For journalists in a slow news cycle, the impulse to sort, rank, and list people, places, and things comes as naturally as breathing. The fact that lists like these often have no point doesn't make them any less compelling or compulsively readable. Still, one exceptionally odd new list attempts to figure out life's winners and losers among people who already are doing quite well for themselves is "The New Establishment 2009," an annual Hot 100 of the world's most power machers, published in Vanity Fair's September issue.
As magazines are wont to do, the Condé Nast glossy has assigned hard numbers to the ethereal qualities of power and influence. Such phony statistics make their guesswork seem scientific, justifying this very peculiar list. And the strangeness starts right at the top.
Heading the power list is not Obama, or Oprah, but Lloyd Blankfein (above), Goldman Sachs Group (GS)'s chief executive. Why? Because, as Vanity Fair notes, "Goldman's second-quarter net income of $3.4 billion shocked even the most cynical observers, of which there were many, thanks to the firm's insidious tentacles, which stretch from Wall Street to Washington." The magazine shovels a heaping pile of snark onto Goldman, citing the Warren Buffett investment, the repayment of $10 billion of TARP loans, the boorish behavior of Blankfein's wife and the extraordinarily low 1 percent tax rate.
One argument Vanity Fair should have made, but did not, was that shares of the New York–based bank holding company have nearly doubled this year. Oddly, the editors view the power of Blankfein, the list's leader, as moving sideways in the year ahead -- even though Goldman Sachs would benefit from the expected rebound in the economy. To me, Blankfein's prospects seem better than even.
Just how Vanity Fair's editors determined who was hot and who was not seems to have been decided with a dartboard and an unsteady aim. Some choices make sense: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (no. 8), Bill Clinton (no. 11), Mark Zuckerberg (no. 23), Oprah Winfrey (38). Others make none: NBC Universal's Jeff Zucker (No. 61), LeBron James (No. 99). Lists are supposed to start arguments -- but seriously: How could Apple (AAPL)'s brilliant, mercurial CEO Steve Jobs see his influence rise from fourth to second place while he spent months on leave, recovering from a liver transplant? How much influence could he really have had on the new iPhone, or the rumored iTablet, from his bed?
Other puzzles are sprinkled throughout. What caused Arianna Huffington to rise from 90th place to 88th? No idea. What about PBS talking head Charlie Rose's meteoric rise from 81 to 60? It boggles the mind. And why are there so many new entrants suddenly joining the ranks of the world's power brokers -- banking superanalyst Meredith Whitney, New York Times columnist and Nobel winner Paul Krugman, talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, Harvey Levin of TMZ, Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels, Glenn Beck of Fox News?
Silly though the list may be, it serves a serious purpose. Magazine publishers like Condé Nast are desperate to retain readers by offering them special content on their Web site. One "special" aspect of "The New Establishment 2009" is that it runs for 20 pages on its Web site, which determined readers must wade through, click after click. Guess Vanity Fair needed the pageviews.
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