AN EMPIRE UNDONE
The Wild Rise and Hard Fall of Chris Whittle
By Vance H. Trimble
Birch Lane 353pp $24.95
His empire and reputation in tatters, erstwhile media magnate Christopher Whittle in October, 1994, tapped out a 1,500-word mea culpa for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. The man who had salvaged a failing Esquire magazine, whose Channel One network had given advertisers a tap into schoolchildren's brains, and who had launched the revolutionary Edison Project school-reform plan, felt he owed an apology to his adoptive hometown. "Invention," he declared, "is not efficient. Efficiency comes after you invent something, not before. And the benefits of invention far outweigh the wastes inherent in the process."
What spin! What sizzle! What utter claptrap! With a rhetorical flourish, the native son of Etowah, Tenn., was seeking to obscure the fact that he had killed the once-promising Whittle Communications with a combination of personal and business extravagances, deluded forecasts of revenue growth, and a vintage-1980s unwillingness to operate anything in his life on a pay-as-you-go basis. Media conglomerates including Time Warner Inc. and Philips Electronics bought into Whittle's vision and lost hundreds of millions. In a Nixonesque denial, Whittle told the New Yorker magazine that he was not a huckster. The reason: "A huckster has an intent to mislead."
Perhaps that's true. But it hardly made Whittle less dangerous. At least a huckster stops the scam when he has nicked his mark. The honest huckster--if that's what Whittle was--is scarier. Having misled himself, he doesn't know when to stop shilling. He victimizes his marks and destroys himself.
This misguided and sometimes appalling behavior is given sympathetic treatment, and ultimately made comprehensible, in Vance H. Trimble's biography of Whittle, An Empire Undone. Trimble, who also has written biographies of retailing revolutionary Sam M. Walton and Federal Express Corp.'s Frederick W. Smith, tells Whittle's story in a rambling, conversational style. The book has a pro-Whittle slant, no doubt due in part to Trimble's decision to let Whittle read the manuscript before publication. However wrongheaded this viewpoint is, it allows us to see Whittle's demise not so much as a long-overdue comeuppance as the snuffing of potential.
It's easy to understand how Whittle developed his inflated self-confidence. His very first venture, a series of guides to orient college freshmen to their new locales, lost $60,000. But Whittle and partners--recent University of Tennessee graduates all--persuaded a UT professor to keep funding them. And the guides and various spin-offs eventually earned millions. This prompted the young entrepreneur to target ever-larger game: advertisers looking to reach narrowly defined targets. For them, he developed single-advertiser magazines, wall posters, and other new media. All were heavy on advertising, light on content, and fat targets for critics of Whittle's commercialism.
In 1979, Whittle and his college buddy Phillip Moffitt shocked New York's media community by acquiring the floundering Esquire. By 1986, Moffitt and Whittle split up their partnership--and friendship--in a divorce that left Whittle with the publishing company and Moffitt with control of Esquire.
Describing this period, Trimble begins spelling out Whittle's chief flaws: an inability to delegate, an almost megalomaniacal belief in his own ideas, and a huge appetite for the trappings of wealth. These observations are offered side-by-side with Trimble's odes to the entrepreneur's charm and insight. Unfettered by a partner, Whittle went into creative overdrive, dreaming up such ideas as the Special Reports single-topic magazines and Channel One. And each time a project seemed to be working, Whittle began to brainstorm its spin-offs, with his plans sketched out on yellow legal pads.
Over time, Whittle's investors learned to dread those legal pads. After Esquire and Special Reports, Whittle seemed to lose the golden touch. Yet he continued to act like a Midas-cum-Medici: He commissioned celebrity architects to design a Vermont vacation home and a lavish New York apartment. He bagged trophy hires, such as former Jimmy Carter aide Hamilton Jordan and former Yale University President Benno C. Schmidt, at princely salaries. He traveled in a corporate jet, pledged $5.2 million to create a Whittle Scholars program at UT, and spent $50 million on a Knoxville headquarters--"historic Whittlesburg."
The author shows us a Whittle who reached these heights just as his company was hitting its depths. The Medical News Network, which beamed advertising-supported educational material to doctors' offices, was a bust. The education establishment rejected Channel One as crass commercialism, and to raise cash, it was sold to the K-III investment firm. Whittle's lofty plans for Edison, his extravagance, and his failings as a manager all converged. A group of backers, led by Philips Electronics, seized control. Other investors bailed out.
The Edison Project--Whittle's most brilliant conception, which combined demanding courses with the latest technology and teaching methods--fell victim to the empire's demise. In 1994, the project was scaled down as Whittle and Schmidt sparred for control. To keep Edison afloat--and to hold on to a modicum of control--Whittle sold three of his four homes. The last time Trimble interviewed him, Whittle rhapsodized about the Edison Project's outlook. "His yellow legal pads already had notations for some possible spin-offs," Trimble writes. All together now, former Whittle investors: "Uh-oh."