Has the mainstream media gone flaccid -- or MIA -- in vetting candidates, particularly first-time candidates with no public record? There is perhaps no better example of today's emaciated political press corps than the basically free ride Carly Fiorina, a corporate honcho who claims she worked wonders at her last company, Hewlett Packard, has been given by the media.
Look at the difference between the treatment of her candidacy and that of Al Checchi just 12 years ago. In 1998, Checchi, who had taken over Northwest Airlines though a leveraged buyout in '89, decided to throw his hat in the ring for governor of California -- even though he hadn't even bothered to vote in either the primary or general elections the last time the state elected a governor in 1994. He had "saved" Northwest, he grandly proclaimed, and turned it into one of the best airlines in America. Thus, he promised, he could bring the same managerial expertise to fixing all of California's ills.
But Phil Trounstine, then the San Jose Mercury News' veteran political editor, wrote an exquisitely researched, nearly 4,000-word investigative piece on Checchi's actual record at Northwest that ran on the front page, and was jumped to two inside pages. It was published on October 19, 1997, nearly a full seven months before the June primary -- time for the facts reported therein to be absorbed by voters and debated in the public arena. Trounstine at the time told me he had been working on the piece non-stop since August of that year.
"It matters how [Checchi's] record at Northwest is framed because it lies at the core of his political persona," the piece began, pointing out that Checchi had said, "Had I not been through [my experience] at Northwest, I would not be entertaining running for governor."
"But when people in Minnesota familiar with Northwest's history hear that Checchi wants to do for California what he did for the airline, many burst out laughing," the piece continued. "Their dark humor is rooted in experience."
The Mercury News then proceeded to lay out one of the most thorough dissections and debunkings of any candidate's private-sector record that I had ever seen. The article chronicled Checchi's firing of thousands of employees and demanding millions in wage concessions while he got paid tens of millions in "management fees," his abrogated promises to the state of Minnesota to obtain taxpayer-bailout loans to the company, and his driving a solid airline that had been profitable for 39 straight years into losing hundreds of millions a year -- and to the brink of bankruptcy in 1993.
One Minnesota state senator in the story equated Checchi to Professor Harold Hill, the huckster in the The Music Man. Barron's, the newspaper reported, had found "the Checchi management group delivered terrible performance at NWA since taking over." The St. Paul Pioneer Press had criticized Checchi and his partners for "profiting handsomely" while leaving "Minnesota's most important company a wreck." Aviation Week reported that Checchi told workers -- a la Gordon Gekko -- that "debt is our friend," before loading up the company with crushing debt. The former editor of Frequent Flyer magazine had called Northwest "the worst major U.S. carrier in the sky," and revealed he had stopped flying the airline. And on and on it went.
It is not an exaggeration that the Mercury News' thorough and dogged investigative reporting was the beginning of the end of Checchi's audacious quest for governor based on his corporate record. He finished with a mere 15.5 percent of the vote after spending a then-record $40 million of his own funds. (In the interests of full disclosure, I managed then-Lt. Gov. Gray Davis' primary campaign against Checchi.)
Comes now Fiorina, another corporate mogul singing her own praises about the wondrous achievements she supposedly wrought at a big company. We already know some of the inconvenient truths: fired 30,000 employees and shipped thousands more jobs overseas; engineered the disastrous acquisition of Compaq in 2002; had open feuds with the sons of both founders of this iconic company, one of which, Walter Hewlett, initiated a proxy fight against her; oversaw a 50 percent loss in shareholder value; was herself unceremoniously fired by the board after just five years, with a $22 million golden parachute -- and no one has hired her since.
But what are the gory inside details, what are the unvarnished facts, what is the objective truth, what is the real story behind the resume, where is the in-depth investigative reporting on what Fiorina's stewardship at Hewlett Packard really consisted of? Why was she rated one of the 20 worst CEO's of all time? How did she treat her subordinates, her fellow executives and her board members? Inquiring minds want to know -- and voters need to know.
Northwest Airlines was an out-of-state company with little route structure in California. But Hewlett Packard is a legendary, homegrown, California-based entity started in a garage -- and a major part of Silicon Valley's history and economy. Surely that should make the urgency of getting to the bottom of Fiorina's record there a higher priority -- and an easier subject to dig into in some respects than a corporation based in faraway Minnesota.
So far, sadly, most of what voters know about Fiorina's record has been provided to them via Sen. Barbara Boxer's spots. Astonishingly, none of Fiorina's own spots so far, unlike Checchi's in '98 or Meg Whitman's this year, even make a single reference to the company she claims as her credential for running for office. Is she trying to hide the ball and hope no one notices?
Some may say, Meg Whitman's record at eBay hasn't faced a full media vetting, either. That's true, but less so than Fiorina's record at Hewlett Packard. And unlike Fiorina, although there were hiccups and controversies at eBay during her reign, Whitman undeniably took over a small start-up and shepherded it over 10 years into an international behemoth. She didn't take over a thriving global company and nearly drive it into the ditch. And, by all accounts, she left of her own accord, instead of being booted out the door for arrogance and incompetence.
The media regularly bemoan the prevalence of TV ads -- and in particular attack spots -- in campaigns, but they have no one to blame but themselves if they don't step up to the plate to conduct their own due diligence on candidate's claims.
It is a disheartening development for the body political when the mainstream media's primary contribution to the public's knowledge about candidates for office comes in the form of two-paragraph "truth boxes" about their opponent's ads, or in bland biographical profiles. But it looks to me like that's where we are in the race for U.S. Senate with less than a week to go.
Garry South is a longtime Democratic strategist and commentator who managed Gray Davis's campaigns for governor in 1998 and 2002.