OLD Media Moves

New Forbes owners should channel Jim Michaels

November 18, 2013

Posted by Chris Roush

Dean Starkman of Columbia Journalism Review writes that whoever purchases Forbes magazine would be wise to bring back the flair and style of former editor Jim Michaels.

Starkman writes, “The son of a Buffalo burlesque owner, Michaels distinguished himself as a wire reporter (he was first to report Gandhi’s assassination in 1948) and eventually brought a new rigor and edge to the always quirky magazine. He sharpened the magazine’s writing (a colleague said he could ‘edit the Lord’s Prayer down to six words and nobody would miss anything’) and elevated its ‘attack piece,’ the business investigation, into a Forbes staple and defining feature. The magazine was a talent factory and in the 1980s routinely cranked out killer exposés, including Loeb-award winners like one on a highflying savings and loan, Financial Corporation of America, by Allan Sloan and Howard Rudnitsky, and a takedown by Richard Stern on the notorious small-stock boiler-room operator Robert Brennan.

“‘Like well-crafted jury summations, they proved, never asserted,’ writes a former managing editor, Stewart Pinkerton, of the classic Forbes story. Pinkerton’s 2011 Fall of the House of Forbes, along with Christopher Winans’s excellent 1990 biography, Malcolm Forbes both nicely emphasize Michaels’s outsized role.

“Michaels’ tirades were famous (or notorious, depending on whether you were the target). ‘This isn’t reporting,’ he scribbled atop one particularly credulous piece, according to Pinkerton. ‘It’s stenography! Why is this person still on staff????’ In one of my favorite anecdotes, recounted by Pinkerton, Michaels at an editorial meeting spontaneously blurts out: ‘It’s time for a really nasty story. Let’s really stir up the animals.’ The result was a scathing piece on the spendthrift ways of William Agee and wife, Mary Cunningham Agee, who had achieved notoriety for mixing business and romance at Bendix Corp. and who were then involved with construction firm Morrison-Knudsen.”

Read more here. Here is a biography of Michaels written by one of my former students.

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