The basic business coinage is not recent. At least as long ago as 1913 Webster's dictionary was defining a mogul as "a great personage," "magnate" or "autocrat" based on the word's historical usage: the sovereign of the Mongol empire founded in Hindustan in the 16th century. But in recent years the term has been tethered so tightly to the media industries that the pairing seems Siamese in its inseparability.
A five-minute search of the Factiva online news database uncovers more than 15,000 total deployments of the phrase "media mogul" in the English-language press. In addition to such usual suspects as News Corp. head Rupert Murdoch and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the term in the past few months alone has been applied to Leo Kirch, the disgraced former chairman of Germany's failed Kirch Group; Aydin Dogin, a Turkish newspaper owner; Izzy Asper of Winnipeg, the late founder of CanWest Global Communications; and David Smith, the proprietor of 12 TV stations in Scranton, Pa.; Billings, Mont.; and similarly sized cities.
Moguls? They're less Citizen Kanes than ski bumps.
The clearest mismatch between man and moniker is that of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. A politician whose low favorability ratings haven't been seen since Abe Beame trod City Hall, Mr. Bloomberg has been labeled a "media mogul" more than 1,400 times, says Factiva. But does he qualify? Undoubtedly a player in the financial-information field, Bloomberg LP remains a small, privately held company (midmarket, by anyone's definition) premised largely around its single product, a box that allows investors to search for and crunch reams of data. The company has never made a major acquisition. Its one foray into major media, its New York radio station, tends to trail in the ratings; its TV station barely shows up.
The moguling of Mr. Bloomberg would be little more than a joke were it not that it helped make him the city's top elected official by conferring on him a mystique whose unraveling has left voters disappointed (despite some laudable accomplishments).
Yet the over-moguling of the media realm continues. The New York Times applied the term to Strauss Zelnick, head of Bertelsmann's U.S. entertainment unit in the 1990s. Conrad Black, former chairman of Hollinger International, and now embroiled in a messy corporate governance scandal, is also still described as a mogul-even though his holdings (Chicago Sun-Times, Jerusalem Post and London Daily Telegraph) are sparse and B-list.
Let's face it: In business, there just aren't that many terrifically powerful potentates any more. Rare is the leader who can wave a hand (or open a checkbook) and change the world to his whimsy. Today's successful leaders must be creative and collaborative far more than autocratic.
Which suggests an alternative honorific: impresario. It's a word that credits the expertise that's truly valuable in the media and marketing businesses: idea generation, partnering and orchestration. You know, the sort of things Apple's Steve Jobs has done to revolutionize the music business.
So let's take media critic Michael Wolff seriously. As his recent book title puts it, it's the "Autumn of the Moguls." But it's springtime for impresarios.
Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.