. . . of the appointment of Houston Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen to "a new position in charge of the newspaper's editorial and op-ed pages?"
My take is that it's the Peter Principle in reverse: Mr. Cohen has been . . .
. . . demoted to a position beyond his level of ability.
Let me explain.
At the risk of antagonizing my rowdy friends in the large and growing Chronicle-bashing fraternity, I think our local newspaper has done an acceptable job covering news in recent years. Some departments -- photography, for instance, and front-page story selection -- are often first rate. (I have specific complaints, of course, as you do.)
Sure, most reporters, local and syndicated, are still standard-issue left-of-center journalists. That's inevitable at most big-city newspapers in America these days. Self-selection, J-schools, and newspaper hiring practices filter the pool of young journalists down to the precious ones who don't see their assignment to the police beat as an opportunity to report news but as an invitation to fundamentally transform the world.
But the Chronicle's worst reporters, measured by ideological bias, are long gone. Two examples spring to mind, though there were others: Chavista John Otis in South America and the perpetualy hot-and-bothered Salathea Bryant in Houston.
So how much credit should Mr. Cohen get for the good and how much blame for the bad? Under chain-of-command theory, everything flows to and from his desk, so he's 100 percent responsible. But newspapers are more organic that that.
Good news coverage often says more about the desk editors than the man or woman at the top, and I get the strong sense the Chronicle has some good desk editors.
I have no direct knowledge of how Mr. Cohen ran the newspaper, but from the outside he looked more like a corporate climber than a old-timey ink-stained wretch.
I heard many unflattering stories over the years about how he managed things, including complaints about an unhealthy degree of favoritism based on social and ideological affinity with him.
To the degree the newspaper did a good job, it may have been despite him rather than because of him.
Having said this, two aspects of his leadership were clear disasters.
One was on the business side. Circulation declined at alarming rates. How much he could have done to reverse it in this era of technological change and shrinking budgets is an open question. In my judgment, however, he accelerated it by his indifference or antipathy toward conservative readers (see below).
Which brings us to the second disaster: the opinion pages. The very pages whose custody is now entrusted to him.
The Houston Chronicle sits in the conservative heart of America, yet it has no conservative editorialists or opinion writers. Not one.
Two men -- one editorialist and columnist Bill King -- write from the middle or center-left zone of the political spectrum. But while both are earnest, well-intentioned, and worth reading, only folks with a radical leftist sensibility -- Mr. Cohen, for instance -- would mistake them for conservatives.
Not offering a strong voice from the right in a city and state molded and sustained by conservative values in religion, culture, economic thought, and politics is a deliberate affront to a whole bunch of potential readers. It says conservative opinion is beyond the pale. Not having one local opinion writer who gets Ted Cruz is both wrong and dumb.
The editorial side is so blinded by progressive ideology that, as I may have reminded you once or twice, the Houston Chronicle has endorsed Occupy Wall Street.
So is Mr. Cohen riding to the rescue?
I very much doubt it. As editor-in-chief he was already in charge of the opinion pages. They are his baby. He's the guy who hired the opinion writers we have today. And as a longtime member of the editorial board, he's already been signing off on the crazy talk from in-house radicals. If he'd wanted to change any of this, he would already have done so.
What I think is going on is this: He's been fired as editor-in-chief, but given a respectable period to find a new gig. If I'm right, the new opinion job is a parking lot for the deposed executive, off to the side and out of the way, while the newspaper moves on under new leadership.
This is a bad idea. The custom in well-run corporations is to give old managers some walking-away money and send them home. The skipper has the usual hour to collect his check and stuff his family pictures, awards, and snow globes in a cardboard box. Meanwhile, his key card and computer privileges are turned off. Well-run corporations don't ask the old manager to hang around, coach third base, and kibbitz the new boss.
Keeping Mr. Cohen in the clubhouse -- if I'm right about what's going on -- is an invitation to turmoil. Former mid-level editors are now his peers. How will he interact with them, and they with him?
Former underlings are now outside his formal control, no longer subject to being hired or fired by him. Folks who chaffed at his bridle may be tempted to show their disrespect, which is unhealthy for them and the organization.
His presence also complicates life for his loyalists. For their sake and the sake of the institution, they need to shift their allegiance to the new regime. This cannot be done cleanly while he lurks around the water cooler, muttering.
And what happens if this new opinion guru finds himself at cross-purposes with management about matters of opinion? How will he respond to being told to fall in line? Has the newspaper set in motion some fiery departure over a matter of Cohenistic principle, such as whether to endorse Mr. Romney or Mr. Obama?
Deposed executives with common sense don't want to hang around. They want a big check, a gold watch, a mutual nonaggression pact, and a clean, honorable exit, to get on with the rest of their lives.
The Chronicle's attempt -- if my reading is correct -- to help Mr. Cohen save face and, perhaps, offer a bit of grunt labor in return for his de facto buyout is misguided. It is likely to do more harm than good.
Mr. Cohen's own estimation of what is happening sounds sad, in the way grandiloquence always sounds sad.
Cohen said he is looking forward to his next chapter. "I welcome the opportunity to re-imagine our opinion pages," he said. "And I look forward to continuing my exchanges with the opinion leaders of Houston and throughout Texas."
To refer to people he knows or hopes to know as opinion leaders reflects the same absurd notion as the title opinion director -- also grandiloquent -- he bestowed on the position commonly known as editor of the editorial page.
These labels treat opinion is something to be led and directed by elitists like him rather than something that sprouts organically from healthy minds and healthy cultures.
Further, I've seen little evidence that Mr. Cohen has been exposed at any level deeper than cocktail chatter to the real leaders of Houston and Texas. If he has been, it did him little good. Anyone who could praise the Occupy movement on the editorial page of a Houston newspaper could not have been listening to anyone in Houston worth listening to.
Mr. Cohen is also about to find out that opinion leaders in Houston and throughout Texas have far less need or desire to cultivate a relationship with a mid-level editor on his way down than they had (or still have) to know the editor-in-chief of the city's daily newspaper.
But if he's serious about that re-imagination thing -- and re-imagine tips the grandiloquence meter into the red zone -- here's a tip: True reform would start with hiring at least one robust right-leaning columnist and editorial writer, someone who understands and likes folks who go to church, serve as scout leaders, sympathize with the Tea Party, rightly detest Obamism, and are not ashamed of Houston, Texas, or the United States.
I don't know about you, but I'm not holding my breath.