John Eby: Business magazine reads like Vanity Fair

Published 8:54 am Monday, August 3, 2009

The last straw was when I couldn’t click away “The Beer Summit,” replete with little “Ale to the Chief” logos.

Packaged as a teachable moment in race relations, there were two black guys and two white guys clinking mugs of suds for a nauseating staged photo op on the White House lawn, the media pack kept at bay in the name of transparency.

Labeled “breaking news,” the image consumed every cable channel, where, because of an aversion to commercials, I surf between innings of Tigers games. I vow to just turn the TV off rather than vent more. Advances that allow us to work smarter should not tether us to our jobs and force us to arrive earlier and stay later. Neither should 24/7 cable news make us less informed and dumber.

I’m 600 pages into “Nixonland,” Rick Perlstein’s exhaustive argument that Tricky Dick, who died in 1994, fractured America and “it hasn’t ended yet,” as Sarah Palin seems to prove.

I remember ping-pong diplomacy, so it’s interesting delving into the back story.
Recall that “China was the word Nixon used when he wanted to scare an audience.” On Oct. 28, 1966, in Boise, Idaho, after Chinese nuclear tests, he said if Lyndon Johnson lost Vietnam, “We are then running an immense risk of World War III.”

Nixon cynically thought his surprising “people to people” overture would resonate with young, war-soured voters he needed to cling to the White House in 1972.

“This China thing is so really discombobulating to these (expletive deleted) liberals – really kills ’em! The China thing – must just kill ’em. For me to do it. Don’t you think? Because it’s their bag? Not supposed to be my bag,” he rants at Henry Kissinger. When I finish my Harry Potter-sized book, mounds of magazines await.

I have always loved magazines (New Times, Spy, Brill’s Content, RIP) because they combine the visual appeal of TV and the immediacy of newspapers with enough lag time for reflection and perspective. Vanity Fair scooped The Washington Post on Deep Throat.
My mom, whose previous entertainment coup of Feb. 9, 1964, was making me watch some long-haired boy band on Ed Sullivan, dropped off a stack of business magazines.
I’ve tried to read Fortune and Business Week, but always glaze over at their stodginess.
I was not familiar with Conde Nast Portfolio, which with its long articles, reminded me of VF. Duh, VF is from Conde Nast, too.

Out of four covers depicting Palin, Bernie (“The Minus Touch”) Madoff, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Viacom’s Sumner Redstone, who fired Tom Cruise three Augusts ago from Paramount Pictures, Alaska’s former governor jumps out.

One because of the unglamorous Rolling Stone-like portrait of her bundled up in parka and boots, standing in snow. She’s not wearing her trademark glasses or much, if any, makeup.
Former RS chief photographer Mark Seliger shoots for Portfolio and VF, just as I recognized the bylines of Matthew Cooper and Karl Taro Greenfield from Time. Seliger was responsible for more than 100 RS covers. Now he’s in North Carolina photographing Tiger Woods for Portfolio.

Second, the Palin piece was by investigative reporter Joe McGinniss, who ought to make the “cold, hard truth” about Palin and Big Oil as interesting as Nixon and the “The Selling of The President”  when he was 26 or 1983’s “Fatal Vision.”

I forgot he went to Alaska the year I graduated high school to write a book on the oil boom.
“Pipe Dreams,” published last April, was much more informative than all the drivel that filled the airwaves when she announced her impending departure over the Fourth of July – again surprising the media.

That $40 billion natural gas pipeline (“Drill, Baby, Drill!”) meant to help lead America to energy independence, North America’s largest and most expensive infrastructure project ever, that she touted at the Republican convention and to CBS’ Katie Couric, does not and might never exist because, rhetoric aside, she was “one of the biggest obstacles in its path.”
As a former governor, Tony Knowles, a Democrat, told McGinniss, “It’s as if getting the gas pipeline built is only her second-highest priority. Her highest is making sure the oil companies don’t build it.”

Palin “had been a bare-knuckle backwoods populist who’d built a career out of puffing up dragons she could then slay. Her tactic was first to demonize then to defeat,” which is one explanation for how a young woman can rise so quickly under the radar from Wasilla City Council to John McCain’s running mate.

She only became governor in 2006 and “found herself eyeball-to-eyeball with Alaska’s most demonizable dragon of all – Big Oil.” Fortune 500 No. 1 Exxon-Mobil had $443 billion in revenues and $45 billion in profits last year.

McGinniss mines for 10 pages how Palin “overlooked one salient fact,” that by excluding Exxon-Mobil, BP and ConocoPhillips, which controlled natural gas the new pipeline would need “if it were ever to pump anything more than hot air … She gained the short-term approval-rating points that made her seem attractive to McCain last summer,” but all but “assured the “pipeline to nowhere” would never be “anything more than her personal field of dreams.”

“There is a considerable gap between the image Sarah Palin tries to project and the reality that underlies it,” according to McGinniss. “In sometimes startling fashion, her deeds often belie her words,” though she cannily tapped into Alaskans’ sentiment since the Exxon Valdez spill 20 years ago that Big Oil was evil and robbed the state blind.
Early on, everybody loved Sarah Barracuda, even Alaska’s largest newspaper. The Anchorage Daily News, which she denounced as a “yellow liberal rag, hailed her as the “Joan of Arc of Alaskan politics.”

“Few noticed,” McGinniss writes, “that her political skills were not matched by an interest in, or grasp of, policy.”

Also, he concluded, “Even in November, I thought it apparent that Palin had returned to Alaska feeling she’s outgrown it … She’d been at the white-hot center. How could she go back to the cold, dark edge? She’d come to view her governorship as a distraction from her efforts to project herself onto the national scene.”

McGinniss quotes Andrew Halcro, the conservative who opposed her in 2006: “Issues register on her brain only in terms of populist appeal. She never thinks through the policy implications”; and state Rep. Les Gara, Anchorage liberal: “She doesn’t spend time studying problems. She’d much rather deliver a sound bite than do the hard work of governing.”

A uniter, not a divider, in the George W. Bush mold, and a maverick like McCain, but she had to move on when her pipeline was doomed by distancing oil players rather than trying to bring them together to achieve her stated goal.

Like revelations that reflect on the media as much as the Bush administration in a Michael Moore documentary, I had never heard the part of the story where Palin, aided and abetted by her legislature, committed to paying up to $500 million to a foreign company! – TransCanada, based in Calgary – to look into the possibility of someday building the pipeline.

I love Portfolio’s blend of big, beefy stories seasoned with that dash of JFK Jr.’s George, the pop culture convergence of politics and People magazine.

Jesse Eisinger’s May Wall Street column was about the Swiss bank Credit Suisse creating “an ingenious and gratifying solution to the problem of outsize pay for failure” – bonuses in toxic assets!

Portfolio has been around two years, championing greater transparency, the benefits of effective regulation and a distrust of “financial fads.”

I’m rejuvenated by reading.

And more convinced than ever there’s a whole world out there missed by TV’s unblinking eye that we need to explore.

John Eby is Daily News managing editor. E-mail him at john.eby