Dan Abrams's Power Grid: Ranking the media elite, sans common sense

Power lists are, by their nature, kind of stupid. The idea that something as subjective as influence can be empirically measured and rank-ordered is inherently contentious: Lists are meant to provoke arguments, not agreement.

But some power lists are stupider than others. And perhaps the stupidest one yet comes to us courtesy of Mediaite, a new media news and analysis website founded by former MSNBC anchor Dan Abrams. I won't bother rehashing what Mediaite's all about, since it's already been amply covered in the Washington Post and Forbes. Nor will I bother making fun of its eyestrain-inducing name, which "sounds vaguely medicinal, like something you'd give to a toddler suffering diarrhea," as Slate's Jack Shafer puts it, or unpacking its cloudy and potentially conflicted relationship with Abrams's media consultancy.
No, I'm mostly just interested in the Power Grid, a.k.a. "The Mediaite Influence Index," which purports to rank some 1,477 writers, editors, publishers and moguls based on how much pull they exert within their respective orbits, using a "propriety algorithm" that factors in variables ranging from net worth to print circulation to "online buzz."

Algorithms don't lie -- but they do produce some pretty bizarre results, if they're designed badly enough. Naturally, being a self-absorbed media navel gazer, the first thing I did when I logged onto Mediaite was check my own ranking. In the eyes of the proprietary algorithm, I am the 152nd most powerful print or online reporter out there. This was somewhat sad for me, as many of my friends and colleagues hold higher spots on the list. But I was cheered to see that I'm at least more important than New York Times Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet (No. 184), New Yorker lead political writer "Hendrick" [sic] Hertzberg (No. 210) and Times book critic "Michiki" [sic] Kakutani (No. 264). (Hertzberg and Kakutani might have fared better had the Power Grid spelled their names correctly.)

However, all of us are considerably less important than just about everyone who has ever edited a tech blog and/or worked for Gawker Media. We're also less important, incidentally, than Rachel Sklar -- Mediaite's editor at large, who helped design the algorithm that currently slots her at No. 142.

I asked Sklar to explain these and other peculiarities of the Power Grid, such as the fact that Hertzberg and James Surowiecki, who both write columns for the New Yorker, are lumped in with reporters, while New Yorker features writer Malcolm Gladwell is classified as a columnist, along with Maureen Dowd and, um, Meghan McCain. Or why David Pogue and Walt Mossberg -- rival tech critics at the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, aren't in the same category.

"What the Power Grid has revealed to me, at least, is that a lot of people are hard to categorize," she told me via Gchat. "There are reporters who write columns, and columnists who do hard reporting. There are people who fit in a bunch of categories; there are people who don't really fit into one (like, say, Gary Vaynerchuk). We launched it knowing it was a work in progress, and inviting people to write us with what we've missed or information that will be helpful. But that said, this was not thrown together willy-nilly....The tires were kicked hard on this thing."

I also asked Hertzberg how he feels about dwelling in the shadows of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles author Jennifer 8. Lee (No. 4 among reporters), Tracy "Slut Machine" Egan (No. 91) and New York Post "Page Six" co-writer Paula Froelich (No. 103). Hertzberg's reply:

Lists are fun. Helen Gurley Brown, Walt Whitman, Richard Nixon, Joe McCarthy, whoever wrote the "begat" section of the Old Testament -- everybody loves lists.

I hadn't known about this one. It seeks to be driven by pitilessly factual criteria, so it lacks whimsicality. As far as its listing of me is concerned, one is always glad to be included. However, I must note a spelling mistake (it's Hendrik, not Hendrick) and a category mistake (I'm more of a columnist, sort-of, than a reporter).

Although the list is searchable, for which I'm grateful, there doesn't seem to be a way of looking at it or any of its dozen components all at once. Therefore one must page through it, ten names at a time. Does each new page constitute a "unique visit"? If so, it's a clever way to "drive traffic."
Disclosure: Abrams approached me in January about working for him; discussions were short-lived.

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