Maven: CEO Dearest

Coverage of Xerox's Anne Mulcahy shows the press didn't learn much from its dalliances with Carly and Martha.
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You've come a long way, baby, The Business Press Maven is happy to say, but I've seen next to no evidence of it in the business press. After a week in which Martha Stewart's (MSO) company reported narrowed losses and Xerox (XRX) - Get Report, led by a woman, reported continued losses, let's take a look at the way coverage of women taps into old notions of gender roles, leading investors astray in the process.

But be sure: The Business Press Maven, who carries the banner of no cause save for the investor's wallet, is not claiming that these old notions tended to lead to overly negative coverage.

Quite the contrary. In fact, more than half of the time, coverage of high-profile businesswomen is overly positive. More specifically, it is slavish, condescending, worshipful, giddy, gullible and horrible. Ask me more sometime and I'll tell you how I really feel.

The other half of the time, the woman is portrayed as a cross between a witch and a shrew, with little attention given to managerial capabilities, strategies or long-term results.

Before I get to which women have been loved and which loathed, let's look at why businesswomen, more than men, receive such schizophrenic coverage.

Reporters always look at issues, creating lines of questioning, as well as story lines, from all the notions floating around in their psyche. And though it sounds funny, it is true: What we tend to see in the coverage of accomplished female business leaders is a variation of the Madonna/whore complex.

They are perfect. Or they are bad girls, too awful for words. But we'll say it in a 1,000-word piece.

In terms of perfection, think of Carleton "Carly" Fiorina, the former head of

Hewlett-Packard

(HPQ) - Get Report

who was worshipped like a pharaoh for several years. Think the Cleopatra of the business world, a low point of modern business press coverage and as sanctimonious as coverage of any recent businesswoman has been. Despite all the panting coverage, Fiorina eventually ran Hewlett-Packard aground and was booted out, just as, interestingly enough, Cleopatra was from Egypt.

Tina Brown was hailed as a genius unparalleled when she did a decently good job turning

Vanity Fair

into a

People

magazine for the educated set. She was perfect, she could do no wrong, she was a goddess on earth -- and then she bombed out of her next two magazine posts,

The New Yorker

and

Talk

, which doesn't even line birdcages anymore it was so lame.

Martha Stewart, interestingly enough, was portrayed as both perfect and a

dybbuk

. She had, in this sense, crossover appeal.

There was first all the coverage of how miraculous it was that a self-made woman essentially create a whole industry, stamped it with her name and still never misses an opportunity to makes perfect petits fours for guests.

Then there was the shin-kicking coverage of critics like journalist Christopher Byron, who never had a criticism of her he did not belabor. Then, once Martha's stewpot fell from grace with the stock-trading scandal, the jackals descended and you would have thought she tried to cast a spell to turn the world's petits fours into toads.

The truth? Probably somewhere in the middle, but as her company attempts to right itself, investors would be well served to stay away from future extremes. That seems to be a tall order, at least if you look at some of the breathless coverage of Anne Mulcahy this week.

Mulcahy, interestingly enough, runs Xerox -- so you figure the press would have learned from losing their heads over Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard, a similar company in many ways. But for Xerox, a company reporting pretty dim results this week after years of problems, get a load of this headline in

The Wall Street Journal

: "Back From the Brink: Mulcahy Leads a Renaissance At Xerox by Emphasizing Color, Customers and Costs."

A renaissance? Well, at least there is no parallel made to Cleopatra.

Even Mulcahy, much to her credit, said that she was disappointed in the steep drop in margins. And about the only groovy thing you could take away from the quarter was that full-year numbers weren't immediately ratcheted down. But here was the second paragraph of the

Journal

article: "In May 2000, the company elevated to president Anne Mulcahy, an obscure human-relations head who joined Xerox in 1976 as a saleswoman." (Like Horatio Alger, only with better hair!)

"Today, Ms. Mulcahy is widely credited with managing one of the most adroit corporate turnarounds since Louis V. Gerstner Jr. rescued

International Business Machines

(IBM) - Get Report

" Holy overstatement!

Four decades after feminism, let The Business Press Maven put the landscape in perspective: If you are reading about a powerful businesswoman, make sure the coverage is not overly positive. And be doubly sure the woman is not being portrayed as Margaret Hamilton in a boardroom. If you ever find anything fair and middle-ground, treating a woman like just another possibly talented corporate hack, trying to make a strategy fly and a stock-price pop, do let me know.

And whether you are reading about women or men, always keep in mind that journalists have a theology that sometimes leads to confusion: For some reason, no one is quite sure precisely why, the person who writes the article cannot, under pain of death, talk to the person who writes the headline.

Sometimes this leads to confusion, as this recent dud from CBS MarketWatch proves.

Headline: "Index Crushed by Pricey Oil Costs."

Lead: "Retail stocks lost any sense of upward momentum in choppy trading Friday after June Crude contracts topped an eye-popping and unprecedented $75 a barrel and couldn't recover. The

S&P

was off marginally to 470.39 on the session ... "

Index crushed? Off marginally? That is one story that comes a long way, baby, between headline and lead.

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 website 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.