Nov 15

The Paradox of the Center

Roger Bolton

Roger Bolton
SVP, Communications, Aetna (Retd.)
Senior Counselor, RBC Strategic Consulting

Two commentaries about the state of our infotainment (formerly news) media and the polarization of our society caught my attention over the weekend. They raise interesting questions not only for politicians, but also for business leaders.

The first was Ted Koppel’s lament in The Washington Post about the shift of Fox News and MSNBC from objective news reporting to unabashed advocacy. Most troubling is his partially correct, but still disturbing, attribution of the problem to pursuit of profit.

The second was Peggy Noonan’s advice to Republicans on how to accept what she considers President Obama‘s gift to them of the political center. I think Ms. Noonan is more right than Mr. Koppel when she attributes the polarized media environment to a combination of political bias and the need for reporters and editors to find drama. (The latter point supports Mr. Koppel’s thesis.)

I also share Ms. Noonan’s more hopeful and optimistic view that there are rewards to be had for those who shun the extremes and fight for the center. She makes the interesting point that compromise is not the goal – rather it’s persuasion. Take a responsible middle position and advocate for it.

Although she doesn’t mention this, to me the obvious next step is to find people of good will on the other side and seek common ground where agreements can be reached and progress achieved. After all, the idea should be to make progress, not just to win the argument (and re-election).

The same approach can be applied in business, where the identical phenomena – political (or ideological) media bias and sensationalism – that distort political commentary and reporting also color business coverage. Extreme behavior, mistakes, criminal activity – all these naturally gain more attention than efforts to build responsible products and services and to advance the needs of society.

Wise business leaders, however, will ignore the polarization and advocate for responsible business strategies and public policies toward business that take a multi-stakeholder approach. This is not always easy, as stakeholder interests often conflict; but strong leaders willing to advocate for a responsible approach and look for common ground can build successful businesses that advance the needs of customers, employees, shareholders and society all at once.

The paradox in both politics and business is this: Fighting for the center may not yield adulatory media coverage, but it can win the kind of voter and stakeholder loyalty that makes societies and businesses succeed.

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