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The Ultimate Hustle


EDITORIAL: The Ultimate Hustle by Ed Meagher

In the movie The Sting, the film uses silent movie captions between scenes such as "The Bait," "The Setup" and "The Score" to identify the various elements that make up an elaborate swindle. This technique came to mind recently as I read several dozen "happy talk" pronouncements by various officials of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, as well as by government agency officials, and spokespersons for large companies and industry trade associations.

The pattern was just too consistent to be an accident. First, the good news...

Here's a very optimistic headline or sound bite, lifted right from the press release. "Official XYZ is very confident that 'Agency ABC' or 'Industry Thus and Such' will be ready for Y2K." "No Problems Foreseen for [fill in the blank]." The story usually goes on to state how much progress has been made since last year at this time, when they were in the tank. "With 75% of their mission critical systems completed, 'Industry Thus and Such' is confident of meeting their June 30, 1999 deadline." ] After several more optimistic quotes, the reporter usually inserts the obligatory Y2K explanation. This is then followed by whatever counterpoint or contrarian view that the reporter, in compliance with his Journalism 101 training, has turned up.

This journalism by press release has, with a few notable exceptions, been the order of the day for the last six months. It's news management at its best and journalism at its worst. The "powers that be" know that the vast majority of Americans who read newspapers usually only read the headline and first paragraph. What else explains USA Todays success? They know that, if they control the headline and first paragraph, they control the news. You can say anything you want in paragraph 8 because hardly anyone is still reading, especially after the insertion of the obligatory Y2K explanation in paragraph 2.

These news managers are aided and abetted by lazy journalists. I have spoken with dozens of them. I have asked them all why havent they done a better job of reporting on this issue. Their responses are all the same, or close:

1) We have covered it. We have done several stories over the years. 2) It is a boring story about a possible future event. It has no sizzle. There is no "film at eleven" component, just talking nerd heads. 3) There are more important issues that we are covering.

The crux of the matter is that most journalists are satisfied with taking a press release and simply rewriting it (even, on some occasions, using the contrarian quotes that are duly supplied with the press release). They uniformly scoff at the notion of investigative journalism around this issue. They are afraid to ask tough, probing questions because they dont understand the subject matter, and they dont want to be made to look foolish by asking a dumb question.

This sorry situation has been going on now for several months, and it is having its desired effect. I have been approached by several people recently with some comment such as, "It looks like they finally have a handle on this Y2K thing," or "Arent you relieved that things arent going to be as bad as you thought they were?" This has been discouraging enough, but recently I have noticed an even more disturbing twist. Whole stories have surfaced and paragraphs have been inserted in "happy talk" articles (before the Y2K explanation!) that now say that everything is going to be all right with Y2K as long as people dont become panicked by the "doomsayers."

This equates to "The Setup" caption in the movie. The very folks who dismissed Y2K as a non-problem for years, who took little or no action until forced, and who have continued to treat Y2K as a minor technical glitch are now trying to set up the folks who refuse to go along with the spin management as the fall guys. If there is a problem, it wont be because of their mismanagement of the most serious business challenge of the last decade of the 20th century. It will instead be caused by the folks who are trying to point out the danger. So goes the spin.

I believe that this subtle campaign may be behind the recent "change of heart" of a few folks who have been vocal critics up until now. Many of us continue to believe that the best strategy for dealing with the uncertainties of the Y2K situation is a complete and open discussion of real facts -- instead of blind acceptance of unaudited self-appraisals by stakeholders -- and immediate and complete contingency planning at all levels. We run the risk, however, of being set up as the fall guys if some of the worst scenarios actually take place. There is an old joke about the five phases of a failed project. It sounds to me like we are gearing up for the "reward the uninvolved" and "punish the innocent" phases.

Ed Meagher is co-host of y2ktoday Radio with Tony Keyes.

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