Sunday, July 1, 2001

The Liar's Club

By Jon Entine

Recent events offer sobering lessons. First came the unwinding of this year's Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Joseph J. Ellis. According to the Boston Globe, the Mount Holyoke professor invented a heroic past including a tour of duty in Vietnam. Oh yes: He also scored a mythical winning touchdown for his high school football team.

The Wall Street Journal raised eyebrows when it reported that "The One- Minute Manager," one of the best-selling business books in history, was substantially cribbed from a colleague of Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, the authors who now run multimillion-dollar consulting firms. The two lifted almost half of the book, virtually verbatim, from an article by University of Massachusetts at Amherst professor Arthur Elliott Carlisle, leaving out only one section: the part stressing that managers should give credit to employees who give them ideas.

On Monday, the New York Times reported that columnist Jay Forman fabricated an article in a series on, of all things, human vice. "The Shame of Fishing for Monkeys" falsely claimed that evil fishermen in the Florida Keys were baiting their hooks with apples to capture rhesus monkeys.

For the record, Forman went underground. Ellis pleaded a form of temporary insanity. Blanchard offered a serial defense: First, he sent a patronizing letter to Carlisle, quoting the Rev. Robert Schuller: "A Winner respects those who are superior to him"; then he claimed that he helped write the original article. Johnson told Carlisle: "We should celebrate other people's prosperity, " a prosperity distinctly eluding the actual author.

Blanchard's and Johnson's editor, Lawrence Hughes, told the Journal he supports the authors' ever-shifting stories. Mount Holyoke colleague Peter Viereck proclaimed Ellis one of "America's greatest historians." Sprinkling more fairy dust, college president Joanne V. Creighton praised Ellis' integrity, adding: "We at the college do not know what public interest the Globe is trying to serve through a story of this nature."

Michael Kinsley, Forman's publisher, first wrote a tortured defense of the monkey business, concluding that Slate "stands by our writer and his stories." By Monday at 5 a.m., Kinsley apparently saw the light, posting a mea culpa only hours after the fiasco hit the front page of the Times' Monday business page.

"These are typical if disheartening responses from a certain style of leader," says business consultant Ellen Turner. "They have skin in the game -- and a lot to lose if the messy facts become widely publicized. They are businesses under assault, and not everyone reacts with character when crises hit."

Perhaps after the Clinton years, we should be used to such public dissimulations, but Turner, who formerly served as chief marketing officer at Nike and Kinko's, believes there's a wider lesson.

"Leaders with character have the intellectual honesty and instincts to reach beyond their own self interest," she says. "If they don't, the brand takes a hit."

Dishonesty and its cousin, defending the indefensible, have their own anti- gravity, drawing into their vortex those who do not stand for principle.

Does Kinsley's foxhole conversion, Creighton's reactive decision to ax Ellis' Vietnam course at Holyoke for this fall and William Morrow's apparent indifference to Johnson's and Blanchard's fabrication go far enough to assuage their stakeholders? As Ford and Firestone are learning, reputation and once- burned customers are not always easy to win back.

Jon Entine writes frequently on business ethics.

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle