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Brilliance schmilliance: Portfolio Magazine's "Brilliance" Issue Isn't and The New York Times Stoops to Flatter

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So much for reviving long-form journalism. Portfolio, the magazine that launched a little more than a year ago with promises to reinvent business journalism as we know it, has resorted to one of the most hackneyed tricks of the trade -- it's made a list. For its "Brilliant Issue" (oh, brother), Portfolio brings us the "73 Biggest Brains in Business," a bizarre and arbitrary compendium of pop culture icons (Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg), fashion designers (Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs), assorted do-gooders (microlenders, philanthropists, environmentalists), academics, lobbyists, artists, and, yes, a handful of actual businesspeople (Rupert Murdoch, Jamie Dimon, Lloyd Blankfein, and oops, Jeffrey Immelt). Julian Robertson and the Google boys also made the list; Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, all favorites of master listmaker Fortune magazine, did not.

How does Portfolio explain a list that manages to include both actress Tina Fey and acquisitive Indian mogul Ratan Tata? "Brilliance is a slippery quality; it can be relative, temporary, or a matter of taste," it intones, using Steve Schwarzman as Exhibit A. Schwarzman looked brilliant when he took his Blackstone Group LP private equity empire public last year, the magazine explains, but now that the stock isn't doing well, he no longer seems so smart.

So there you have it; brilliance, at least according to Portfolio, isn't a measure of intellect or mental keenness, but a temporal thing, which, if you're a businessperson, is lost the moment your stock starts to sag, in the same way that a Hollywood starlet allegedly loses her sex appeal as soon as her taut skin starts to slacken. It's an honor that can be bestowed or revoked on people at will, by the market, by the public and, of course, by magazine editors in search of a gimmick for their covers.

In fact, for Portfolio, brilliance is such a fleeting phenomenon that its package even includes a list of people who "Used to be Brilliant" -- Schwarzman, Stan O'Neal, Eliot Spitzer -- suggesting you're only as brilliant as the last news cycle. Another weird little feature -- "Brilliantly Evil," a title Portfolio blithely bestows on everyone from Vladimir Putin to Patriots head coach and videographer Bill Belichick to Cerberus Capital Management LP's Steve Feinberg, who, the mag explains, "took advantage of loopholes during the credit crunch to walk away from deals with ailing companies."

This makes him evil?

Locating Feinberg on the brilliance and evil scales was a big topic last week. No sooner had Portfolio's list hit the newsstands than The New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin produced a Dealbook column on the famously press-shy buyout artist based on a two-hour chat with Feinberg in his office. In the piece, Sorkin reveals that he used to think of Feinberg as "cold and heartless," but now that he's actually met the guy, he's changed his mind. Why the turnaround? It seems to be based mostly on Feinberg's, well, stuff.

His office, we learn, is "threadbare"; its wall-to-wall carpet, old. His suits (or the one he wore that day), off-the-rack. He's got an American flag on display and a Harley. He lives in Manhattan but drives pickup trucks. He went to Princeton, but he didn't feel comfortable there, like he would have at a state school. "And when you meet him, when he looks you in the eye, when he talks about his brother-in-law the police officer, he is so genuine it seems like an accident he is on Wall Street," Sorkin adds.

OK, fine. But remember, President Bush looked evil Putin in the eye and declared him "straightforward and trustworthy." We're not suggesting that Feinberg is Putin -- we'll leave that insanity to Portfolio -- but isn't it strange that a reporter can spend two hours with someone and believe they have gotten the whole, complex picture of who he is, partly by viewing his stuff? Sorkin tells us Feinberg is the first "blue-collar billionaire" he's ever met, whatever that means. But in faux-populist Times-land, it's a compliment.

Sorkin also concludes that Feinberg is, indeed, "wicked smart," as many people had told him he was. But Feinberg doesn't act it. We're not told how Sorkin arrives at his conclusion; apparently, journalists know brilliance when they see it. We'll say one thing for Feinberg, though. For someone who doesn't deal with the press, he sure hit a home run. Maybe it's beginner's luck. Or maybe he's just brilliant.