So here we are in the middle of March, which for the financial media, means one thing: It's time to worship at the altar of Warren Buffett. After soaking up the kind of space The Wall Street Journal typically reserves for earthquakes and terrorist attacks, Buffett's annual letter to shareholders, released during the last weekend in February, is still being pored over by journalists in search of wisdom -- and in anticipation of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.'s annual shareholderfest in May.
Buffett's grinning mug was recently found on the cover of BusinessWeek magazine. And then there was his three-hour interview (three hours!) on CNBC, held at Piccolo Pete's, Buffett's favorite Omaha restaurant, founded in 1933. How -- dare we say it? -- folksy!
Yes, for a certain segment of the financial media, it's been all Warren, all the time, a phenomenon that continues to grow, along with Berkshire's shareholder base. The avalanche of cheery coverage serves to burnish Buffett's image not only as a great investor, but as a great man, a morally superior alternative to Wall Street, who favors frugality and value over greed and excess. Indeed, his pronouncement that getting deal advice from investment bankers is a bad idea -- "Don't ask the barber whether you need a haircut" is how he put it -- was heralded as good advice "far beyond Wall Street" by Andrew Ross Sorkin in his New York Times column. "Just think of all the other parts of life where people offer only encouraging words -- 'You should do this!' -- because that's the only way they get paid (real estate agents, stockbrokers, the list goes on)," wrote Sorkin, who once again this year will question Buffett at Berkshire's shareholder jamboree.
What else is new? Every year around this time we're reminded how Buffett gets a pass, even as the contradictions grow. Derivatives? They might be weapons of mass destruction, but Buffett uses them. Wall Street? There's his very profitable, $5 billion investment in the vampire squid itself, Goldman, Sachs & Co., a firm that, like Salomon Brothers before it, engages in everything Buffett supposedly disapproves of: speculative trading, leverage, derivatives, investment banking, predation. Asked by a CNBC viewer if he would invest in Goldman again, given its "political problems," Buffett is unrepentant. "It's a very, very strong, well-run business," he responded. And as for Lloyd Blankfein, he said, "You cannot find a better manager."
Uttered by almost anyone else, those words would bring out the Goldman haters in droves. Recall the outcry a few weeks ago after President Obama called Blankfein a "savvy" businessman during an interview with BusinessWeek. But even for the anti-Goldman media, Buffett remains beyond reproach, a policy that extends from his business to his personal life. Indeed, Buffett and his first wife, Susie, lived apart for 27 years, during which time he lived with Astrid, a friend of Susie's, and dated Katharine Graham. He married Astrid after Susie died.
Hey, that's fine with us. But what's interesting here is the way these facts are acknowledged by the media but rarely, if ever, judged, dwelled upon or snickered at, even when they were laid bare last year by his biographer, Alice Schroeder (whom Buffett apparently has stopped speaking to). Time magazine's observation last year that Buffett's personal life "can be something of a wreck" was as damning as the coverage ever really got.
To understand just how exceptional such treatment is, imagine, say, if Dick Fuld, of Lehman Brothers infamy, had engaged in a similar arrangement. The media would have busted a gut clucking over every detail it could find.
As it turns out, Fuld appears to be a devoted husband, one half of "one of the happiest couples on the planet," at least according to an article, "Lehman's Desperate Housewives," in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair. But in this telling, excerpted from Vicky Ward's upcoming book, "The Devil's Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers," Fuld's happy marriage is largely portrayed as creepy. It seems Fuld wanted his senior executives to be happily married, too, which apparently put too much pressure on other Lehman wives "to be happy and pretty and smiling when there was an event, and you really would have liked to strangle somebody."
Fuld had the audacity to thank wives of new managing directors for all the "canceled dinners, weekends, and vacations" they were about to suffer, which Ward offers as proof that "[i]f you were married to a Lehmanite, you belonged to the firm." He even required some wives to attend Lehman's summer retreats in Sun Valley, which was always "an absolute nightmare to pack for," what with the dresses, Manolo Blahniks and hiking gear the trip required.
We could go on about the excerpt, which reads like a lesser version of the seminal piece on unhappy Wall Street wives, New York magazine's 1998 "Married to the Market," which still holds up today.
But the more important point here is how the media can take what's typically seen as a virtue -- Fuld's devotion to his wife -- and turn it into a negative, even as Buffett is not only given a pass on his marital eccentricities, but is deified for his "folksy" values. Maybe stock prices are our true moral barometer: Lehman, of course, has evaporated while Berkshire Hathaway flies on.
Of course that can all change in a nanosecond. If Fuld had somehow saved Lehman, chances are the media would be singing the praises of his happy marriage and family values. And if Berkshire Hathaway suddenly tanked, Buffett's "something of a wreck" of a personal life would become front-page news, not to mention his cozy relationship with the vampire squid.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal.
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