The Media Mogul Protection Racket

Column: Want a pass from negative coverage? Fund the liberal press

Carlos Slim, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Chris Hughes
December 7, 2012

I was halfway into the latest celebratory profile of Chris Hughes, the Facebook multi-millionaire and owner of the New Republic, when I was struck by the following idea, which I provide free of charge. If you are a millionaire or billionaire looking to avoid negative or critical or even remotely credulous press coverage, stop what you are doing, invest in a media property, and employ liberal writers and editors. You will probably lose a lot of money, but the intangible benefits of slavish praise and deflected criticism will be priceless.

Emphasis should be placed on the hiring of liberal writers and editors. Rupert Murdoch, who employs conservatives as well as liberals and whose eclectic politics do not conform to the intellectual fashions of the day, is the subject of endless negative coverage because his populist outlets dare to question received wisdom. Murdoch is also a passionate newspaperman who loves a good story. The moguls who benefit from the media protection racket tend to be dilettantes who came into their fortune outside of journalism and who see the ownership of a newspaper or magazine or website as an indulgence they can afford to enjoy. (Think of Sidney Harman’s temporary ownership of Newsweek.)

What is most remarkable is that these moguls are exactly the type of characters liberals would otherwise despise and delight in cutting down. Take for example the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, a Mexican national of Lebanese descent who is insanely wealthy thanks to the endemic cronyism of the Mexican telecommunications industry. He also bailed out the New York Times Company with a $250 million loan in 2009 and as of October 2011 owned a little more than seven percent of the property. What do you know, the Times is not exactly flooding-the-zone with reporting on Slim’s treasure chest, his interconnectedness with global politics, and the outer limits of his ambition. When Slim visited Washington, D.C., in February to huddle with Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, Ron Kirk, Gene Sperling, Julius Genachowski, John Bryson, John Kerry, and others, only Univision and the WFB deigned to mention it.

Warren Buffett is another crony who benefits from bailouts of financial institutions, structures his company to avoid paying taxes, and owes millions of dollars in back taxes. His faith in government seems not to extend to the estate tax, as can be seen in his support for the Giving Pledge, which billionaires take to "pledge their fortunes early in their lives, so that they can have more control over how it's spent." Also he is a weirdo who lives on a 12-year-old-boy-diet of Cherry Coke and hamburgers and appears to limit his interviews to attractive women. Ordinarily, of course, liberals would raise hackles over his selfishness and peculiarity. Yet Buffett has invested in the flailing Washington Post Company for decades, bought a majority stake in a local newspaper conglomerate with 25 dailies across the country earlier this year, and of course spouts the liberal Democratic gospel of higher taxes on the wealthy. If liberals don’t owe him for providing them jobs, at least they owe him for copy that reinforces their prejudices. Naturally he has been apotheosized as one of this country’s secular saints. He is called the "Oracle of Omaha," lionized on the cover of Time magazine ("Warren Buffett is on a Radical Track") and seemingly immune to serious inquiry or incredulity.

New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is a mixture of Lee Kuan Yew and Napoleon Bonaparte. He says he knows better than the rest of us when it comes to smoking, eating, governing, term limits, and life in general, and he is prepared to use his $25 billion to shape America so that it produces little (littler?) Bloombergs. His media company, Bloomberg LP, is a behemoth that employs more than 10,000 people.

That is basically the equivalent of an army division covering and influencing financial services, international business, and United States politics. Yet Bloomberg media practice a studied incuriosity when it comes to their namesake. In October for instance New York City’s Campaign Finance Board rebuked the mayor for not reporting $1.2 million in contributions to the Empire State’s Independence Party. Plenty of New York media covered the decision; the Bloomberg properties did not.

Mayor Bloomberg also seems to have been unprepared for the severity of Hurricane Sandy. His response to the disaster in boroughs where he and his rich friends do not live has been less than satisfactory. He was reluctant to postpone the New York City Marathon even though it was scheduled to take place days after one of the worst natural disasters in modern memory and was to start in a borough that had been ravaged by floodwaters.

What did the mayor do? He had the brilliant insight that he would avoid blowback if he could shift media attention to climate change. And he did. The first post-Sandy cover of Bloomberg Businessweek carried the headline, "It’s Global Warming, Stupid," and neatly coincided with the mayor's endorsement of Obama on the basis of climate policy. Bloomberg has been coy but people expect him to leave office in 2013 when he will take up writing, philanthropy, and interfering in the lives of the rest of us.

Chris Hughes is an interesting case not because he is under 30-years-old but because he so perfectly embodies the liberal conception of the undeserving rich. One of the assumptions behind liberal economic policy is that wealth is not a function of work or initiative or guile but of luck. What matters most is not what you do but who you are, where you were born, to whom, and what privileges you enjoy along the way. I used to be skeptical of this theory but, since I started reading profiles of Hughes after he bought the New Republic in March, my skepticism has waned.

One day, historians researching America’s transition to aristocracy will study Hughes’s life story. The North Carolina native went from Andover to Harvard, where he ended up as Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate and thus lucked into the winning numbers in the meritocracy Powerball. Total winnings: some $600 million (the amount fluctuates with Facebook’s stock price). Hughes did not have programming or business skills—it is unclear what skills he has at all—so Zuckerberg made him Facebook’s first press agent. He publicized the revolutionary social network, which does not strike one as particularly hard to do, and parlayed his Facebook experience into a job on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He was riding a wave he had caught inadvertently by sleeping in the same dorm room as Zuckerberg. Where is the special, two-segment, snark-filled panel on "Melissa Harris-Perry" devoted to Hughes, whiteness, and the nature of membership in the American elite?

That particular episode has not aired because Hughes, like many other liberal arts graduates of our prestigious universities with no particular specialties or experience, decided to go into journalism. His social-media start-up Jumo failed. Thanks to Zuckerberg, however, Hughes could achieve his new career goal by simply buying the New Republic, the close-to-a-century old journal of American liberalism. He installed himself as publisher and editor-in-chief and fired Richard Just, the editor with whom he had brokered the deal, in favor of Franklin Foer, a previous editor who had overseen a steep decline in circulation and was known for his 7,000-word retraction and non-apology apology after the Weekly Standard uncovered that he had been publishing a fabulist. One of Foer’s first acts was to increase the amount of soccer blogging on the magazine’s website.

Hughes married his boyfriend Sean Eldridge in July. They celebrated the nuptials at Cipriani Wall Street with 400 guests including Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Gayle King. Their residences include a "4,000-square-foot sparsely furnished loft with 12-foot ceilings on Crosby Street in SoHo," where they host fundraisers for Democrats, and an 80-acre estate outside the city in Garrison where their neighbors include Roger Ailes and Jacob Weisberg. The house is well described in another positive, 2,500-word profile of Hughes:

The estate, among a grove of trees and manicured fields, consists of a 5,000-square-foot main house with eight fireplaces. (There is a separate 2,800-square-foot guesthouse where Mr. Eldridge keeps an office.) It is a study in matte black and faded amber, with accents of crimson in the carpet in Mr. Hughes’s office, where a drawing of Atlas holding the world was hung. The wood floors are painted charcoal, and several rooms have large-paned windows that, from the den, overlook an unfinished swimming pool. A chandelier made of deer antlers hung in the foyer, where a vintage typewriter was placed on a table near another pair of antlers, which Mr. Eldridge said he found outside.

It is the sort of place, in other words, that the New Republic and its writers normally would mock and deride as the lair of undeserving plutocrats who have benefited from the inequalities of the global economy. And Hughes seems the sort of person who normally would come under the disapproving and scornful gaze of the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, whose genius is for exposing pretenders and poseurs. But what does the famously outspoken and critical and 60-years-old Wieseltier have to say about his new boss?

"In the nineteenth century, there was no Internet, but Balzac is all about young people who come from the countryside to the big city," he says. "I mean, if you think about it, he has been on one of the most amazing rides that any young person in the history of the world has ever seen."

One detects the barest hint of irony in that reference to Balzac, for Wieseltier does not specify whether Hughes more closely resembles Rastignac or Vautrin. Or perhaps that is wishful thinking.

"It’s difficult not to get swept up in Hughes’s sincerity, his life-of-the-mind swagger, his vertiginous luck," writes Carl Swanson, the author of this week’s Hughes encomium. That’s especially true if you or someone you know is employed or would like to be employed by Hughes or by one of his fellow benefactors of progressive journalism. Together with the Democratic hacks that show up at Hughes’s $5 million apartment looking for handouts, these individuals and the institutions they support constitute an indestructible triangle of liberal influence. The rest of us must find solace—as well as the news—in places where progressives fear to tread, where the culture of liberalism is not suffocating, where liberal icons are judged by liberal standards.