When the economy was booming in the late 1990s, chief executives basked in the glow of mostly flattering media coverage by focusing on their business acumen, larger-than-life personalities and even friendships with celebrities.
The downturn in the markets and a string of embarrassing corporate scandals took the glow off that coverage, and chieftains are now more likely to face questions about whether their pay is justified than how they choose to spend it.
"In the late 1990s we had all these superstars of the tech industry who are now going to jail or in disgrace," said Neil Weinberg, a senior editor at Forbes magazine. "People weren't very critical about compensation, about what they were doing managerially or what their companies were doing financially. I think you're now seeing a lot more hard-edged critical coverage, particularly when it comes to whether (chief executives) are really earning their salaries."
Some media figures say the personality-driven business coverage isn't always a bad thing, given the immense power a chief executive can wield.
And there are some CEOs who continue to get covered heavily, including Barry Diller, chairman and chief executive of IAC/Interactive Corp.; Sumner Redstone, chairman and chief executive of Viacom Inc.; Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple Computer Inc.; and Michael Eisner, Walt Disney Co.'s outgoing CEO.
But CEOs increasingly are losing their celebrity status a point illustrated with Hewlett-Packard Co.'s hiring of a little-known NCR Corp. executive, Mark Hurd, who replaces the highly visible Carly Fiorina as CEO.
"I don't think it's a mistake to write about CEOs, but I think there's a consensus that it went too far at some point," said Stephen J. Adler, editor-in-chief of Business Week. "Leadership is really important and often who the CEO is really makes a difference in the company's financial performance. I think there was a bit of lionizing of the swashbuckling CEO with a big personality who was a player on the world stage. There's been a lot of rethinking about what a good CEO is, anyway."
The media and corporate worlds fed off each other to create the image of larger-than-life executives. Newspapers, magazines and networks got interesting personalities to profile, while companies got visibility.
Everyone was complicit in the coverage, said Ron Insana, the anchor of CNBC's "Street Signs" program. But Insana argues that he and other journalists continued to ask skeptical questions and press for information even during the go-go days of the 1990s. It's just that viewers and investors were loathe to hear it.
"No matter how skeptical you were, there were a lot of strange effects that went on during the bubble," Insana said. "People didn't care whether the news was good or bad as long as the CEO was in the news. You can ask all the questions you want, but it didn't seem to matter."
The CEO-as-personality phenomenon paralleled the rise of the investor class in the 1990s, when everyday people were drawn to flamboyant executives as outlets for their investments.
But just as the media and corporate leaders fed each others' excesses in the 1990s, they are now partners in a new era of corporate accountability, according to some business consultants. Boards no longer are look for flashy, limelight-hogging CEOs but competent managers, said Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief knowledge and research officer at Burson-Marsteller Inc.
"A knight in shining armor is not what boards are looking for anymore," she said. "We're talking about CEO credibility, not CEO celebrity."
But today's more skeptical coverage may be too much of a good thing, particularly if reporters don't compare executive compensation and perks with other industries or countries, said Michael Parks, director of the journalism program at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and former top editor of the Los Angeles Times.
"We went from lionizing CEOs to demonizing them," Parks said. "There's a real need for context. The excesses of a few have drawn attention to the whole group."
Whatever the case, some CEOs will always be the objects of press and public attention, especially with companies whose executive's outsized personalities are intrinsic to the brand. No more fitting examples of that are Donald Trump and Martha Stewart.
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