MEDIA WATCH: Media concurs as Case admits that he'd become a PR liability

Earlier this month, on the third birthday of the company he had boldly created, Steve Case announced his intention to resign as chairman of AOL Time Warner this May. This followed months of pressure for him to step down, a topic Media Watch recently covered (November 11, 2002).

Earlier this month, on the third birthday of the company he had boldly created, Steve Case announced his intention to resign as chairman of AOL Time Warner this May. This followed months of pressure for him to step down, a topic Media Watch recently covered (November 11, 2002).

Case made himself readily available to the media, doing interviews and hitting the talk-show circuit to explain the reasons behind his decision. The Chicago Tribune (January 15) marveled that Case "was fairly frank" and "downright confessional" when it came to the reasons - meaning Case didn't offer some trite platitude about looking to spend more time with family or wanting to pass the baton. Instead, Case clearly acknowledged that he'd become a PR liability to the company he created. Case fretted that although he had hoped to remain chairman, he didn't want his role to be "a distraction" for the company. And the media agreed that he had become a distraction. CNN (January 13) noted that "Case had become something of a poster child for the failed and unfulfilled promises of this merger." Reports often indicated the extent to which Case has been demonized by shareholders and employees from the Time Warner side. As the one who personified the union's promises, Case was described as an "albatross" (USA Today, January 14) to the company for not delivering the goods. When the AOL-Time Warner deal was announced back in 2000, it was hailed as the ultimate combination of old and new economy, a rock-solid union of the world's largest media-content company and the world's largest ISP under one roof. In covering Case's resignation, the media repeated the by-now familiar revisionist refrain that it was always expecting too much for the synergies from this deal to materialize. However, Case still defends his vision, and though he has acknowledged that his view runs counter to conventional wisdom, he has said that years from now, people will look back at the merger of AOL and Time Warner and see the logic behind it. Interestingly, while it has become fashionable to bash Case and AOL for the failure of the AOL-Time Warner merger, his resignation did prompt a number of outlets, including The New York Times (in a January 14 editorial), to show sympathy to Case for buying Time Warner. The editorial asserted, "In retrospect, it seems clear that Mr. Case suspected the bubble was near deflating and that he'd use his inflated AOL stock to buy something of lasting value while he could." In this understanding of events, it was Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin who "was chasing tulips" when he sold Time Warner to AOL. Consequently, frustrated shareholders should blame Levin rather than Case: Case was wise to offer to buy Time Warner, and Levin was misguided to accept the offer. While the merits of the AOL-Time Warner merger will surely still be debated for years to come, there seemed to be a consensus that in the short term, Case's resignation is symbolic rather than substantive. He hadn't been involved in the day-to-day management of the company for some time, and the problems the company faces will not automatically go away now that he has stepped down.
  • Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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