Magazines: Serving Up Business News


Dozens of American magazines deal with the business world. Most are readable restatements of obvious truisms about human behavior, tarted up in clotted prose to convince the reader that the authors are Serious Scientists. Many of the articles in the Harvard Business Review, observes The 1989 Media Guide, "seem as if they were written by one group of management consultants for another group of management consultants." I'd extend the criticism to most of the Review's competition.

The four major American business magazines, however, are written by journalists, not professors. And Business Week, Inc., Fortune, and Forbes reflect sharply differing views of the market. Some robustly celebrate capitalism's virtues; others look at the business world as the moral equivalent of cold Brussels sprouts or a dead rat.

In a devastating 1981 article, Steven Lagerfeld noted that Business Week (circulation 987,920) was "hostile to the market, oblivious to communism and other threats to freedom, and unfriendly to the spirit of a free society." A typical comment from BW of 1980 was Deputy Editor William Wolman's characterization of "right-wing free-enterprising members of the Republican Party" as "high-income WASPS who see government as a threat to their ability to hang on to what they already have."

Some portions of Business Week have improved. Sensible economists, such as Gary Becker (University of Chicago) and Paul Craig Roberts (Center for Strategic and International Studies), are allowed columns. The columnists alternating with them are Princeton's Alan Blinder and Robert "Snidely" Kuttner. In a January column, Blinder moaned that civil servants are "underpaid" and should have their salaries increased by 40 percent or so. Kuttner appears to have been encouraged by his editors to avoid his rabies shots; in a February column he ranted about the "deregulatory orgy of the 1980's," a party that did not exist outside of Kuttner's fevered brain. Another recent column had Kuttner visiting the American Economics Association meetings and discovering that all the scholars there were engaged in an incredible conspiracy to suppress such "sensible" proposals as socialism.

After statism, the magazine's great love is disaster scenarios. So pessimistic is BW that many issues should be retitled Business Bleak.

What do you get when you meld statism and doom? Articles with such objective, unbiased titles as "Enterprise Zones—Or Twilight Zones," and "The Gospel of Free Trade Is Losing Apostles," a lip-smacking account of how the number of protectionist economists has risen from one to three. Editorials favoring a value-added tax and a higher gasoline tax and opposing reductions in the capital gains tax. (One almost believes that staffers are required to wear "I ? TAXES" buttons.) And thrilling cover stories on the inevitable harm that would result from the dry winter on the Great Plains and the greenhouse effect.

BW does have more information than its competitors; it differs from them in that it is primarily a news magazine. So if your daily newspaper doesn't cover business well, Business Week may be a mildly useful supplement to your reading diet. (If that's your problem, however, you're better off reading The Economist, which has more information and appreciates the market.)

Then there's Inc., (circulation 753,000), the neoliberal business magazine. Like most neoliberals, Inc. is sound on such issues as protectionism and direct corporate welfare. But its reporters appear more interested in replacing direct handouts with indirect subsidies, such as huge increases in federal spending on education and research and development.

But my primary objection to Inc. is not political. Inc.'s view of capitalism is technocratic; the generic success story covers an information-pusher who spends at least 80 hours a week toiling away on his personal computer. Perhaps this is true, but few of the people in Inc. profiles ever have any fun or pleasure in their work. I'm all for Inc.'s boosting of entrepreneurship; I'm even in favor of the recent plea by Inc. West Coast Editor Joel Kotkin (cowritten with Sen. Bill Bradley!) that the Democratic Party pay more attention to entrepreneurs. I simply wish that Inc. staffers would occasionally break away from always taking the long-dreary-hours-starting-a-business tack. If you can't have any fun at it, why start a business?

John Galbraith and John Chamberlain, I have heard, were once on the payroll of Fortune (circulation 750,000) at the same time. Even today, the magazine has two facets to its corporate character: market-oriented journalists and country-club Republicans. Indeed, Fortune is the last redoubt of the once-powerful Wall Street branch of the Republican Party. Most of the traditional organs of Establishment Republicanism (Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, the New York Herald Tribune, etc.) have vanished; only Fortune remains.

Many fine journalists work for it. Daniel Seligman's "Keeping Up" column offers a witty and lively take on current affairs, combining clips from other journals with Seligman's own ruminations. A typical discovery, from a February column, is a Journal of Commerce story that quoted Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach: "The Americans couldn't destroy Hanoi, but we have destroyed our city via very low rents." (The item was headlined "Rent Control: It's Worse Than Bombing.")

Other Fortune strong points include the book reviews, frequently featuring such rising talents as the Manhattan Institute's Walter Olson and REASON contributor David Henderson. The "Other Voices" column includes such worthies as Hoover Institution scholars Thomas Sowell and Alvin Rabushka. Fortune staff writer Myron Magnet is one of the two best reporters on the social problems beat, the other being The Atlantic's Nicholas Lemann.

But Fortune is still predominantly the voice of what The Media Guide describes as "the old guard, moderate Republican corporatists who reside along the Greenwich, Conn.–Princeton, N.J. axis." Economically, this places Fortune in the Pete Peterson/National Economic Commission camp: those who believe that the American people have had too much pleasure and need a high-tax diet plan.

Consider Fortune's recent "Appeal to President Bush." The editors, after agonizing, decided that it was impossible to cut more than $50 billion from the budget "without seriously diminishing military prowess or returning many to poverty." Only the Rural Electrification Administration and Amtrak would be axed, leaving America's intellectual and corporate leaders fat and happy with their grants from the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the Small Business Administration, and other pork barrels.

Fortune then called a large number of CEOs, who dutifully whined away about the need for more taxation. "Tobacco and alcohol have contributed to the health costs of our nation," groaned Jack McAllister, CEO of US West, a regional telephone company. "It seems appropriate to tax these for added revenue." Of course, McAllister heads a government-sponsored monopoly, so I'm sure he would agree that since excess telephone use by teenagers adds to the stress—and "health costs"—of parents, a tripling of federal telephone taxes is in order to reduce telephone use.

My favorite business magazine, for two reasons, is Forbes (circulation 739,100). First, I admire Malcolm Forbes for being a rich man who knows how to enjoy his money. So many wealthy people end up either agonizing over the immense burden their bucks cause or giving their money away to foundations that despise the rich, so it's nice to see Malcolm Forbes, Sr., riding motorcycles, flying strange balloons, and having a guilt-free good time.

But Forbes is more than its owner. Columnists include Alan Reynolds, Mark Hulbert, and some of the best work I've seen from the American Enterprise Institute's Michael Novak. George Gilder is a frequent contributor.

The magazine is also an excellent source for news outside the business world. A March article, for example, was the best I've read analyzing the animal rights movement, and the same issue included a fine piece on how rent control has crippled Santa Monica, California. Another recent issue not only analyzed the rising number of business political action committees that are not automatically funding incumbents, but even included a profile of economist Murray Rothbard by Peter Brimelow.

My investment advice: subscribe to Forbes; read Fortune—in the library.

Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster formerly worked for Harper's and The Wilson Quarterly.