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Hunting Headlines: How to Under-rate the News in Two Lessons.

EofH

"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

In The Hunting of the Snark, Lewis Carroll describes "with infinite humor the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature". That’s how I feel sometimes reading the New York Times, looking for unspun news. Two mild examples, one ironic, one supplicatory.

Lean Machine
Bill Vlasic covers General Motors – a former world class car manufacturer that the American public now owns 60% of. His generally well-written article, favorable to GM, is about its emergence from bankruptcy at the speed of Tim Geithner approving another bail-out for Goldman Sachs.

Vlasic’s headline touts one of the leaner, meaner manufacturer’s yet-to-be-achieved goals: letting go 400 of its top 1300 bosses. He notes that that 30% cut pales in comparison to GM’s cuts in its hourly and salaried workforce. (Or their knock-on effects at its suppliers around the world.) He does not mention how sweet a deal those 400 are likely to get compared to their former colleagues. But he does mention that Bob Lutz, at 77, will not be one of those let go with a golden "thank you". Which suggests that CEO Fritz Henderson’s dream of remaking GM’s culture may remain a dream.

More interesting than the news that GM’s regional teams in Asia, Europe and Latin America will be integrated into global product teams run out of Detroit (most of Europe was sold, Asia remains mostly "China", and Latin American contributions are relatively small), was Vlasic’s throwaway line about what kind of management GM needs:

G.M., at this point, doesn’t need executives who are counting on long careers to change its direction.

That represents investment banking think. Only an outsider who has no "skin in the game" (except a completion bonus that rewards immediate drastic cuts) can make the necessary changes to remake this venerable company. I disagree with that kind of Wall Streetish, self-serving advice.

Hefty cuts and changes are necessary. But Wall Street’s passion for gutting and selling companies has little to do with credibly reforming a global concern. Only a management team that has to live longterm with the consequences of its decisions is likely to make decisions that allow the company to survive long. The likelihood is that "I" bank advised drastic cuts become a stepping stone to another "I" bank deal down the road, to sell a partially revived company to a stronger, probably Chinese, investor. Not coincidentally, that usually works out well only for the "I" banks.

Han You Hear Me Now?
Michael Wines’ article discusses China’s suppression of ethnic minorities, Uighurs in western China and Tibetans. Using typical Times understatement, Mr. Wines describes Mr. Wang Lequan’s "success":

The government media may call this week’s rioting the worst outbreak of ethnic violence in recent Chinese history, killing at least 184 and injuring more than 1,000. But Mr. Wang is fully able to knock out the evildoers. He did so in 1997, quelling riots in Yining, near the Kazakhstan border, at a cost in lives that remains unknown.

Iron fist and velvet glove, he has suppressed Islam, welcomed industry, marginalized the Uighur language, built roads and rail links to the outside world, and spied on, arrested and jailed countless minority citizens in the name of stopping terrorism and subsuming Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gers) into a greater China.

Even his detractors allow that he has done a masterful job. His nickname is “the stability secretary” — a tribute to his ability to step into chaos and haul it to order.

The Bushism "evildoers" would be a parody if thousands of lives weren’t at stake, though tying a Bushism with the phrase, "a masterful job" would ordinarily be oxymoronic.

Mr. Wines’ attempt to describe Chinese relationship networks as a "tangle of alliances based on loyalty, self-interest and ideology" doesn’t quite capture its complexity. They are more like a net full of balloons, each inflating and deflating and rolling past or obstructing each other, as each actor at their heart succeeds and fails over the course of his or her career. No one is born with a clean slate, the origin-less myth in America, and everyone leaves a marked slate for his or her successors.

It was Mr. Wines’ editor who most spun the story in a pro-Chinese way, with the title to his piece:

A Strongman is China’s Rock in Ethnic Strife

Is that a reference to the rock upon which a church is built? Maintaining order from the top – not as an expression of a society’s contentment with its laws and distribution of opportunities and resources – has become the global standard for political success. And not just in China.

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