Did you watch Charlie Rose last night? According to the latest issue of Fortune magazine, you probably did. "The Charlie Rose Show" (or "Charlie" as "folks in the financial district" call it) has apparently become the TV destination for those who are looking to stay informed about the economic crisis, writes David A. Kaplan in a lengthy ode to the PBS talk show host. "From Wall Street and Washington and Silicon Valley, from industry and academe, from Europe and Asia -- the intelligentsia come to share ideas, to partake of Rose's ebullience and preparation, and of course to be eagerly interrupted a lot by sentences with more infinitive clauses than this one."
The Fortune story, entitled, "Why Business Loves Charlie Rose," is representative of a trend that seems to be growing and morphing into new combinations: the sort of meta, multiplatform story that has so many odd conflicts and strange connections that it makes you dizzy.
"Why Business Loves Charlie Rose" tells us breathlessly that Rose's guests over the past few months have included Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, Paul Krugman, Peter Orszag, Hank Greenberg and Henry Paulson, plus, the biggest finance get of all, Warren Buffett. And unlike other interviewers, including Larry King, who, Kaplan says, "slobbers over his guests," Rose allows his vaunted group of financial bigwigs to actually talk. This is why both Paulson and Buffett each chose to go on "Charlie" last fall when they wanted to soothe the market. (Too bad it didn't work.)
"Charlie's is about the only show I'll go on for an extended discussion," Buffett says in the piece. He adds that he has repeatedly turned down invites to appear on "60 Minutes" and the Sunday morning gabfests, but he will go on "Charlie Rose" and "always watches" the show. Buffett's endorsement of "Charlie Rose" is presented here as undisputed evidence of the show's special-ness among the business class. "[Tom] Friedman makes the rounds on a smorgasbord of other shows, Buffett doesn't," Kaplan coos. Never mind the fact that that endorsement is coming in Fortune -- Buffett's longtime house organ -- which makes it weirdly self-referential.
The other problem is that Buffett isn't quite as faithful to Rose as he is portrayed here. The Oracle of Omaha has sat down for many long interviews with both Becky Quick of CNBC and Liz Claman of Fox Business News, which is never mentioned in Kaplan's piece (as if business cable doesn't count). Indeed, the same day last October that Buffett went on "Charlie Rose" "to reassure markets that the economy wasn't going to hell," he delivered the exact same message on CNBC. So much for Buffett's fealty to Rose.
Buffett's not alone. Many of Rose's finance-oriented guests of the last few months have been making the media rounds. Geithner has been interviewed at length by Katie Couric; Paulson sat down with another PBS star, Jim Lehrer, shortly after appearing on "Charlie Rose"; Krugman rivals Friedman in his media ubiquity. There's nothing wrong with that; there's only so many people who can talk about this stuff in a mass-media way. And there's nothing wrong with Rose's show. But what rankles here is Fortune's attempt to overstate the show's influence as a financial news outlet. Kaplan allows that the Rose's viewership is small -- 67,000 nightly in New York, for example -- but no matter. "Nobody watches Charlie Rose except everyone you know," he asserts.
It's not clear who the "you" in that sentence is, though if all of Fortune's 5 million readers and everyone they knew watched Rose, his ratings would be a lot stronger than they actually are. The story is filled with so many exaggerations of this kind, that by the time you get to the end of it, you're not quite sure why it was written at all, except maybe to land Kaplan, a senior editor at Newsweek, a guest spot on "Charlie Rose."
Indeed, a disclosure at the end of the story informs us that Kaplan has already been on Rose's show four times and that he is currently at work on a book about American financial culture. This fawning piece almost ensures that when that book hits the shelves, Kaplan will easily score his fifth appearance on "Charlie Rose." There's nothing desperately wrong with that -- just another example of logrolling in our times- - but it does make Kaplan's attempt to insert some skepticism into his story by asserting that Rose's "friends and others in media wonder if Charlie Rose, Journalist, sometimes becomes too much Charlie Rose Inc." seem rather laughable. As in, "Hello, Kettle. It's Black. And I'd like to be on your show so I can sell some books."
Looking for something negative to say about Rose in an overwhelmingly positive piece, Kaplan settles in on his potential conflicts as a journalist -- even though Rose is more TV talk-show host than news reporter. Kaplan dismisses the usual knock on Rose that he talks too much and interrupts his guest as "a canard, the product of critics who prefer inquisition to inquiry." Instead, he finds it potentially problematic that Rose raises funds for his PBS show himself, which means Rose personally solicits donations from the very same high-powered people he interviews at his famous round table. Kaplan allows that all journalists have some conflicts: "Of course, media outlets can find themselves covering those from whom they take money -- advertisers, and sometimes even owners (as Fortune has done, for example, in writing about the AOL/Time Warner merger.)" But Rose is different since "typically editorial and business staff are separate," he declares.
So what? Yes, the staffs at media companies might be separate, but these days, what big-name broadcaster or high-powered editor, hasn't, at some time or another, been called upon to meet with or perform for a major advertiser that they also happen to cover? Fortune managing editor Andy Serwer, for one, used to routinely boast about the advertisers and/or story subjects that pass through his office in his now nearly dormant Captain's Blog. "Had a great dinner with all the folks from BMW North America at Craft, (YUM!). The diesel cars these guys will be making are truly amazing," he gushed in a typically fulsome post two years ago. In addition, almost all journalists today are expected to report, blog, appear on TV, write books, make speeches -- in short, do everything and anything they can to build their "brand." These days, all journalists, not just Rose, pretty much feel the need to act as if there's an Inc. after their names.
According to Kaplan, however, Rose's "fundraising produces a peculiar web of interconnections between Rose and the people he covers." Financial supporters including Barry Diller, Diane von Furstenberg and Rupert Murdoch have all appeared on the show, as has Teddy Forstmann, with whom Rose sits on the board of Citadel Broadcasting Corp. Meanwhile, Rose serves as the principal interviewer of special guests at Forstmann's yearly conference in Aspen.
Are these interconnections interesting? Yes. But peculiar? Well, not in a world where almost every major media outlet (hello Fortune!) puts on conferences at which their editors share the stage with various big-shots, including advertisers and story subjects who can be paid dearly for their time.
Kaplan notes that Rose demonstrates "laudable transparency" when his financial backers appear on his show. But he picks at Rose for not having been more forthcoming about his stake in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers -- Rose is a limited partner -- when KP partner John Doerr made an appearance. On the air, Rose described his connection to the venture capital firm as a "business relationship" but gave no other details. Wonders Kaplan: "Since Rose hasn't disclosed the dollar amount of his investment, is his disclosure sufficient? And since most KP investors are college endowments, corporate pension funds, and extremely loaded individuals, how was it that Rose got into the fund to begin with?" (Kaplan has a nondisclosed relationship with KP of his own, having written "Mine's Bigger," a book about Tom Perkin's quest to build the world's biggest and fastest sailboat and an earlier book on venture capital, "The Silicon Boys.")
None of Kaplan's charges against Rose really stick -- talk about a canard -- and it's clear that he doesn't really want them to. As he puts it, "Few suggest Rose has genuine conflicts of interest -- and none do so on the record, lest they risk an invitation to be on the show." Perhaps Kaplan can explore this topic some more the next time he's a guest on "Charlie Rose."
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal and writer of the magazine's Media Maneuvers column.