May 14, 2001
"I'm not sure people understand this," my breakfast companion was saying, "but he may have been the most influential media figure around."
The speaker was the CEO of a large public-relations firm, a man who knows every prominent editor, columnist, producer and anchorperson in America. But he wasn't referring to Ed Kosner or Maureen Dowd or Don Hewitt or Peter Jennings. He was talking about John Scanlon.
Yes, a PR guy. And my friend was probably right: Scanlon may have defined this media era better than anyone on earth.
Filling roles he created
John Scanlon's death 10 days ago leaves a hole in New York the size of a continent. That is to say, as big as his head and his heart. Each. It also leaves a void unlikely to be filled, because his successors in the Media-Spindustrial Complex will be filling positions and playing roles that he, more than anyone else, created.
Competitors consider him the godfather of litigation PR. He was instrumental in bridging the gulf between political consulting -- that is, influencing the mood of an electorate -- and commercial public relations. He was a peerless strategic adviser to defense ministers and CEOs alike. A garrulous man, a poetry-spouting raconteur who once set a Yeats poem to music and heard it recorded years later by Judy Collins, Scanlon was a complex being who was as passionate in his opposition to the Vietnam War as he was in his defense of the tobacco industry. He was a stalwart defender of the press -- witness his now-legendary representation of CBS News in the libel suit filed against it by Gen. William Westmoreland -- yet he could hate the media with an equal, even reckless, fervor.
Indeed, I think that touches on the most complicated but perhaps most important part of his legacy. Even though he went too far (leaking to the press damning and inaccurate information about a tobacco-industry opponent, a move that harmed John's own career), he ultimately held a mirror up to many of us in the news media, forcing us to confront our own smugness and hypocrisies.
Let's face it: Media people, especially here in Spin City, can be a pretty insufferable lot. Self-righteous, and basking in our presumed authority. Scanlon, naturally, played that narcissism like a fiddle. Getting called by John was a signal that you had arrived, that you had influence. But if Scanlon -- a genuine working-class Irish-Catholic intellectual, a fellow traveler with the Commonweal set of the 1960s -- sensed that you had the brains to be self-critical, he could cite chapter and verse of the stories you got wrong, the biases you failed to acknowledge. An evening with John could be equal parts pitch and punch.
That challenging mind -- and, certainly, his oversize capacity for intimacy -- may account for Scanlon's deep friendships with some of the best journalists of the past two generations: Pete Hamill, Ken Auletta, John and Jackie Leo, et al. Many of them were saddened by his tobacco work; some were angered when he, the son of a union laborer, took management's side in a bitter Daily News strike in New York. But they did not abandon him. He was their friend. He was also, in some way, I believe, our conscience.
Look, I know this may sound preposterous. There are former editors of mine who will recoil from this characterization of John, seeing him as a hired gun, and interpreting any softening in attitude toward him and his ilk as a betrayal of journalism's principles. And I don't mean to be too preciously analytical about him. Scanlon played the PR game because he liked to make and spend money. If he defended people and companies abhorred by his friends -- many of them political reformers from the '60s who cut their teeth on the McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy campaigns, or in that great cauldron of reform, the Lindsay administration -- it was because that was his job, his skill, his career.
He knew the game
But the fact remains: He was great because he knew the game, understood its rules, worked harder at it than most of the players and understood that, more often than not, objectivity is a standard established by people whose main goal is not locating truth but landing on Page One.
"He would have been a great newspaperman, or an editor, if he'd chosen to go that way," Pete Hamill once told me. He could order a mass of information in an instant. He could talk a spot-on lead. He could even write the next day's headline with uncanny accuracy. "He would have been," Mr. Hamill said then, "terrific." Would have been, and was.
Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz-Allen & Hamilton.
Copyright May 2001, Crain Communications Inc.