Abstract

John D. McDonald was a writer and editor best known for his work at Fortune magazine in the 1950s and 1960s and as the ghostwriter of the memoirs of Alfred P. Sloan. McDonald was also the first person to popularize game theory. In this article I argue that game theory played a key role in McDonald's transition from documentary writer to business journalist. Game theory gave McDonald a journalistic device to discover business stories and to give those stories a driving tension; he called it a “story engine.” After decades writing with game theory, it began to serve a different purpose for McDonald. By coding business stories as games, McDonald gained insight into the characters, corporate executives who were often brief in explanations and shallow in self-understanding. McDonald's career gives us a glimpse at an extraordinary transformation of how a set of scholarly ideas can become a literary resource for vividness (of stories) and depth (of characters).

John Dennis McDonald was a writer and editor who is best remembered for his work at Fortune magazine from 1945 to 1972.1 To his contemporaries, McDonald was one of the greatest in their trade, and in 1976 the UCLA Anderson School of Management awarded him a Gerald Loeb Memorial Award in recognition of his career in business journalism. McDonald wrote features on aviation, automobiles, banking, competitive fishing, construction, horse racing, liquor, and oil, and he wrote on economics. As a reporter on economists and their ideas, McDonald had an answer to the question of this volume, what makes economics newsworthy? But that is not the most interesting lesson to draw from his career and writings, because for McDonald economics was more than a subject: it was a resource.

In this article I tell the story of how economic theory came to the aid of a writer facing a career crisis. In 1948–49, while many in academe still doubted its worth, McDonald became an advocate for game theory. To McDonald, game theory was a creative force, and he gave it a name; he called it a “story engine.” My argument is that a set of scholarly ideas about actors in interaction became a journalistic device and helped McDonald to develop his distinct contribution to business news.

As World War II ended, the government and businesses of the United States found themselves as global hegemons: the US armed forces enjoyed uncontested military might, US officials exercised soft power among governments and international institutions, and US corporations extended an “irresistible empire” of consumer affluence (De Grazia 2006). McDonald became a business journalist at a crucial juncture when news media had to reinvent itself to match these new times. Hence, I show that the predicament of the individual, McDonald, was never far from those of his publication, Fortune, a business monthly that in the late 1940s was in dire need of reinvigoration. Like McDonald, but in ways distinct from his, Fortune relied on economists and economic analysis for its postwar renewal. Since the 1910s, economists and management consultants had been carving out a new vocation as forecasters, and postwar the need for foresight intensified (Friedman 2016; Lenel 2018; Mata 2018). Fortune developed what it called “the business roundup,” which without discussion or design evolved into a bulletin on the prospects of industrial and consumer markets. I argue here that the journalist and publication were on parallel tracks, as both looked to economic analysis to meet the challenge of writing business news for the 1950s.

McDonald's attitude toward game theory changed over the years. There was the initial enthusiasm where nearly every story he wrote had some tie to the contributions of John von Neumann; this lasted about a decade. Then game theory receded from view, although its imprint occasionally appeared in the choice of phrases and in the kinds of questions asked. Facing retirement from Fortune, McDonald was drawn back to game theory; he spent time at universities and partnered with scholars to write a book where he revisited some of his main stories of the previous twenty-five years, and he deepened and broadened those stories with a more overt game theory analysis. In The Game of Business, McDonald explained that game theory did not unlock deep truths of human agency or establish iron laws of behavior; it helped to see further. Game theory allowed one to inquire on the stakes and reasons behind business decisions; to him it offered insight, not foresight.

In this article, I offer my own reading of the work of game theory in McDonald's writings. Pace McDonald's own interpretation, I contend that game theory, as a journalistic device, guided and empowered his imagination. It was a tool of creativity, not of discovery.

Writing Business

In 1945 McDonald sent the managing editor of Fortune, Ralph Delahaye Paine, a portfolio of writings and asked friends and peers for recommendations.2 McDonald's offer was unsolicited, and Paine was at first reluctant. McDonald was not an obvious fit for the publication; he was a “writer” and had no journalistic experience.

Born and raised in Detroit, McDonald studied literature at the University of Michigan (AB and MA) in the late 1920s. In 1932 he moved to New York City and joined the bohemian intellectual scene of Greenwich Village.3 Involvement with Communist Party affiliate organizations and time serving in the secretarial staff of Leon Trotsky were not obvious training for a Fortune editor, but among his comrades was Herbert Solow, who was already on the Fortune payroll. Solow had brought McDonald into the Dewey Commission of Inquiry on the Moscow Trials; a committed anti-Stalinist who had close ties to academe, in particular to the New School for Social Research, Solow would become Fortune's resident Africanist and Latin Americanist.4

When McDonald joined Fortune, he was thirty-nine years old and already an experienced researcher, writer, and editor, but he had never worked for a major news publication and had no prior experience in business writing. In his previous job, from 1938 to 1945, the longest employment he held up to that time, McDonald had been on the small staff of the American Film Center, where he wrote and edited Film News, its illustrated monthly.5 To make sense of why he may have wanted to join Fortune requires a brief detour into the magazine's founding and its reputation circa 1945.

The official history of Time Inc. credits Henry Luce with the idea of creating Fortune. Luce was the son of Presbyterian missionaries to China, and he worked briefly as a journalist after graduating from Yale College, before leveraging his Yale and family contacts to start a publication of a new kind, a news digest fit for the Roaring Twenties (on Luce, see Brinkley 2010). Six years after the unlikely success of Time, Luce wanted his second magazine to “accurately, vividly and concretely . . . describe Modern Business, . . . the greatest journalistic assignment in history.” The promotional material seeking advertisements for the first issue promised “to realize the dignity and the beauty, the smartness and excitement of modern industry” (Elson, Prendergast, and Colvin 1968: 129). With Time Luce had broken from journalistic conventions of how to organize a weekly news digest, and he wanted to do it again with Fortune. The original Time (very different from what it would later become) cut, pasted, and condensed the week's news into ever smaller fragments for easy digestion. Fortune would be monumental, with exquisitely crafted writing paired with arresting visuals. It had the size of a catalog or fashion magazine, at 14 by 11.25 inches, hand-sewn at 190 pages. In the early years it required the combined efforts of two printers, one for the text in letterpress and another for illustrations on thick uncoated paper that took several runs through the presses (Mata 2018: 9). Fortune was conceived in the starkest contrast to Time's perishable format: it could be rolled into a coat pocket and discarded at the end of the week, but Fortune you would want to keep, even exhibit.

Few members of the original staff of Fortune had experience reporting on business. This did not trouble Luce, who turned that weakness into a calculated strength. In an anecdote that was told many times over the years (including in Sweden in the late 1960s; see Grafström, this volume), Luce claimed to have realized that “it was easier to turn poets into business journalists than to turn bookkeepers into writers” (Elson, Prendergast, and Colvin 1968: 137, 213).6Fortune's original staff included accomplished stylists like Archibald MacLeish, poet laureate and later librarian of Congress and professor of rhetoric at Harvard; James Agee, well-known for his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a project that began at Fortune; and Dwight MacDonald, who edited the Partisan Review, founded Politics, and would later write for the New Yorker. Fortune earned a reputation as a magazine of writers that paid well. It was also a publication with an unpredictable political outlook. Under managing editor Russell Davenport, Fortune had been an opponent of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's second New Deal, and Luce made sure that the magazine's editorial viewpoints aligned with conservatism. Yet, in its reporting, views ranged from center-left to right-wing, and the publication talked up but also talked down to its readership of executives. The most famous early example of a critique of business was MacDonald's four-part series on labor relations at US Steel, published from March to June 1936.7 Among conservative writers there was special spite toward the women researchers whose political views tended to be more liberal: Eliot Janeway called it “the tyranny of the Vassar girls” who by controlling the facts on the stories had a large say on the themes of the reporting. McDonald was a writer and Fortune had begun as a writers' magazine, but in 1945 there was no guarantee that he would earn his spot on the forty-ninth floor of the Empire State Building.

The “corporation story” had been the signature genre of Fortune in its early years, said to have been to Fortune what the profile article was to the New Yorker (McDonald 2002: 16), but there was a telling difference: the gifted writers of Fortune did not want to write corporation stories. Early on McDonald had been asked to write a few, but his performance had been unremarkable. Prudently, he chose to write about what he knew. Years earlier he had developed a passion for fly-fishing and had published a short article about the sport (McDonald 1939), so he wrote about it again, but this time, in a gesture to please his employer, he wrote about it as a business: “Fly Fishing and Trout Flies” appeared in May 1946, and “Atlantic Salmon” and “The Leaper” in June 1948. These topics lent themselves to vivid writing and striking visuals, even if they had very little to say about American enterprise.8

Writing to Henry Luce as Fortune was undergoing a major reorganization (more on this later), McDonald justified why his kinds of stories were right for Fortune. McDonald appealed to Luce's maxim of employing writers as journalists. To McDonald, any writer devoted to his craft “needs and tends toward a diversification of his interest,” and while business journalism “has great possibilities for creative journalism,” it also imposed restrictions and could not “satisfy the whole interest of the writer, nor of the reader,” and for this reason the writer may “wander afield into other forms of life, politics, art, play.” To McDonald, these kinds of stories gave “the magazine variety, dimension and a quality of surprise. If they are marginal, and they are, then like all margins, they define[d] the center,” and for writers they were “an additional incentive to remain happily with the magazine.”9

In early 1948, McDonald began to tire of working on the assorted assignments he was given. After fly-fishing, McDonald had in quick succession written on the Communist Party USA, on Fowler McCormick (and Carl Jung), on Elton Mayo, on beer, on Zionism.10 So he approached the managing editor to propose a series on “leisure,” with him as editor, and only occasionally as writer.11 The first subject was to be on poker, and McDonald convinced a champion card player, Oswald Jacoby, to write it. Worryingly, as the deadline approached, the piece was an artless collection of anecdotes without a story. To save his series from a premature demise, McDonald chose to take over the writing. Working from a collection of old and rare books about poker at the New York Public Library, McDonald (1948a) wrote up a “romantic history of the game.” But his story was also lacking; in his words, it lacked an “engine,” and he mentioned these worries to John Kenneth Galbraith, then a colleague at Fortune. Galbraith's primary role at the magazine was as a book reviewer, and he aptly directed McDonald to the Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern (1944). There were to be no more articles on leisure, games, and sports, and McDonald began writing stories in which he applied the theory of games to a variety of business subjects. Working closely with von Neumann and Morgenstern, McDonald wrote an article explaining game theory, “A Theory of Strategy,” which took fifteen months to ready for publication and went through fifteen drafts.12

The long gestation of “A Theory of Strategy” (McDonald 1949) speaks to two related difficulties. McDonald had to convince his editors by making the mathematics of the book as palatable as possible, with illustrations of their use. But McDonald also had to make sense of game theory for himself. He “tried reading” the book but found “part of it too technical to understand.” As he worked on the article, writing to the book's authors and meeting them at Princeton, he also spoke at length with the Columbia University philosopher of science Ernest Nagel and sent drafts for comment to Emil Gumbel, Herbert Simon, and Jacob Marschak. What these men had in common was that they had all reviewed the book in academic journals. McDonald's choice of informants demonstrates how far he was from the academic field and how tenuous was his early grasp of a book he may, or may not have, read in full.13

For the purpose of my argument, two features of “A Theory of Strategy” are noteworthy. For McDonald (1949: 100), the greatest contribution of the theory of games had been to “illuminate the meaning of strategy.” Game theory defined a strategic situation as involving both chance and imperfect information. Strategists from all walks of life were gamblers. Von Neumann's accomplishment had been “to narrow this gamble to the point where it would be irrational to act otherwise than by a known optimum policy (strategy). It tries to make the imponderable ponderable” (100).

The second remarkable aspect of the article was its limited focus on business. McDonald foresaw the usefulness of game analysis in business situations where a few sellers competed and needed to take account of the actions of others, like in the automobile or liquor industries. Lacking the reporting to substantiate his claim, he had to rely on von Neumann's own illustrations with a deconstructed version of poker (which McDonald did not think much of, as a game) to illustrate the key concepts. When considering games with more than two players/actors, McDonald mentioned oligopolistic deals and coalitions, but again explained the ideas with a game. Since there was “no common counterpart,” he called on an obscure card game, Set Back, played in the northwestern mountains of North Carolina. The strongest case to believe that game theory would enrich our understanding of markets and industry was one based on a critique of economics. McDonald laid out a disconnect between prevailing doctrines in the discipline and a world he described as of imperfect competition, a description that matched well Fortune's ontology of American business, enamorated of corporate bigness. And the article did not end with business strategy; the final pages went to waging war: on the encounters between fighter planes, between planes and submarines, or taking down missiles in a surprise atomic strike. The parting thought was that like business, “war is chance and minimax must be its modern philosophy.”14 In 1948–49, McDonald was unsteady about how game theory might be used to interpret or guide business decision-making.

This significant shortcoming did not deter him; he was sure that he had made a breakthrough, and McDonald (1950a) reworked the articles on poker and strategy into a short book. He may not have immediately understood what the theory of games was offering him, but decades later he reminisced that “it resolved for me the problem of trying to do something new with business stories.” No longer would he be the person for “other stories,” or for “leisure”; “with that concept [he] started a new life as a writer at Fortune” (McDonald 1980: 107). McDonald had the “story engine” he had been missing, but how did the engine work? To answer that question, one must look closely at McDonald's writings of the early 1950s.

The Engine at Work

The first story that McDonald developed with his new “story engine” appeared before the much-delayed “A Theory of Strategy.” “Seagram in the Chips” began as a corporate profile of the House of Seagram, whiskey producers, but McDonald (1948b) turned it into a two-company story and a two-person poker game: Seagram playing against another of the Big Four distillers, Schenley (the other two were National and Walker). McDonald explained that the market for whiskey was more or less fixed, so competition looked like a zero-sum game; in his words, “as in a game of cards, one's gains is often another's loss.” The other key element was uncertainty tied to how whiskey was made. It took four or more years to age whiskey, and distillers had to decide on inventory not knowing what their share of the market would be. What made the game in whiskey so interesting in 1948 was that a few years earlier production had been interrupted by the war, so inventory positions had become especially important. The questions he posed were, How much inventory did each of the players have in anticipation of this slump, and what policy would each adopt (including selling inventory to others) not knowing the positions of others? The story discussed further complications, such as consumers' tastes and the kinds of blends and marketing that might move the market share, but at the heart of it was the decision of what to do with inventory and two executives trying to outsmart each other.

In McDonald's first strategy stories there was more game than theory. It was the metaphor of a card game that made the story vivid and engaging. But implicitly the theory of games informed key decisions of the write-up: the choice to recenter a corporate profile away from Seagram into a contest between Seagram and Schenley; the choice to focus on only two of the big four in the industry; the choice to replace the usual biographies of key executives by a review of past policies of the firms; and the choice to leave the story with outcome undetermined. If there was any doubt about the imprint of game theory in McDonald's understanding of strategy, he concluded the article by recommending von Neumann's book, explaining that “all individual businesses in a competitive market rest in the final analysis on information regarding the position and intention of buyers and sellers with which they contend” (McDonald 1948b: 168).15

Of the stories McDonald signed in the early 1950s, the one that best exemplified his command of a strategy story was a two-part series in April/May 1953 on “jet airlines.” McDonald announced unequivocally, “Here is the story of a great strategic game.” British airlines had introduced the first civil transportation jet airplanes, and American airlines were faced with the choice to follow and protect their dominance in global air transport or wait for better models. McDonald (1953a: 125, 126) explained that “the outcome might not be known for seven years, the time of decision is here now.” Part 1 of the series reviewed the calculations of the key firms as they projected the inevitable conversion to new generations of airplanes, a choice between upgraded propeller planes and new turbine-powered propeller planes, or to follow the British onto jets. Part 2 looked at the problem from the standpoint of the ten leading airplane makers in an overcrowded market where only a handful were sure to survive (McDonald 1953b). Not so much a poker game, this was a “race” where factors like speed, range, payload, and safety were being carefully factored into airplane designs that did not yet exist. All the features of the game theory setup were present: the interdependence of decisions, the balancing of decision with trade-offs and intersecting values, the high stakes, the undetermined outcome.

Game theory steered McDonald's attention. It had him look for stories of high stakes where present decisions were played against an uncertain future and against the decisions of many others, collaborators and competitors, allies and adversaries. In another set of stories McDonald was bolder. Rather than interpret a situation through the prism of game theory, he would look to match managerial reason with game theory, so as to note where they converged and diverged. Together with Fortune researchers, McDonald designed and reported on three surveys of executives of firms large and small: in one he asked them how they sold their wares (1952), in another how they asked for a raise (1953c), and finally how they made decisions (1955).16 Opinion surveys were a regular and much-cherished feature of Fortune; from the mid-1930s the magazine had Elmo Roper on its payroll to query Americans about politics and business, so a survey was well within the Fortune range. And yet, McDonald was not writing in the public opinion tradition, so there was no sampling or focus on an averaged view inferred from the mass of responses. Quotes and paraphrases from the survey were used as illustrations to insights that McDonald was drawing from elsewhere, common sense and game theory.

In the first of the surveys, after speaking to fifty-nine executives, McDonald (1952: 124) began with “every businessmen is a strategist,” and “though it is neither customary nor wise to look like one when a seller meets a buyer, they immediately find themselves in a game of strategy.” McDonald explained that “the most private thing about private enterprise is information” and that “getting, giving and withholding information is the crux of market strategy” (125). The lack of information was not a fact of nature but an emergent quality of competitive enterprise: “the free rational decision to withhold information for strategical purposes” (196). McDonald held these strong convictions despite the reluctance of executives to talk strategy to him. He covered for this silence with the conclusion that “the experience of business journalism suggests . . . the possibility that administrators of big business generally attempt to play an optimum game for the long run-pay off” (197). “Suggests,” “possibility,” “generally attempt”: McDonald wasn't quite sure. The follow-up surveys did not help the matter.

When in 1953, McDonald and Fortune researchers quizzed fifty-one executives about how they asked for raises, they were treated with a near universal unwillingness to share best practice. As a result, his story took on the tone of words of advice to readers, and game theory was one of the sources of advice. In the third page, he explained how to proceed, that “strategy involves knowing your own and your opponent's possible moves and payoffs. For the man who wants to get a raise, the ‘opponent’ is the boss. You must assume his strategies and take account the consequences when each of yours meet each of his” (McDonald 1953c: 122).

Two years later, another survey of executives approached the not-so-simple question of how they made decisions, explaining that “uncertainty is [the executive's] opponent. Overcoming it is his mission” (McDonald 1955: 84). If McDonald thought the more open-ended question would improve on the muteness of the earlier surveys, he was sorely disappointed, as executives were unable (or unwilling) to explain themselves. The resulting story focused on the psychological features of decision-makers, such as a belief that outcomes are certain rather than just probable, the need to “feel right” about a decision, the common occurrence of taking decisions through committees, and decision-makers' confession of no agony in their decisions. McDonald certainly thought some of these were wrong attitudes to hold, notably the reluctance to think probabilistically, but he was charitable to the executives in their difficult roles.17

In the three surveys McDonald looked in vain for points of contact between the reasoning of business leaders and how game theory conceived strategy. Executives refused to discuss how they negotiated pay, and that was understandable for reasons that were more cultural than strategic. On “how to sell” and “how to decide,” executives were only faintly aware of why they acted as they did. To complicate the picture, patterns of information disclosure changed across industries and firms. What is interesting for my argument was why this disappointment did not condemn game theory as an aid to describe business life. McDonald could not find the game in the minds of his informants, but that was not a problem if he could still use the game as his concept. When McDonald described game theory as a “story engine,” he was urging us to think of it as the source of forward motion that carried a reader in a story. McDonald's image of the “story engine” speaks of game theory as a narrative device, not as a feature of the world of business.

McDonald's belief in the properties of a strategy story were the intuitions of a writer who was also a reader and frequently an editor of other writers. Many writers adopt similar terms to describe the feeling of creative energy when they are carried by a story as they write it. McDonald credited his preferred term to George Leighton, a former editor of Harper's, but the metaphor was specially fitting for a Detroit native who in his spare time was writing a biography of the automobile capital of the world (which he never completed). Adopting McDonald's analogy, we could peer inside the engine and look for game theory's cylinders, pistons, and crankshaft, that is, how particular components of game theory interact to produce the kinetic effect, but rather than attempt reverse engineering, it is more important to pan out to see what was the role of the engine in McDonald's design problem.

Each issue of Fortune in the 1950s was over 240 pages packed with advertising along with only ten, long, carefully crafted stories. Stories had to draw in readers early and hold their interest. Each story passed through the desk of an editor who demanded that it have a “structure.” To return to McDonald's analogy, we can think of “structure” as a blueprint of a vehicle. The engine in a vehicle is almost never in view, but the experience of driving will be largely determined by it. An engine can also be built into many different vehicles. The “engine” of game theory did not bind McDonald to one blueprint, but he knew that he had a reliable engine to set many blueprints in motion.

The “engine” was not a formula. Even if they shared the “engine” of strategy, no two stories were alike, and all were different from corporation stories. Corporation stories were a formula, biographies of dominant firms, identifying their key practices and products. In his stories, McDonald could follow some of the conventions of business journalism, for instance, he could place a decision-maker with a forward-looking vision at the center of the drama, but his stories were never about mastery. Strategy stories were about the limits of reason and planning, about attempts to win without certainty of victory. All these stories carried this tension of gamble and contest.

Game theory as a creative force in McDonald's writing not only drove forward his stories, it also drove him to stories. While writing a “Theory of Strategy,” McDonald discovered RAND. The “War of Wits” was an early profile of the organization (McDonald 1951). It explained RAND's origins and its key role in supporting the long-range planning of American military capability. Game theory received only a passing mention, and McDonald focused instead on RAND's contributions to operations research and systems analysis. Having written about RAND and jet planes, McDonald (1954b: 103) got to write “a business eye view of the Strategic Air Command,” asking “how and how well is this immensely complicated force managed?” There was a contest, with the Soviet Union, but attention focused on SAC's problem of high turnover in staff due to stressful long hours and low extra pay and its difficult decisions about which new airplane designs to favor. This sequence of articles moving between civilian and military aviation, between military and business strategy, led McDonald (1965a, 1965b, 1966) to follow a multiyear contest between Howard Hughes and the management of TWA (McDonald [1962] also wrote about TWA's closest competitor Pan Am).

I have so far adopted the writer's perspective on the narrative qualities of game theory. It was McDonald's trial at Fortune to establish himself as a business journalist that led him to game theory, and when I explained how strategy worked to enliven stories, I took his standpoint. What I have yet to consider is the context provided by Fortune and business media more generally that may have made strategy stories so apt. I move from McDonald's to Fortune's trials.

A Magazine with a Mission

Fortune was a moneymaker from the very start. In the hardest year of the Great Depression, Fortune claimed its first profits. Its readership increased from thirty thousand to two hundred thousand in the 1930s, and if it did not sell more copies, it was because it was too expensive to print them; most issues called on specialist printers and binders to handle the photography and graphics (Smith 1954). When McDonald joined, the magazine was encountering its first difficulties, and the editorial leadership at Time Inc. believed that it needed fundamental reform. Eric Hodgins, who was associate managing editor and publisher of the magazine in the 1930s, remarked that during the war Fortune had “busted apart . . . Big ideas were gone, and replaced by fragmentation into columns, departments, signed articles from Men of Distinction and of No Particular Distinction.” Fortune had grown by the accretion of more and more departments, straining its coherence and focus. In 1948, with a drop in advertising and an ever-growing number of competitors, Fortune was for the first time operating at a loss. Luce spent most of that year consulting and outlining in memos a new direction for the magazine.

Luce's “Rough Notes on a Radical Revision of Fortune” directed it to become a magazine of “political-economy,” which conservatives on the staff took as a rallying cry to make it into a magazine of ideas. John Davenport together with Charles Murphy proposed that Fortune be made up of shorter articles, phasing out its focus on corporate culture for commentary in the model of London's Economist. Luce was sympathetic, but managing editor Paine, executive editor Bill Furth, and Hodgins vetoed the prospect. After prolonged negotiation by means of spirited memos, Luce rewrote his guidance in a “directive for the editorial development of Fortune.” Contrary to his earlier “Notes,” Luce envisaged Fortune with a mission to “problem solving” and with a new signature feature, the “Business Roundup”: in his words, “The March of Business, up hill and down hill, from month to month” (Elson 1973: 199–201, 263).

Luce gave detailed instructions for the “Business Roundup.” It would be written by a “super-journalist” drawing on the full resources of Time Inc.: memos from every Time Inc. news bureau around the world, researchers collecting data for him, and economists preparing summaries of the latest analyses. The story

may start with some overall thing as rise in prices or it may begin with a specific news-event in a specific industry. In the course of his story . . . he will mention paragraphically 15 or 20 industries. . . . In 3,500 or 4,000 words the article will have given an overall account of Thirty Days of American Business Enterprise with considerable particulars and some reference to up-and-down trends in continuing problems like Labor, Taxes, Man-hour efficiency, etc.

Then in the last 2,000 words the article will put down an orderly list of parmark [sic] miscellany: new techniques, new products, notable earnings and failures, etc. And it will wind up with a highly formalised gazetteer of businessmen who, during the month, have taken key positions in American Business Enterprise.18

I quote at length from Luce's “directive” to show how his formula for the “Roundup” made Fortune a bit more like Time with its own news digest. Luce's formula held up for nearly three years, from October 1948 until 1951, when Fortune hired an economist, Sanford (Sandy) Parker. A graduate of Columbia, Parker had worked at Business Week from 1939 and then at McGraw-Hill's Department of Economics from 1945; before Fortune he spent a year at the National Industrial Conference Board (NICB).19 While in the 1930s, Fortune was reluctant to hire economists, Business Week had its chief economist writing its weekly editorial. Fortune in 1950 was catching up by hiring Parker, the person who had fulfilled that role a decade earlier at its competitor. But what Parker brought to Fortune was not writing, it was forecasting. At Business Week he had maintained and improved the magazine's index of business activity, and he had helped set up McGraw-Hill's Department of Economics for long-range market scanning. Alan Greenspan, whom Parker hired to work with him at NICB, believed that he was “clearly responsible for a good deal of the methodology now used in business forecasting.”20

The “Business Roundup” of 1948–51 was newsy, with a section on business in Washington, and another on US business around the world, and lots of photographs. It started with a signed full-page portrait of an executive in a pose and, as Luce had prescribed, made copious mentions of industries and companies. Parker became a Fortune associate editor in April 1951, and in the following issue of May the Roundup unusually included charts asking questions about patterns in consumer preferences. In the July and August issues more space was cleared for market statistics, and by September the Roundup had completely changed format. There were no more pictures, and mentions of people and companies and industries were replaced by statistics from the Department of Commerce, Department of Labor, Federal Reserve, and Standard & Poor's. A different kind of material was being rounded up. The tone was dry; from one summary, one learned that “inflation still not probable.” “New wage spiral coming? Shortages: copper for cars, steel for plants, alloys for jets.”21 As Parker took over the Roundup, Luce's news digest was never to return; when he passed away in 1980, the Roundup, without changing format, was renamed the “Fortune Forecast.”

It would be difficult to review Parker's career at Fortune, since so much of what he contributed went into the writings of others. Fortune writers always worked on stories with one or two researchers, always women; with Parker the magazine gained an in-house consultancy on all matters related to industry statistics.22 His most significant bylined contribution came a few years after his arrival. In the August issue of 1953, together with Gilbert Burck, he wrote a series titled “The Changing American Market.” In the months ahead, he examined specific industries, including “automobiles . . . , food, clothing, housing, appliances” and “certain geographical, occupational, or otherwise ‘special’ markets—e.g., the suburban market, the farm market” together with “the new trends in population, income distribution, spending, saving, borrowing” (Burck and Parker 1953). The series set out to make sense of the combined effects of the baby boom, productivity rising faster than population, suburbanization, and redistributive government policy. It was a report from the front lines of new research on consumer markets, drawing on studies in economics but also filling in the gaps and producing its own distinctive analysis.23 Its much-celebrated insight was a prediction of a mass consumer market.

The new editorial direction issued by Luce in 1948 was a spring cleaning of Fortune's departments and a starting point for experimentation. That same experimentation gave McDonald scope to try out stories about games and game theory, and for Parker to develop his brand of market analysis. Whether the new design was the fix that Fortune needed to stay afloat is hard to say, since postwar affluence was also a contributing cause for the magazine's return to profitability in 1951.

The orientation of the new Fortune was to be useful. As a monthly publication, it could not track the moods and events of American capitalism with the promptness and detail of the Wall Street Journal or Business Week. The Journal was on its way to becoming America's first national newspaper with the highest circulation, and Business Week, after struggling in the Depression in the shadow of Fortune, had come out of the war with rapidly rising subscriptions. Parker's market projections, like McDonald's lessons on strategic thinking, were of a scope and temporality that fit well with Fortune's identity. The growing readership of business news in the postwar years was made up of professional managers and middle and upper-middle management, and economic analysis could speak to their pragmatic dispositions and literacies. McDonald's attachment to game theory may have seemed idiosyncratic, but it turned out to be fitting.

Insight over Foresight

At the turn of the 1960s, McDonald faced another professional crisis, one that was more severe than his settling into business reporting. A decade into his tenure at Fortune McDonald took leave without pay; he thought he would be out for one or two years, but it turned out to be five. From 1954 to 1959, McDonald was employed by Alfred P. Sloan, the famed chief executive officer of General Motors (GM), to ghostwrite Sloan's memoirs. The crisis emerged on the eve of publication, when Sloan was advised by GM that publication of the book would destroy the company. The lawyers feared that it documented GM's plans to monopolize the automobile industry and would trigger antitrust prosecution. GM was the number one company on Fortune's 500 list and had long been under scrutiny by federal prosecutors. The threat seemed credible: DuPont had lost its case in the Supreme Court on June 3, 1957, and had been ordered to sell its stake in GM for violation of the Clayton Act. Dupont was a GM investor and was found to have abused that position to become GM's leading supplier of paint.

Without a book, and as a result without a set of articles derived from that book to prepublish at the magazine, McDonald returned to Fortune “in disgrace,” at the same pay as when he departed in 1954, “because [he] didn't bring back the bacon” (McDonald 2002: 62). Facing the prospect of five years of his work laid to waste and 50 percent of the royalties of the book at stake, McDonald sued GM on grounds of interfering with his publishing contract with Sloan. This made McDonald's position at the magazine even worse. The GM lawyers were also representing Time Inc., and convinced the leadership of Fortune to pressure McDonald to drop the suit. His job was now in jeopardy.

My Years with General Motors came out in 1964, when without any explanation GM withdrew its objections. McDonald told the story of the legal wrangle and of the writing of the book in A Ghost's Memoir (2002). His contribution to the book and his lonely fight to see it published were in danger of being erased in a reedition prefaced by Peter Drucker. Oblivious to the facts, Drucker claimed that Sloan had written the book in reaction to his management theories. In A Ghost's Memoir, McDonald (2002: 71) drew on the language of game theory to think through the various stages of the dispute, for instance, when he wrote that “this legal concept [of interference] could make [me] an active player. In game theory terms I would be able to make moves that would influence the strategic decisions of other players as their moves influence mine.” But game theory had no role in resolving this professional crisis, and McDonald could never explain why GM suddenly was accepting of the book.

My Years with General Motors did not destroy GM; instead, it became a New York Times bestseller and required reading in business schools for decades. It was an unusual memoir, because it said so little about the man and focused instead on corporate policy and organization. It was a book about strategy. At least one historian has argued that the academic field of strategy owes much to the book and to its ghostwriter (Mckenna 2006). Alfred D. Chandler, who anticipated the book's publication with his own influential Strategy and Structure, was a research assistant in the memoirs, writing memos from the company archives about key events, and was credited by McDonald for finding some of the most important events of the GM story, long forgotten by an aging Sloan.

My Years with General Motors examined the sweep of changes that transformed the automobile industry in the interwar years, changes that included improvements in the engineering and design of cars; the processes for upgrading models yearly; the management of suppliers, inventories, and dealerships; new ways to integrate research and development; and plans to centralize corporate functions while devolving operational autonomy to ensure a balance between control and performance. Sloan lived through these changes, and some were of his own design, but the key story that worried the GM legal team was how Sloan had outplayed Henry Ford in the 1920s to gain a foothold in the low-price car market. It was this contest, and the wording of Sloan's “Product Policy of 1921,” that hinted at GM's monopolizing ambitions.

In the early 1920s Sloan, still new to the role of head of GM, set out a vision for the company to create a “car for every purse and purpose.” Each of GM's car divisions—Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac—were instructed to concentrate on a price/quality range and in this way build capacity to ensure economies of scale and profitability. The missing and most prized of these ranges was the lowest one, the mass market that in the early 1920s was still dominated by Ford's Model T. Sloan knew that he could not build a better car for the same price, but he directed Chevrolet to build a better car for a slightly higher price and in this way slowly took away customers from Ford.

As My Years with General Motors was published, McDonald finally delivered the goods, and six chapters were chosen for abridgment as stories for Fortune (Sloan 1963a, 1963b, 1963c, 1963d, 1964a, 1964b). Their editing was trivial, since McDonald had written every chapter as if it were a stand-alone Fortune story. That game theory was not at the forefront of the Sloan/GM stories is not surprising. My Years with General Motors was written in the voice of Sloan, and if not for McDonald's own memoir, his contribution to that work might have been lost.24 In his second decade at Fortune, McDonald wrote fewer stories overtly about contests and strategic gambles (see, for instance, his two stories about Texas Instruments [McDonald 1961a, 1961b]). Over time, McDonald relied less and less on strategic contests to animate his stories, but he never lost sight of game theory.

Upon retiring from Fortune, McDonald went back to school to study game theory. He was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation grant and spent time at Cornell, Princeton, and RAND. Once again he conducted a survey with “thirty-odd executives, . . . of corporations whose combined sales in 1974 approached $150 billion” (McDonald 1975: vii–viii) and wrote a book informed by that survey and further interviews with corporate officers. McDonald's papers held at Yale University include correspondence with eighteen scholars who helped him design the schedule of questions for the survey and sharpen the analysis of his book.25

The Game of Business (1975) was made up of fifteen chapters. A few of those chapters drew on the survey, chapters 2, on “rules of the game”; 4, on “a corporation as coalition”; and 6, on “social norms.” McDonald concluded the book with the lesson that game theory “point[ed] to the nature and location of the strategic problem.” It did not “except in certain simple situations, prescribe specific plans”; its purpose “is not to say precisely what to do”; its value was “to try to understand what's going on” (McDonald 1975: 383, 389). This outlook was contrary to the ambition he had expressed in his early 1950s executive surveys.

To understand what McDonald meant by “what's going on,” one must read the book, but even that might not be enough. The majority of the chapters were developed from his best and most significant writing for Fortune. Those chapters had large segments taken verbatim from the original publication in the magazine, but they were also very different. What is most telling are those differences between original and reworked stories. McDonald went back to keep score on some of the contests he had narrated and to retell some of those stories with up-to-date game theory added for fresh insight.

The score, it turned out, was very poor. Appropriately, McDonald started the book with the liquor industry. As mentioned earlier, his first use of game theory had been in a story about whiskey distilling, and in 1961 after his leave to work with Sloan, he had again written about the industry (McDonald 1948b, 1961c). In 1948 McDonald had expected Schenley not to sell its whiskey inventory to competitors (and thus maximize profits) to use it to raise its own market share, but he had failed to anticipate the most important outcome of the episode. Another company of the Big Four, National, emerged as the big winner in the inventory dip of the late 1940s. This player had been disregarded when McDonald wrote the story as a two-person game. A recurring pattern in the book chapters was that McDonald would describe at length the reasons and calculations of corporate players, only for the game to be completely upended either by government intervention or by actors outside the described game. One example was a chapter on Boise Cascade, a lumber and construction company that had taken the bold step of merging with cash-rich Ebasco Industries to accelerate its real estate investments, and in that way sustain its extraordinary run of rising earnings and dividend distribution. At the end of a chapter examining closely how the two companies had negotiated their merger, McDonald reported that Boise had collapsed as its high-reward real estate bets failed. The blame was placed on Boise's disregard for environmental and social responsibility and to its singular focus on earnings performance. The book chapters told stories of corporate foresight that often had no bearing on the final outcomes for the firms. The failure of control, and of strategy, was never duly noted by McDonald.

McDonald also returned to the General Motors story, to do what he could not do as ghostwriter to Sloan's memoirs: to write Henry Ford into the account. Sloan's triumph was turned on its head, and the retelling became a study of Ford's failings. McDonald laid out in game theory terms the options facing Ford when Sloan marketed Chevrolet as a competitor to the Model T, and he demonstrated that Ford could have acted defensively and maybe decisively, yet chose not to. Ford responded in 1927 only by closing all his factories and reorganizing them to build the Model A car; it was too little, too late. McDonald concluded that “it is hard to say precisely when Ford became ‘irrational’ and what sort of irrationality it was.” A similar use of game theory appears in McDonald's retelling of the conflict between TWA's management and the company's largest shareholder, Howard Hughes. McDonald breaks down the long-running feud into a sequence of games of different character, some cooperative, some uncooperative, some economic, some not. By reviewing Hughes's game-theoretical options, McDonald was imagining Hughes's perspective and including it in the story for the first time.

McDonald could not have written Ford or Hughes into the original stories: he was writing Sloan's memoirs, not Ford's, and the standards of reporting required him to have interviewed Hughes or otherwise obtained authoritative account of his views. In the setting of the book, released from Fortune's editorial norms, McDonald could fill in these lacunas. By working out the games they played, he could imagine their reasoning as players. Game theory brought to the fore characters that had been muted in the earlier stories. The game talk allowed McDonald to bring Ford and Hughes, elusive and unsteady players, into his stories, and in another chapter it let him bring Walt Disney back to life. The views of Ford or Hughes were fictions, but they were scaffolded on game theory, deducted from axioms of rationality, and this earned them a quality of facts.26 Game theory was used “to understand what's going on” where the reporter could not go.

In many of the chapters of The Game of Business, games were embedded fictions that gave license to the writer to explore what was possible and plausible. By setting out suggestive possibilities for actors, these analyses implicitly framed the situation as a drama of individuals facing difficult choices. In this capstone of three decades writing with game theory, McDonald demonstrated that the value of game theory was to be a resource for the exercise of the imagination, for thickening and broadening stories with fictions and for humanizing business decisions.

McDonald and the Economists

At Fortune, economics was McDonald's beat. In the last issue of 1950 as the “new” Fortune was still new and fresh from his discovery of game theory, McDonald wrote an article about the state of the economics discipline. McDonald (1950b: 109) told readers that “for twenty years there has been a bull market for economic theory and it is still going strong.” The article pictured fourteen economists, much like it pictured business executives, with brief vignettes on their scholarly characters and achievements, and it labored a description of the varieties of economics on offer: classical, institutionalists, and Marxists. Marxists were a set of one, Paul Sweezey (misspelled), and institutionalists were said to be out of favor, so all the interest was drawn to the classic school.

Readers learned of a conflict that gave “the impression” of “a war between Harvard and the University of Chicago” (128), represented by Frank Knight, then president of the American Economic Association, and Alvin Hansen. At stake were attitudes toward Keynesianism; McDonald cautioned that the new generation was neither pro-Keynesian nor anti-Keynesian, and “definitely not pre-Keynesian” (128), and that economics was entering a new period, “whose outlines will not be clear for some time to come” but that “as it is widely studied [economics] has a strong bias toward the practical. Policy determines problems, and problems the direction of research” (138). The story had many of the McDonald hallmarks. It told the reader of a conflict, and it ended unresolved, with an expectation of change.

“The Economists” was an unusual piece for Fortune and for news media of the period.27Fortune had profiled economists in the past but had chosen long deceased giants like Karl Marx (May 1946), Adam Smith (July 1946), and Thorstein Veblen (December 1947), and it had done so to give large and small political controversies an intellectual bedrock. That it was McDonald and not, for instance, John Davenport writing the story on the economics discipline is significant. Davenport, who had been at Fortune since the mid-1930s (and whose brother had been managing editor of the magazine), was a Yale economics graduate, a founding member of the Mont Pelerin Society, and had written one of the first major articles on Keynes for the magazine in May 1944. Having lost the bid to change Fortune, Davenport left Fortune in 1949 to become editor of Forbes, where he attempted to make that publication into an American Economist. McDonald had in the previous two years, while writing “A Theory of Strategy,” built close relationships with mathematical economists and could, and did, write a story that was agnostic to doctrinal concerns that so gripped Davenport. In the new Fortune it became possible to look at economics as an industry selling products of problem-solving for business and state.

“The Economists” demonstrated McDonald's detachment in writing about economics. Although he thought the article had been successful, he never attempted anything similar ever again. The piece was well informed and described fault lines that would resurface in the writings of later journalists, in the beliefs of practicing economists and in the historiography.28 McDonald got it right as far as capturing economists' self-understanding.29 Despite his penetrating insight, he was not invested in the subject.

McDonald's interest and attachment to game theory and the close relationships he nurtured over decades with several leading economists (most notably, Morgenstern, Morris Adelman, and William Lucas) was not matched by a curiosity toward economics in general. He did not track its breakthroughs, trends, and the ups and downs of personalities and careers. He did not read academic journals. Economics' epistemic authority as a discourse on the economy and business was unchallenged by McDonald or Fortune, yet this did not imply that they had to keep a watchful eye on the discipline to upgrade their own analysis of corporate life. The picture before us is of two social and cultural worlds, academic economics and journalism, that occasionally encounter each other but that are undertaking distinct and independent pursuits. And yet, they are also entangled by way of boundary concepts such as “strategy.”30

In answering the question of what makes economics newsworthy, we should remain mindful that what is news is experienced as a collective endeavor and as a matter of trial and error. Even a publication like Fortune, with an established reputation and robust subscriber list, had to rethink its journalistic ethos in the late 1940s. As I have shown, publishers and editors together went through great pains to devise formulas, groping for a stable pattern of quality news that matched what they thought readers wanted. Writers like McDonald needed to contend with these designs and build a career with and around them. But what worked was not in those designs: it emerged from experimentation and the judgments of journalists in conversation with collaborators. That news is fundamentally unsettled explains how it is possible that McDonald, who turned to business journalism at midcareer, retired with the acclaim of having been one of the profession's all-time greats.

McDonald's achievement was to anchor game theory in the cultural world of writers. At first, McDonald used game theory to discover stories and give those stories a driving tension. Game theory was a narrative device, a “story engine.” But in later work game theory served a different purpose. Game theory served as heuristic; through the coding of game situations McDonald gained insight into the characters of his stories, corporate executives who were often brief in explanations and shallow in self-understanding. McDonald's career gives us a glimpse at an extraordinary transformation of how a set of scholarly ideas can become a literary resource for vividness (of stories) and depth (of characters).

I thank the two anonymous referees of the journal and the participants at the conference for their comments and suggestions.

Notes

1.

For the landmark events and dates of McDonald’s career, I rely on the biographical sketch in the finding aid for his papers held at Yale University’s Beinecke Library; see http://hdl.handle.net/10079/fa/beinecke.mcdonaldj, accessed April 2, 2022.

2.

The list of writers recommending him included John Chamberlain, Walker Evans, John F. Jessup, Herbert Solow, Charles F. Walker, and Wilder Hobson. John McDonald Papers, Yale University, box 11, folder “Articles; Fortune; Anniversary anthology essay [1 of 2 folders]/ 1979,” item “Fortune: Anniversary Issue: A Reminiscence by John McDonald,” dated “09/25/79.”

3.

McDonald was a key informant to Alan Wald and Archie Hobson, historians of the literary Left, and details of his political involvements are told in Wald 1987. In the book he is pictured with Herbert Solow and Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1937.

4.

“Herbert Solow” FYI, December 4, 1964, Time Inc., p. 8, box 11, McDonald Papers.

5.

The American Film Center supported documentary filmmakers and promoted educational and public-interest films. It was initially backed by the Rockefeller Foundation. It closed doors a few years after McDonald’s departure.

6.

Notwithstanding, Fortune contracted the advisory services of J. & W. Seligman’s Tri-Continental Corporation to vet the articles. For a few years, Luce imposed James Allen Grover as the magazine’s source of financial literacy; when he left, he was not replaced (Hodgins 1973).

7.

The final story of the series was taken away from MacDonald and written by the editor, Robert Cantwell, who thought MacDonald had gone too far in his criticism.

8.

The fly-fishing piece had been successful; McDonald had discovered a curious personality to elevate from oblivion as the father of American fly-fishing, Theodore Gordon. He edited a collection of Gordon’s writings, The Complete Fly Fisherman: The Notes and Letters of Theodore Gordon (1947). The story worked well in Fortune also because it lent itself to compelling art, a portfolio of trout flies painted by Jack Atherton. In the first years of Sports Illustrated, from 1954 to 1958, another Luce magazine, McDonald contributed four articles on fly-fishing, and he later wrote two more books on the history of the sport, The Origins of Angling (1963) and Quill Gordon (1972).

9.

J. McDonald to Henry Luce, September 9, 1948, box 11, folder “Fortune, Internal Memoranda, 1948–1958,” McDonald Papers.

10.

“Most enthusiastic, most erudite,” in FYI, March 24, 1947, Time Inc., p. 7, box 11, McDonald Papers.

11.

McDonald telling of this history for a Fortune fiftieth-anniversary volume simplifies and states that it was a series on sports to run for a year. However, that is not quite right; he actually proposed a much larger set of stories. Beginning with ninety-six story ideas, he reduced these to over fifty by having the eleven members of staff rank them up or down. Poker was ninth on that ranking, and sports were only a small set. The top two choices of the staff were “Aaron Copeland [sic]” and “On Conversation.” See Memorandum to R. D. Paine from J. McDonald, “Leisure stories,” 11/20/47, box 11, folder “Future Stories Lists / 1945–47,” McDonald Papers; for the retelling, see folder “Articles; Fortune; Anniversary anthology essay [1 of 2 folders]/1979”, “Fortune: Anniversary Issue: A Reminiscence by John McDonald,” dated “09/25/79.”

12.

McDonald developed a close relationship with von Neumann, visiting him in Princeton regularly. The surviving correspondence shows von Neumann contributing substantively to several Fortune stories, in particular on Project RAND (March 1951) and on how businessmen make decisions (August 1955). When von Neumann fell ill with cancer, he called on McDonald to help him write a book on atomic theory. McDonald visited him several times at his hospital bed; the detailed notes document how von Neumann was too ill to be the key informant for such an endeavor, and the book was never started. See, for instance, the note headed “John VN and John McD, Ja. 13, 1956,” box 11, folder “Articles, Fortune, Correspondence, von Neumann, John / 1948–1981, undated,” McDonald Papers.

13.

“Scientific Poker,” in FYI, March 22, 1948, Time Inc., box 11, McDonald Papers. The book reviews were Nagel 1945, Gumbel 1945, Simon 1945, and Marschak 1946.

14.

McDonald (1949: 106) explained the minimax solution to games of von Neumann as “the player assumes in advance that he is found out [as in bluffing]: that the particular strategy he will follow is already known to his opponent,” and this in turn leads to a strategy of randomization. Von Neumann had proven that the minimum maximum and the maximum minimum gains converged in two-person games, as both players, by assuming that they would be found out, eliminate the possibility of one achieving a sizable win.

15.

The theme of uncertainty and gambling appears in later writings minus the game theory or the language of strategy. In a profile of William Zeckendorf, a New York–based real estate entrepreneur, McDonald (1954) lionizes Zeckendorf’s achievements while questioning his aggressive policy of acquisitions through debt and other liability instruments and ending in a note of uncertainty.

16.

In the wake of the first survey, McDonald participated in a Games Symposium at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, on December 29, 1952, reporting on his findings. He shared the podium with von Neumann and John Williams. See John McDonald, “Applications of Game Theory in Business and Industry,” box 369, Time Inc. archives, New York Historical Society.

17.

Those who read the story to the end found a box on “the role of chance in decision making,” where McDonald concluded that businessmen did not use randomization in their choices as von Neumann had recommended. The closest instance was investors spreading their buy orders across agents to hide their intentions (McDonald 1955: 137).

18.

“Directive for the Editorial Development of Fortune” (preliminary draft), folder “New Fortune,” box 2903, Time Inc. archives.

19.

The McGraw-Hill and NICB association is meaningful. What Parker would write for Fortune was similar to the work done for at least two decades prior at Business Week, and the person who first took the job of economist there was Virgil Jordan, later president of NICB. NICB wanted to be a clearinghouse for industrial research, a more subtle advocate than the National Association of Manufacturers had notoriously been (see Mata 2018). Very little has been written on Sanford Parker. What exists is anecdotal from appreciative reminiscences of collaborators. In the New York Times’s (1980) laconic obituary of Parker, it stated that he was a graduate of Columbia in 1937 and a senior thesis dissertation prize in economics at that university is named after him. My main source about his life is the memorial service remarks kept in the Time Inc. archives.

20.

“A Memorial Service, Sanford S. Parker, 1918–1980,” March 5, 1980, 3 p.m., the University Chapel, Columbia University, remarks by Albert Wohlstetter and Alan Greenspan, box 380, Time Inc. archives.

21.

“Business Roundup,” Fortune, September 1951, p. 25.

22.

The in-house often meant Parker’s residence. Parker had an extreme phobia of traveling and would not leave the area near his home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, from First to Sixth Avenues and between Forty-Ninth and Fifty-Ninth Streets. See “Memorial Service, Sanford S. Parker, 1918–1980,” March 5, 1980.

23.

There were no mentions of news, corporations, or even specific industries; examples and illustrations were crowded out by pages of graphics. But the article mentioned two economists: Simon Kuznets and his “definitive study, Shares of Upper Income Groups in Income and Savings,” and it ended with a very long (but heavily abridged) quote by Arthur Burns, then head of the Council of Economic Advisers, that spoke of how economists were contributing “the rough foundations of an empirical science of consumption” (Burck and Parker 1953: 198).

24.

McDonald was involved in a similar project in the late 1970s: As It Happened: A Memoir, William S. Paley’s 1979 autobiography. McDonald’s involvement appears to have been more detached, as editor rather than ghostwriter. Unlike Sloan, Paley was a more controversial personality and the book reflected it.

25.

The majority of scholars were game theorists: Steven J. Brams, John C. Harsanyi, Lloyd S. Shapley, Martin Shubik, John W. Tukey; the RAND economists, Robert E. Bickner, David Novick, and Edwin W. Paxson; and one anthropologist, Ira R. Buchler, who was also a game theorist.

26.

The game analytic also allowed McDonald to join stories. During the 1960s, McDonald had reported independently on the big mass retailers, Sears, JC Penney, and Montgomery Ward (McDonald 1960, 1964, 1967). From these individual stories, it seemed that each firm held a distinct outlook of itself and of the other two. In the book McDonald described the key decisions in the mass retail industry as a set of games, some competitive (against one another and discount stores) and some cooperative (with property developers and suppliers). The companies were joined in a larger story because they faced the same problems worked out in overlapping ways. Here, too, McDonald was using games to bring characters into a story, not to overcome an absence as in Hughes or Ford, but to counter business journalism’s inclination to overstress corporate distinctiveness.

27.

I have elsewhere argued that reporting on economics in the mode of popularization was the vision of Leonard Silk, a Duke University PhD economist-turned-journalist, who wrote at Business Week from 1954 and at the New York Times from 1969 (Mata 2012). What distinguished Silk from McDonald, who had a sustained focus on game theory, or Hazlitt (Milazzo, this volume), attached to Austrian economics, was his breadth of coverage and interest in not only policy implications but also the direction of development of the science.

28.

To write the article, McDonald was partnered with the researcher Henriette “Yet” Roosenburg, a Dutch-born journalist and a war hero. During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands she contributed to the underground press and helped run escape routes out of the country. She was found and tried by the occupier and sentenced to death. In 1950, she was the first woman to be awarded a Bronze Lion, a Dutch military honor. In the mid-1950s she told the story of her release and return home in a series of articles serialized in the New Yorker in 1956; these became the 1957 book The Walls Came Tumbling Down (New York Times1972). It is likely that McDonald and Roosenburg did the interviews together with her taking notes. The “transcripts” of the interviews in his papers are all by her. In July 1950 they interviewed Theodore Schultz, Sumner Slichter, Wassily Leontief, Tjalling Koopmans, Jacob Marschak, Frank Knight, Simon Kuznets, Corwin Edwards, Roy Blough, Paul Samuelson, Oskar Morgenstern, Milton Friedman, and Alvin Hansen. Roosenburg also wrote memos about a handful of other individuals, about government agencies (employers of economists), and about research organizations (Brookings Institution, National Bureau of Economic Research, Twentieth Century Fund). From the files it appears that the two key informants who helped create the initial list of interviewees were Galbraith and Morris Adelman, who may have been interviewed by McDonald alone. Multiple memos from Roosenburg to McDonald, box 12, folder “The Economists, December 1950,” McDonald Papers.

29.

Letters from Slichter, Koopmans, Kuznets, Galbraith, Friedman, Samuelson, and Edward Mason, box 12, folder “The Economists, December 1950,” McDonald Papers. With the exception of Slichter, who wanted to see more “American” economics, meaning the contributions of institutionalists, all congratulated McDonald for a “brilliant” survey and agreed with his interpretations of the field.

30.

Strategy cannot be a boundary object (Star and Greisemer 1989) because it is immaterial, but the image of a shared object/concept that binds two social worlds seems more fitting than the alternatives, such as treating “strategy” as a sign in systems of meaning. A semiotic analysis would lose sight of the cooperative and communicative endeavor and the enriching conversations that happen between economists and journalists.

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