Off Message February 2007

Over the Hedge

The media are so saturated with coverage of the very wealthy, the story line is losing its novelty.
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The rich really are different from you and me—they're ubiquitous.

Everywhere you go in the national news media, there they are, staring at you: hedge-fund people, Google guys, YouTube guys, Goldman Sachs types, Buffett, Gates, Branson, Trump, and all the rest. Billionaires are around every corner, and some scribe is always nearby to take notes and make a joyful noise.

Where very rich people go, journalists follow—dutifully, slavishly. Elite news outlets enthuse about the business deals of the super-rich, lately chanting the phrase "private equity" like a magic spell. Reporters fawn not just over the money the uber-rich are making but also over how they spend it: the houses they buy, the cars they drive, the private jets they fly in, and whatever they happen to be doing at the moment.

When they throw a big party, we throw a big news story in honor of that party, as The New York Times did recently with a piece previewing the 60th birthday of Blackstone Group co-founder Stephen A. Schwarzman, which he celebrated this week with a bash where the entertainment alone—Rod Stewart—was said to cost $1 million. "The guest list, which is a closely guarded secret, appears to be deep and wide," the paper breathlessly confided, while venturing that "there could be no better time" for Schwarzman than right now. True enough: If you can score puff like this in The Times, you are riding high.

Stories about the rich are nothing new. Wealth is intrinsically interesting, and extreme wealth all the more so. You see a piece about the grandiose estates the hedge-fund crowd has been building in Greenwich, Conn., the new capital of conspicuous consumption, and some mix of admiration, envy, disgust, and pure voyeurism naturally pulls you in. The mega-rich have always been a nice cottage industry for the news media, and there's nothing wrong in that.

But we've crossed some line in recent years. The press covers these people not just as the narrow slice of society that they are, but more and more as the only slice that matters; not as exotic exceptions to the cultural norm, but as the norm itself. This is especially true in the leisure/lifestyle realm, where the market for eight-figure houses is sometimes covered as if it were a popular trend.

In one way, this is simply a function of the dramatic expansion of the ranks of the wealthy. With so many mere millionaires around, attention shifts to those with hundreds of millions. And let's not forget that if you can deliver an affluent audience, advertisers come running.

The issue is the glut of these stories, and the cheerleading tone and context in which they are packaged. In last Friday's Wall Street Journal, the lead piece in the Weekend section was about the "growing number of Manhattan's choicest apartments" that are rarely used by their owners. Among those quoted was Flavio Briatore, an Italian businessman and Formula One racing mogul who recently bought a five-bedroom pied-a-terre overlooking Central Park for $25 million. He's in the city less than two weeks a year, but he's "sick of hotels" and prefers his own bed.

Although the piece quoted a few people mildly complaining about living in largely empty buildings, and mentioned the city's "affordable housing crisis," the prevailing tone was one of bemusement. "Not everyone is bothered by the perpetual out-of-towners," the paper said, and "some see an upside to the empty apartments." According to one real estate expert, "For the second- or third-home buyer, Manhattan is just like any other beachfront or winter retreat location." All very normal.

Indeed, the media are so saturated with the very wealthy, the story line is losing its novelty. When covering human excess, a less-is-more approach is the way to keep 'em coming. By normalizing the very rich, journalists are making them boring, which is the opposite of news.

Meanwhile, the old middle class—remember them?—is taking on a strange magnetism. Did you know there are actually Americans who live very happily on five-figure incomes, without a single pied-a-terre? It's so amazing, it almost feels like a story.

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