone else thought. Passing the draft to other editors, Michaels got nothing but sneers back, and toned the story down, much to Chakravarty's dismay.

Not realising that rewriting Jim Michaels was the equivalent of a death sentence, Chakravarty went back to his typewriter and reedited Michaels's edit. Not a good idea. Less than an hour after resubmitting the draft, Chakravarty's phone rang. A gravelly voice barked, "Subrata, who is the editor of this magazine?"

"You are, sir."

"That's right, and I'll thank you to remember that when I edit a story, it stays edited." Michaels slammed down the phone.

There's more to this story because Chakravarty refuses to roll over and play dead: 

Hurrying to Michaels's office, Chakravarty found him slumped in his chair, glowering darkly. "Don't come in here, I'm too mad to talk to you."

"But Mr. Michaels, I did exactly what you told me."

Michaels shot up in his chair, glaring. "I NEVER told you to rewrite me."

"Yes, you did," Chakravarty insisted, recounting an earlier lunch conversation when Michaels said that if a writer disagreed with something he had done, it could be fixed and then discussed. Michaels relaxed and even managed a tiny smile. "Well, I misspoke. I meant we would talk about what you could change. Now you've added 150 lines to a cover story, and it's already laid out. So get out of here so I can fix it again."

Convinced by Chakravarty's arguments and facts, Michaels cut the story by knifing out many of the caveats he had earlier included. After the story ran, on July 1, 1973, Avon's stock fell to $17 from $130 as its results bore out Chakravarty's analysis. It was an amazing support of a young reporter, in the face of opposition from others. But rewriting Jim Michaels was a mistake, Chakravarty recalls, "a rookie can make only once".

Later, Michaels would cite the Avon piece as a classic Forbesian tale.

Is it any wonder that Subrata Chakravarty, the rookie reporter, later went on to become the managing editor of Forbes under Michaels?

  • Also read: "Notes on Business Journalism", by Subrata Chakravarty, posted on Outlook editor Krishna Prasad's blog. An excerpt: "Business journalism should entertain as well as offer insight. We should write as the 'drama critics of business'. What that means is that we should make it clear who the star is and who the dope. That may not make you popular with management but it’s a lot of fun to read — and it offers your insight to the reader."
  • And visit the Forbes India website here. (Commitscion Nilofer D'Souza, Class of 2009, is a features writer for the magazine.)

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