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Wealth Porn

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.


Behind every liberal rich-person basher lurks a rich-person gawker. Or at least most of the time.

The New York Times has been running an impressive, book-length series of articles about class in America. Some of them have been riveting as well as "important." But I'd bet a Rolex that the most popular of the nine pieces published thus far was the front page story that ran Sunday, June 5, headlined, "Old Nantucket Warily Meets the New."

It's all about how the new "hyper-rich" have taken the island over from the old rich. It's a great and grotesque piece.

Accompanying it is a wonkish but equally impressive look at how these "hyper-rich" people, those earning about $1.6 million a year or more annually, are leaving even the regular rich in the dust. The amount of national treasure consumed by the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers has grown to levels not seen since the Roaring '20s.

This is also a terrific piece.

But cruise around the rest of this Sunday's Times and what you'll find is a whole lot of what can only be called wealth porn. There are voyeuristic, detailed, titillating accounts of the doings and digs of the rich and well-groomed all over the paper. It's like that every Sunday. This week it was jarring because of the stories I just mentioned. I think that's called cognitive dissonance.

It is precisely the same cognitive dissonance that allowed the Democratic Party to nominate John Kerry and John Edwards - combined net worth, about $1 billion - to bash the rich, bemoan the split of the "two Americas" and beat up on George and Dick for being pals of the rich. When the rich, or those profiting from the rich, condemn other, less enlightened rich people, skin crawls. And many Americans - to the chagrin of Democrats, Marxists and Europeans - tend not to begrudge the rich and hyper-rich their riches.

Back to the Sunday Times, the single greatest current events icon in the East Coast, Blue State urban, moneyed and intellectual world. If anything creates water-cooler buzz in this orbit, it's the Sunday Times. It is also the greatest purveyor of super high-class, wealth porn there is and it's blessed with the imprimatur of news, sociology and high purpose.

The Times magazine this week, ironically, was "The Money Issue." The cover story was a terrific profile of a more-than-hyper-rich hedge manager named Cliff Asness. The piece was a nice glimpse into the secretive hedge fund universe, but what made it riveting was the portrait of a not famous, under-40 gazillionaire. As always, the Sunday magazine had a section for real estate porn: page after page filled with ads for opulent homes. This week there were ads for 27 homes listed at over $5 million.

In the Sunday Styles section, Alexandra Wolfe - daughter of writer Tom Wolfe - filed a story about how grown daughters of people with names like Tisch and Della Femina are taking their kids to posh new clubs where they can exercise and socialize while their kids get taken care of nearby.

There was a short feature about what's hot in diamond earrings (hoops, not chandeliers, prices ranging from $2,400 to $16,500) and a long article about how David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg are concerned about giving the public access to public beaches in Malibu. There were also the regular weekly features about society weddings and charity balls.

The Sunday Business Section always profiles a hyper-rich guy and this week it was Ronald Perelman. The piece had real news value apart from the wealth porn, just like the hedge fund story.

I'm not suggesting the Times shouldn't have done any of these stories. I just want to point out the irony of running an excellent set of pieces about the anthropology and demographics of the hyper-rich in a paper that is dining out on them. It is a kind of limousine liberalism that I believe also afflicts the Democratic Party too often, a conceit that "we are the enlightened rich."

Bill Clinton didn't bash the rich a lot, but he could have; Johns Kerry and Edwards did bash the rich a lot, and it flopped. It flopped partly because Americans who are not rich simply do not have a European-style, class base resentment. Americans aspire to being rich. That's the American way. But the '04 Democratic rhetoric also flopped because the guys spewing looked like such phonies; they weren't just rich, they were richer than the Republicans: they were hyper-rich.

In the House, Dennis Hastert, former high school wrestling coach, is a more authentic voice of the little guy than Nancy Pelosi, wife of a wealthy real estate developer, and in her own right part of a powerful political family including two past mayors of Baltimore, one of them also a five-term congressman.

The Senate has plenty of guys who make well-to-do look shabby, but the Democrats probably have the greater net worth, led by heirs like Kennedy, Dayton and Rockefeller and self-made moguls like Corzine, Kohl, and Lautenberg.

The point is not that being rich, or exploiting interest in the rich to sell newspapers, should be disqualifiers for tackling issues of economic justice. The point is to do it with some humility and an ear well-tuned to hypocrisy.



Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer

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