OLD Media Moves

NY Times biz writer criticizes Forbes 400 list

January 18, 2006

Timothy O’Brien is a New York Times business reporter and the recent author of Trump Nation: The Art of Being the Donald, which the real estate developer has criticized vociferously. O’Brien was interviewed Friday on the On the Media radio program for NPR and criticized the Forbes 400 list as being investment pornography.

Here is what O’Brien said: “Forbes looks at the publicly held assets of individuals who have stock in publicly traded companies. That’s just a fairly straightforward exercise when you have a Bill Gates whose wealth is tied up in Microsoft, or a Warren Buffet whose wealth is almost solely tied up in Berkshire Hathaway. It becomes a little trickier when you’ve got somebody like Donald Trump who has wealth and real estate which isn’t publicly traded, the valuations are always elastic. And anybody that’s based in the private world has a lot of leeway to tell Forbes whatever’s on their mind, including how big they think their wallet is.”

In fact, O’Brien criticized Forbes’ accounting of Trump’s net worth in his book. See this earlier posting.

I have never been a big fan of such lists. It’s scorecard business journalism at its worst.

The Forbes’ list, which began in 1982, has increased the public’s fascination with the wealthy and how they had gotten that way. In turn, business journalism began focusing more on those who were in charge of accumulating the wealth – for themselves and for shareholders. A direct correlation between an increase in coverage of the net worth of individuals and the increase in coverage of CEOs can easily be made.

No longer were readers of business coverage simply interested in the Rockefellers of Ida Tarbell’s time from the perspective of the broader effect on society of their companies. Consumers of the business press now also wanted the details of their personal lives. Business journalism happily complied, although at first even Forbes was dubious. “’I thought it was pretty dicey at first,â€? said then-editor James Michaels. “I thought how do you find out about somebody who owns six shopping centers and isn’t on the society pages?â€? That’s O’Brien’s point, exactly.

By 1987, the magazine added lists of foreign billionaires and the highest-paid entertainers. Three years later, it added a list of the top 40 highest-paid athletes.

Writing about the personal wealth and other private details of the richest families and the world and executives is not necessarily off limits for business journalism. Some of the best investigative business stories have uncovered wrongdoing in how the richest of the rich operated their businesses and squandered their inheritances. Less than half of the people on the original wealthy list remained a decade later, a great story unto itself.

But writing about wealth simply to ascertain the wealthiest led business journalism down a path of simplified coverage that caused many publications to ignore more substantive stories, I believe.

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