Executives become incensed when they spend 45 minutes speaking to a journalist, then find that the total extent of their contribution to the resulting article is a single cliche', bromide or platitude:
"What we've got here is a time bomb waiting to go off," warns Jared Doenitz, CEO of Thermonuclear Bobkin.
"Believe me, this is only the tip of the iceberg," cautions Chet Rodzinski, CFO of Overnight Bathosphere.
"If it rains hard enough, everyone gets wet," says Joe Bob Shelby, president of Great Southern Gulch Leasers.
What particularly irks corporate heavyweights is that all those pertinent details about P/E ratios, vendor accessibility and matrixing plateaus get left out of the story, the journalist instead quoting some throwaway cliche' that a heavyweight may have let slip while reaching for a smoke. The executives feel misrepresented, manipulated, abused. These feelings, while justified, nevertheless betray a profound naivete' about the way the media operate in this country.
As any seasoned journalist knows, no story -- no matter what the topic -- is complete unless it contains at least three haymakers. This is an unwritten rule, and if a journalist were to ignore it, the public would have his head on a platter or his nose on a grindstone. It just so happens that all haymakers are cliche's. In order for a story to work, somebody has to say them, and somebody has to report them. Nobody goes home till they do.
This does not mean that all of the spokesmen cited in a story have to mouth platitudes and old saws; where space permits, interviewees should be allowed to speak in a lucid, informative fashion about their firms' unique position, secret aspirations, hidden strengths, gravest reservations. But no story can ever be put to bed until the three statutory cliche's are in place.
This can be a problem for the journalist. When I started out in this business, I used to spend hours and hours on the phone waiting for executives to supply the heavy-duty cliche's I needed to wrap up my story. Then I wised up and started setting traps. I'd let people ramble on for a few minutes about marketing niches and serial interfaces, then blurt out:
"Are you saying that it's more a question of style than substance?"
Sometimes they'd say, "I couldn't have put it better myself: it's more a question of style than substance," and that's the way I'd use it in my story. But sometimes they'd say, "No, what an odd question to ask," and I'd just have to tough it out, wait till they let their guard down and zap them with an old standby:
"I guess whenever you hear this stuff about taxing capital gains, your eyes must glaze over."
"Could you say it, please?"
"Say, 'Whenever I hear this stuff about taxing capital gains, my eyes glaze over.' "
"Whenever I hear this stuff about taxing capital gains, my eyes glaze over."
"Can I quote you on that?"
Unfortunately, sometimes, business people know what you're up to and won't give in. No matter how you try to trip them up, they keep peppering you with the technical jargon, the coherent explanations, the well-turned phrase. Jerks. My attitude toward them is: you bust my chops; I'll bust yours.
"Look, Mr. Dibs: you, me and everybody else in this country know that your outfit is up to its ears in alligators," I say. "Sooner or later, you're going to admit that. Now, I've got nothing planned for the evening. I can stay on this phone all night. So why don't you make it easy on yourself. Admit that you're up to your eyeballs in alligators, and we can call it a day."
If that doesn't work, I try threats.
"Mr. Johnson, I don't care how large a dividend Interstate Qualm Allayer & Life paid last quarter. If you can't feed me something about the tip of an iceberg -- or a time bomb waiting to go off or an accident just waiting to happen -- I don't think you deserve to see your name in print."
When that doesn't work, I start wheedling.
"I've got four hungry mouths to feed, Mrs. Harris. Every minute you refuse to say, 'I refuse to dignify those allegations with comment,' you're taking another gingersnap out of my kids' mouths. How's it feel, lady?"
Finally, there are bribes.
"I know that Preternatural Alpine Flakes lost $237 million last quarter, Miss Ferguson, and I also know that the main reason was the rat retinas the FDA found in every third box of Kiddy Soy Doodles. But we can make those rat retinas mice kidneys in the edited version of this story, and we'll say you showed a $4 profit for the quarter. The only thing you have to say is: "What goes around comes around."
"What goes around comes around."
Joseph M. Queenan is a writer who lives in Tarrytown, N.Y.