Getting Personal About Yahoo!

It's hard to stomach most coverage of CEO Terry Semel.
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Some might guess that The Business Press Maven's constant criticism of the business media is a matter of professional obligation. All business. But no, loyal readers, not even close. Let me make one thing clear to you: This is personal.

Why? I can't stop at one reason. For one, the flowery, ingratiating coverage of CEOs calls to mind that infamous line by former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, who once said, "The only way I can lose this election is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy." The only way a powerful, well-paid CEO can lose good coverage is, well, my imagination fails me.

Take the coverage of embattled

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

CEO Terry Semel from the scene of yesterday's battle, the annual meeting. Semel was given a pay package the size of Bolivia for running his company in reverse and got skewered by shareholders. At the company's annual meeting, the board of directors lost an incredible amount of support ... but Semel still garnered good coverage. The business media will contort themselves like circus freaks to say something positive about a powerful, well-paid CEO.

Granted, there are headlines about the overall disaster that was the Yahoo! annual meeting, but that just makes the kind coverage Semel got all the more absurd.

The Wall Street Journal's

headline

looked like this: "Yahoo Holders Send Message: Vote for Directors Reflects Discontent at Big Pay Packages."

Discontent was clearly in the air.

TheStreet.com's

headline was "Yahoo! Shareholders Show Discontent."

The New York Times

played up how the discontent sent a larger signal: "Dissident Shareholders Send Message to Yahoo." And the

New York Post

, to its everlasting credit,

went with a headline that summed it all up perfectly: "Yahoo! Boo-Hoo."

Now, please, take The Business Press Maven's hand so I don't have a grand mal like Tony Soprano as we look to see how the CEO of this embattled company, rife with discontent, comes across.

The

Associated Press

ran with this

happy headline: "Yahoo CEO upbeat at annual meeting."

OK, anyone can mistakenly slap a headline on a story that doesn't quite match, right? I mean, it's not like they're going to run with a happy-wanderer, press-release-style quote from Semel about how great things are in the very first sentence, right?

No. They wait until the second sentence:

"'Yahoo has staked out a strong competitive position and ... we are better positioned than we have ever been before,' Semel said during Yahoo's annual meeting."

Well, maybe they're setting him up. Maybe they'll point out how his words don't quite match reality, right? Uh, wrong.

What did not match reality was the article. Soon, for example, the article was serving as an apologist for a man who made nearly $200 million last year: "Semel's compensation package wasn't brought up Tuesday."

Never mind that the board lost enough support to legitimately call to mind -- as the

Post

did -- some pre-Michael-Eisner-ousting board votes at

Disney

(DIS) - Get Report

. And they lost that support because shareholders were red-faced mad about the compensation package granted to Semel.

Having given Semel a pass on the meeting, his pay and the past, the

AP

article ends by letting him define the promise of the future. Here's the kicker -- and please tighten your grip on my hand:

"'You have every reason to believe this is going to be a much better business for Yahoo going forward,' Semel said."

We're lucky you can't hear soaring music play.

For its part,

Forbes

almost tripped over itself in its lead. It was trying its best to rush to Semel's defense but could not, of course, gloss over the shareholder action. Thus said

Forbes

, in one of the most lurching leads you will ever see, "Terry Semel escaped Yahoo!'s annual shareholder meeting unscathed Tuesday. But shareholders made it clear that the chief executive has some work to do if he plans on sticking around another year."

Got that? He was completely unscathed. But the shareholders told him he's on the firing line. Unscathed. Firing line.

At least no one took to task the criticism of Semel's exorbitant pay package as misdirected and hypocritical, right? Wait,

here's the headline from

MarketWatch

: "Criticism of Semel pay is misdirected, hypocritical." In the lead, which makes the claim for "frank talk," the outrage over the wasteful granting of millions to Semel is termed a "fuss."

And as for those compensation committee lackeys, the board members who saw their support drop by a remarkable one-third?

MarketWatch

declares only: "Yahoo compensation committee members re-elected."

If I didn't know better, I'd think everything was fine with Semel, his compensation, his compensation committee and Yahoo!. Fortunately, I do know better. And that's why my criticism is not business. It's personal.

At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.

A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;

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