Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Moose Sighting: Even if you've only been paying passing attention to the news lately, you know the saga of Jayson Blair, who completely fabricated or plagiarized all sorts of stories for the New York Times and still managed to have a stellar career either because the NYT management was desperate to promote and encourage a black reporter or because they were completely clueless and grotesquely incompetent.

It really doesn't matter to me. It's not like I would read or believe the NYT any more than any other paper. Besides, journalism is easy - comedy is difficult. That's why this report from the competing New York Daily News caught my eye.

In a surreal moment that reminded one staffer of Shari Lewis' old TV show, [publisher Arthur "Pinch"] Sulzberger produced a stuffed toy moose that he sometimes trots out as a symbol of open communication.

Its use struck some in the audience as a tone-deaf and patronizing gesture.

Sulzberger handed the moose to Raines, who laid it aside.

No, not Shari Lewis - South Park, with Pinch Sulzberger and the Moose as Mr. Garrison and Mr. Hat. We're I in that room, the only thing that would be going through my mind is: Oh. My. God. Time to update my resume.

Here is a man who has considerable influence over one of the most respected journalistic outlets in the world, not to mention the careers and livelihood of countless NYT staff. His company is mired in an embarrassing, debilitating scandal. It is a time of grave crisis, and he is trying to make a point with a TOY MOOSE. If I worked diligently for my entire life, I could not come up with more venomous satire.

This moose business - often referred to as the "moose on the table" or the "moose in the room" - comes from a favored metaphor of overpaid management consultants and other people looking to sound thoughtful and knowledgeable. A sample can be read in this otherwise dry article from the American Institute of Architects (but don't read the article, just follow this excerpt):

When a group of people get together to discuss an issue, to solve a problem, to vision for the future, sometimes there is a moose in the room. But no one wants to acknowledge its presence. The moose walks around, sits down, at times crosses its legs and is totally ignored by people in the room. Why is that? Well, it may be uncomfortable for some to talk about the moose; discussion about the moose could open up a whole new can of worms that some people are not prepared to handle. Some are in total denial of its existence even when the moose stops and stares them in the face. It could be just plain scary and awkward to discuss the moose, but, in order to have a truly meaningful, in-depth discussion on any issue, we need to overcome our denial and put on the table those aspects of the issue that may be difficult, scary and awkward to discuss. If we don't, we limit our chances for success. The likely outcome will fall far short of our hopes because, no matter how much we would rather not deal with it, the moose will not be ignored. In short, we need to throw the moose on the table.

Or this entire book, titled Put the Moose on the Table:

Like a moose in the living room, some problems are hard to ignore. Randall Tobias says that whether these problems are in business or in life, it is best to confront them openly and honestly.

Now, I'm all for dealing with things honestly and courageously, but if you treat me like a child I am going to immediately write you off and dismiss everything you say. Memo to all managers: If you find yourself in a situation where people don't think it is in their best interest to be honest and open with you, it is because you have not given them any reason to think they can. Who knows, maybe they're afraid they'll find themselves in conflict with the latest management fad and thereby fall into your bad graces. Or maybe they just don't get paid enough to stomach another metaphor. Whatever the case, unleashing the Moose is going to make things worse. If you can't deal with a problem without resorting to cliched leadership seminar doublespeak or silly attention grabbing displays, why should I think you can handle the truth (apologies to Jack Nicholson)?

You know, in Vietnam, when soldiers were in life-threatening situations and the officer was going to make things worse by leading them based on high-sounding procedures from some army manual, they just shot the officer and blamed it on the enemy. Those were more civilized times.

I'm put in mind of the show Northern Exposure. The doctor from New York finds himself having to practice medicine amongst the goofy and eccentric residents of a small town in Alaska. Occasionally, a moose would amble through the middle of town. The goofy residents paid no attention, but for the doctor from NY, it symbolized how far he had come from conventional reality - he was really out there.

Well that's the New York Times these days - really out there. They have transcended journalism and achieved comedy. Bravo.