WHY IT WORKS TO BE A JERK How did Al Neuharth become one of America's top CEOs? In his new book he cheerfully tells us: by being an absolute bastard.
By ALOYSIUS EHRBAR ALOYSIUS EHRBAR, editor of Corporate Finance, was financial editor of Gannett's Rochester Democrat and Chronicle from 1970 to 1974.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Journalists from London to Los Angeles have been writing about Al Neuharth, often unflatteringly, for the past decade. But none has done a job on Neuharth that comes close to his self-portrait. Judging by what he relates, the man who ^ built Gannett (1988 revenues: $3.3 billion) into America's largest newspaper chain and created USA Today is a conniver, backstabber, and liar, an executive so utterly without principle and so totally self-absorbed and self-indulgent he could startle even the most cynical muckraker. And he's proud of it. To Neuharth, these are traits that separate leaders, and winners, from the plodders of the world. ''In my book,'' he writes, ''an S.O.B. is someone who uses whatever tactics it takes to get the job done -- to rise to the top.'' If nothing else, Neuharth's autobiography stands out as one of the most unusual reads in the genre of the business memoir. Next to him, Lee Iacocca and Donald Regan seem a bit short on self-esteem. The publisher is pushing the book as a management manual, but it will likely see far less use in business schools than in abnormal psych courses. Neuharth calls his story Confessions of an S.O.B. (Doubleday, $18.95). But Al isn't confessing. He's boasting, and in ways that are embarrassingly self- revelatory. The book has received considerable press attention for its bitchy criticisms of media figures like the Washington Post's Ben Bradlee (''I've shaken that S.O.B. off my back before, and I will again''), but it is much more remarkable for the way Neuharth lays bare his vaulting ego. At the book's end he even includes chapter-long appraisals of himself by his two children and his two ex-wives. The offering by second wife Lori Wilson is the most damning -- and is totally consistent with the tale that precedes it.

Wilson was a Florida state senator when the couple married in 1973. She told Neuharth before the wedding that she had too much invested politically in the name Wilson to give it up. He responded that he wouldn't let her use his name anyway, at least not until she was elected to higher office and he had retired as a journalist. ''That should have been a tip-off that Al was expecting bigger things of me,'' she writes. ''I realize now that maybe he never really wanted a wife so much as a power partner.'' Wilson concludes: ''He's charming, rich, challenging, and inspiring -- a great catch, as long as you don't mind riding a roller coaster with a snake.'' Neuharth likes to relate the nicknames he has picked up, and been so proud of, over the years. When he first arrived at the Miami Herald as a young reporter from the farm belt, he says, he was known around the city room as the Wheatfield Kid. When his first big promotion came along, he persuaded the managing editor to delay it until he could work in all the departments in the newsroom, getting his co-workers to confide in their ''peer.'' When he leapfrogged above a boss in Miami, he was the Black Knight. Knight Newspapers (now Knight-Ridder), which owns the Herald, soon transferred him to Detroit, where he was assistant executive editor of the Free Press. There, Neuharth says, the staff called him the Miami Mafia. The down and dirty part of Neuharth's story really begins when he leaves Knight for Gannett. He quickly persuaded Chairman Paul Miller in 1966 to let him launch Today (now Florida Today) in Cocoa, Florida, the first successful new daily in the U.S. in nearly a generation. After that, in 1970, he pushed Miller to name him president of the company, then maneuvered the outside directors to force Miller to surrender the chief executive title in 1973. With Miller out of the way, the Black Knight went on to jousting with fresh adversaries. One was Karl Eller, chairman of Combined Communications, which merged with Gannett in 1979. Eller, by Neuharth's account, is no sweetheart either, and intended to unseat Neuharth and run the merged companies. Neuharth relates how he had Eller down to his home in Cocoa Beach to discuss the deal. At the end of the day, Eller went to the guest room to call his wife. Neuharth eavesdropped over the house intercom and heard Eller tell his wife, ''If we put it together, I'll run it all within six months . . . Al's okay, but he's just not as good as I am.'' Five months after Eller joined Gannett, he resigned. THE BOOK'S MOST intriguing episode is Neuharth's attempt to acquire CBS after Ted Turner had made a hostile bid for the company in 1985. The Black Knight, posing as a white knight, approached Chief Executive Thomas Wyman with a suggestion that he might save CBS by combining it with Gannett. Neuharth claims that Wyman, six years his junior, volunteered to take the No. 2 spot in the merged company, saying he hoped to succeed Al when he retired. (Wyman says the talks didn't reach that subject.) Writes Neuharth: '' 'Tom, I'd be disappointed if you didn't succeed me as CEO,' I said. To myself I thought: It is disappointing that he is not qualified for the job. And, I'd make damned sure he didn't get it.'' Neuharth says the deal fell through because he pushed Wyman too hard and broke the news himself to Wyman's lieutenants that he, Neuharth, would be the boss. In Neuharth's terms, he let his own ego get ahead of his brain. And one other thing: Wyman became miffed when he discovered Neuharth had also been talking with Dick Munro, chief executive of Time Inc. (now Time Warner, parent of FORTUNE's publisher), about merging that company with Gannett. In Neuharth's version, Wyman was so naive that he did not understand the difference between the casual discussions with Time and the negotiations with CBS. Others on the scene at the time recall the episode somewhat differently. They say Neuharth denied altogether to Wyman that he had been talking with Time. Once he fessed up, Wyman said he would not deal with him, whereupon Neuharth reportedly told Wyman he was a fool for adhering to ''preppy morality.'' Neuharth provides brief descriptions of many other deals, but his ''confessions'' don't mention one of the few times he sold a property. In 1973 Gannett unloaded the money-losing Hartford Times on the Register Publishing Co., which owned the New Haven Register and Journal-Courier. Soon after, the company charged that Gannett had inflated the Times' circulation by counting free sample copies as paid circulation. A court agreed and concluded that the fraudulent actions, ''having been taken by policy-level employees, can be attributed to Gannett itself.'' The damages: $966,450. Toward the book's end, Neuharth gives a vivid picture of how totally impressed with himself he is. He regales readers with his lists of top tens -- the best newspapers, journalism schools, state governors, foreign heads of state, and hotels around the world. He also ranks television anchormen, putting fellow South Dakotan Tom Brokaw (whose wife is a Gannett director) first and Dan Rather (''the Ben Bradlee of broadcasting'') last. IN HIS LESSONS on managing, Neuharth uses the importance of style and image as an opening to brag about his sumptuous perks at Gannett. ''My philosophy, policy, and style always have been that first class costs only a few dollars more and is a smart investment for a smart company on the climb,'' he writes, ticking off such smart strategic accoutrements as a $17 million Gulfstream IV (with shower), limos at every destination, a $360,000-a-year nine-room suite at the Waldorf Towers in New York, and a $160,000 suite at the Capital Hilton in Washington. He even includes a memo he sent to all Gannett publishers detailing the treatment he expected when in their towns, plus an angry memo to Gannett's director of flight operations (no hot water in the Gulfstream's shower). * Neuharth so loves the glamour and prestige of private jets that he used to fly from Rochester to Buffalo for Bills football games, even though it was faster to go by limo. The day after his retirement last March 31, he took his first domestic flight on a commercial airline in 19 years. In addition to corporate jets, he reveals four other secrets for staying fresh after long days of travel: Eat only when you're hungry. Drink only when you're thirsty. Sleep only when you're tired. Screw only when you're horny. Al Neuharth seems to think that he embodies the traits that set truly distinguished corporate chieftains apart from the rest -- except that he is even smarter, more visionary, and more charming than most. One has to hope he is dead wrong.

BOX: EXCERPT: Now that I was on top, I knew others would want to topple me. Maybe not right away. But somewhere, somebody would be plotting for my job. It's human nature. Some S.O.B. wants something you've got. I believe in practicing the S.O.B.'s Golden Rule: Expect others to do unto you what you would do to them.