Off Message July 2006

Invisible Greed

The media are letting the rich off the hook with their coverage of philanthropy.

Suddenly this summer, the media are agog about philanthropy. Thanks to the gigantic sums that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are giving away in tandem, news outlets have spent the last few weeks gee-whizzing about the wonders of charity. "If there is anything more awe-inspiring than Warren Buffett's wealth, it is now his benevolence," declared an editorial in The Boston Herald that typified the journalistic mood. Headline: "The Express Train to Heaven."

This is all fine and healthy. Generosity is a virtue, and Buffett's announcement that he would donate the bulk of his $44 billion pile to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was inarguably newsy. It's not every day that the two richest human beings team up to do good for the world. No harm in us hacks giving them a lusty cheer.

Funny thing, though: Even as all this fuss is made about a couple of generous moguls, there's been barely a peep about the less kindly plutocrats among us. The rich have been getting richer in this country for years, as news outlets frequently remind us. U.S. millionaires now number in the millions. Barron's reported last weekend that while many real estate markets are cooling, one niche remains hot: Houses priced over $20 million are selling like crazy, "finding plenty of buyers among the swelling ranks of the super-rich."

Surely there are some despicable misers in this class, tycoons who are as selfish as Buffett and Gates are magnanimous. What about them?

Miserliness used to be a staple of journalism, a spectator sport in which stingy rich people were identified, denounced, and vilified with savage exuberance. A hundred years ago, the uber-rich heiress and investor Hetty Green was a fixture of the news columns, notorious for her compulsive cheapness. Dubbed "The Witch of Wall Street," Green wound up in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's "greatest miser." And she's still an object of fascination today, most recently in the gripping book Hetty: The Genius and Madness of America's First Female Tycoon by Charles Slack.

In the middle decades of the 20th century, the best-known miser was J. Paul Getty, the American-born oil billionaire who installed a pay phone at his country place in England to prevent guests from making long-distance calls on his dime. The news outlets recycled that (true) story so many times, it became popular legend.

Are there no Greens or Gettys in America today? I follow the news pretty closely, and I can't think of a single infamous tightwad. We celebrate the filthy rich of our culture, turn the Donald Trumps and Paris Hiltons into idols. To read the mainstream press, not to mention the celebrity rags, being rich is a heroic act all by itself. And if you spend most of your dough on self-glorification—mansions, jets, yachts, vast staffs of publicists—well, more power to you.

The modern media cover wealth in a curious way. There's a constant stream of stories about the "widening gap" between rich and poor, but these tend to be faceless, statistics-driven affairs, lacking memorable characters or any sense of individual complicity.

A few generations ago, class was a staple of American journalism and hunting the heartless rich was sport. But back then, reporters often came from working-class backgrounds. Today, the news business is led by people who are either rich themselves (the stars of TV news) or sufficiently upper-middle-class that they identify more with the hedge-fund managers than the wage slaves. The selfish-lucre beat has lost a lot of its appeal. To become a villain in the media, a rich person has to be indicted.

And that's too bad. If the super-greedy had to pay a public price, philanthropy would really take off.

Maybe Buffett will change this. Shortly after his announcement, The New York Times ran a short piece inside the Week in Review section, in which David Cay Johnston noted that not all rich families give as generously as the Buffetts and the Gateses do. The Waltons of Wal-Mart and the Mars family of the candy fortune apparently don't measure up. Newshounds, I believe I smell a frontier.

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