Newsweek’s “Power” List Miss

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My professional conflicts aside, if you haven’t read Newsweek recently, you should pick it up. Transition has, ironically, been good for the magazine. There seems to be more reporting, more interesting takes, a bit more of an excited, carefree attitude. Eve Conant had a great piece last week about Marijuana and the GOP. A couple weeks earlier, there was a piece about the religious politics of Vladamir Putin’s latest puppet in Chechnya.  But I write not to praise, but because I just read the magazine’s current cover story, The Newsweek Power 50.

This is a list, and everyone loves lists, but it is a list with a novel premise: That money equals power in politics. “In an oversaturated, hypercommodified media culture of 2010, the most influential political figures are generally the ones who make the most money peddling their perspectives,” runs the thesis. Note the use of the word “generally,” a pretty big qualification that gets left out of the pull quote in the layout of the magazine. But even with that hedge, the thesis is balderdash. Herewith is my own list explaining why:

1. Money is a poor approximation of power in just about any field. Don’t believe me, tune into Game 5 of the World Series tonight. On opening day, the San Francisco Giants had a payroll of about $100 million, less than half of the New York Yankees. The Texas Rangers had a $55 million payroll, down about $13 million from 2009–the fourth lowest in Major League Baseball. Look at CEO pay: The top CEO earner over the five year period that ended in 2009 was Larry Ellison of Oracle, a smart guy with a good company who took in $944 million. But try to make an argument that he has more power in the industry than Apple’s Steve Jobs, who took made about one third less in the same period. Lew Frankfort of Coach, the handbag company, ranks #7 over five years with $220 million. Good for him. But try and make the case that Frankfort has more power than Goldman Sach’s Lloyd Blankfein ($137 million) or General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt ($71 million). So it goes.

2. Earning power in political entertainment is not the same thing as political influence. Over the last two years, there has been no hotter political punditry stock than Glenn Beck, who comes in #2 on the Newsweek list and usually gets between 2 million and 3 million viewers a night. That is a big number for cable television, but not a big number in politics. Barack Obama got 69 million votes in 2008. In 2006, California Senator Dianne Feinstein was reelected with 5 million votes. But numbers only begin to tell this story. The vast political entertainment machine, which traffics in outrage on the left and the right, has proven that it can make money in all kinds of ways (radio, television, books, live shows) from niche audiences. But it has not proven that it can control the fate of the nation. Despite the protestations of Talk Radio, the Republican Party abandoned many of its core conservative values during the presidency of George W. Bush. Rush Limbaugh (#1 on the Newsweek list) had a bigger audience than Tom Delay, but Delay decided what happened in the U.S. House, not Limbaugh. So it will be the next time Republicans regain control of Congress and the White House.

3. The Newsweek list is arbitrary. In the introduction, we are told, “News anchors such as Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric and Jim Lehrer ear more than enough money to appear in the top 50, but they serve mostly as conduits for information, not merchants of ideas. So we left them off.” Okay. But Newsweek included TIME’s Mark Halperin, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, and New York’s John Heilmann, three political reporters, who serve as conduits of information too–not to mention Charlie Rose, an interviewer no more ideological or opinionated than any of the network bigs, and political handicapper Charlie Cook, who reads data for a living. They also included former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham and current TIME editor Richard Stengel, my boss, apparently arguing that their news organizations are totally different in kind from network news operations, without any explanation why.

4. The list makes no sense internally. Is Newsweek really arguing that John McLaughlin (#43) of the poorly watched PBS show the McLaughlin Group has more power than the top White House aide David Axelrod (#50)? Or that Don Imus (#7) is more powerful than Bill Clinton (#8)? Or that Frank Luntz (#26), a pollster who largely works for media organizations, is more powerful than Karl Rove (#35), who continues to pull the levers of power within the GOP? It goes on and on. Reading the list is a bit like picking oranges at an apple farm. Who is more powerful, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani or Univision’s Jorge Ramos? Fareed Zakaria or Bill Maher? Alan Greenspan or Roland Martin? Provocateur Ann Coulter or book agent Bob Barnett? I give up.

5. My dictionary defines politics as the “art and science of government,” which would suggest in a democracy that some government employees, especially the elected ones, have political power. But not on this list, with the exception of Axelrod, who comes in last, at #50, with $700,000, and Barack Obama, who comes in at #20 with $4 million. (Obama’s 2009 tax returns, the most recent filed, listed joint income with his wife of $5.5 million. The list makers decided not to include “investment income,” which may explain the discrepancy, or maybe they did they not include his $1.4 million in Nobel Prize money. But if so, why not?)

6. There are no lobbyists on the list. Is Newsweek saying that no lobbyists make more than $700,000 a year? Ditto campaign consultants.

I guess if you want to concede all of the above, you could argue that a list of income in the political/media business means something. But what? I’m just not sure.