Thomas Ricks: Author and New-Age Salesperson

Thomas Ricks
Thomas Ricks

Thomas Ricks, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author of the NY Times best-selling book about the war in Iraq, Fiasco, and the current hot seller, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, had an interview with Fox News cut off after 90 seconds because he dared tell the interviewer Jon Scott the truth: Fox News functions “as a wing of the Republican Party.” 

In the same week, Ricks said to a Washington Post reporter, “MSNBC invited me, but I said, ‘You’re just like Fox, but not as good at it.’ They wrote back and said, ‘Thank you for your candor,’” and of course there was no interview on MSNBC.

Ricks’s The Generals’ main hero is Gen. George Marshall, one of whose distinguishing characteristics was that he “told the truth to power.” Ricks writes that Marshall’s blunt comments to Gen. Pershing in World War II helped his career because Pershing appreciated the truth even if it was contrary to what he wanted to hear.

Same with Roosevelt. Marshall’s respectful, confidential (non-public) dissent convinced Roosevelt to change his support for a large pre-WW II build-up of air power and to build up ground forces instead, which proved to be the right decision when the war came. The notion of telling truth to power is one of the main lessons of The Generals.

And it’s pretty much the same lesson we learn from the transformational book on selling, The Challenger Sale, which breaks into smithereens previous models of selling with reference to massive Corporate Executive Board (CEB) research on today’s successful sales forces. The research indicates that there are five types of salespeople: the Hard Worker, the Lone Wolf, the Challenger, the Reactive Problem Solver and the Relationship Builder.

The best performers? Contrary to previous received wisdom, the best performers are not Relationship Builders, who tend to lower prices and tell clients whatever they want to hear. Rather, the best performers are the Challengers, who tell clients the truth, teach clients how to buy and take control of the conversation. In other words, the best salespeople tell the truth to power, like Thomas Ricks did to Fox News and MSBNC.

I’m guessing that the crusty, curmudgeonly journalist Thomas Ricks and the straight-laced, publicity-shy Gen. George Marshall would not be thrilled to be called great salespeople. But but they are, in fact, role models for and representative of the best new-age salespeople – those who don’t make their living by buying drinks, lunches and tickets for their clients and by telling them what they want to hear. The best new-age media salespeople tell clients the truth, respectfully and confidentially (like Ricks and Marshall did), and help them get results.

Great media salespeople don’t put their careers, the money they might make from a deal or their companies first – they put their clients’ interests first. They tell the truth to power.

About Charles Warner

Charles Warner teaches in the Media Management Program at The New School and NYU’s Stern School of Business, and is the Goldenson Chair Emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Until he retired in 2002, he was Vice President of AOL’s Interactive Marketing division. Charlie’s book Media Selling, 4th Edition is an update of Broadcast and Cable Selling and is the most widely used sales textbook in the field. He has also written a companion book to Media Selling titled Media Sales Management that is available free on


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