When Good-Bye Is Not Enough

When the British government determined that the BBC - in one 6 a.m. radio newscast last spring - overstated the degree to which Downing Street had fudged its intelligence in using illegal weapons as a pretext for war with Iraq, the offending reporter and the BBC's chairman and its director general all resigned.

Director General Greg Dyke reportedly told BBC staffers at their central London headquarters: "I don't want to go. But if in the end you screw up you have to go."

When the New York Times discovered fraud, plagiarism and inaccuracies in reporting by Jayson Blair, Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd resigned as sacrifices to the damaged integrity of the company.

When Gerald Levin stripped Time Warner of more than $200 billion of stock valuation in the merger with AOL, trashing the pensions and savings of many long-term Time Inc.-ers, he left on his own accord (with $1,362,000 a year in pension and payments*) to launch a "holistic mental health institute" in (where else) California to be called (I'm not making this up) Moonview Sanctuary. His final word on the merger, "I don't have any regrets."



Reading Nina Munk's eye-opening "Fools Rush In" account of the AOL takeover of Time Warner you can't help but think Jerry Levin should be the last person in America to hand out advice about mental health. His delusional rationalization for driving the merger and underhanded behavior (such as not telling the Time Warner board or long-time Time Warner colleagues about the merger until it was too late) gives the clear impression that Levin could use a little holistic mental health treatment himself.

Although most of the AOL executives who allegedly cooked the books that led to the crash of then AOL-Time Warner stock (Myer Berlow, Steve Case, Bob Pittman, David Colburn) are out of work and are defendants in huge shareholder litigation, before the fall, they cashed out their own options and have millions upon millions in the bank.

While one could argue that the BBC execs hoped to protect government support of the news organization by taking their leave gracefully and that Mr. Raines and Mr. Boyd could have been job-eliminated long before the Blair incident for management styles that would have fit in nicely in post-war Eastern Europe, at least they left ASAP.

Mr. Levin hung around from the announcement of the "merger" in January 2000 until May 2002 when he left the company to "find the poetry in my life." In that period, AOL Time Warner's stock price dropped from nearly $100 to less than $7.

While Mr. Levin clearly did not act alone in merging the two companies, it was his misguided "vision" that propelled the eventual train wreck. Perhaps the most chilling part of Munk's book is when she revisits the pre-crash irrational exuberance of the Internet in the late 90s when pundits were saying things like AOL would go to $400 in short order and there was no reason for the Dow not to hit 36,000. (You can get the same chill reading Jim Ledbetter's "Starving to Death on $200 Million" about the rise and fall of The Industry Standard.)

Be that as it may, one can't help but compare and contrast the artful resignations of other failed CEOs with Mr. Levin's "don't blame me" attitude.

Since Mr. Levin spent most of his days at Time Warner proselytizing about "integrity" perhaps instead of studying far eastern mysticism and holistic health care, Mr. Levin ought to learn more about how failed political and business leaders in China and Japan have ended their careers.

* The $1 million per year is said to stop in 2005.

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