Niall Ferguson, (C)Rock Star

by A. Jay Adler on August 25, 2012
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Crop of Niall Ferguson

Crop of Niall Ferguson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Niall Ferguson’s cover story for Newsweek was a journalistic and intellectual fiasco, for him and for Newsweek and Daily Beast editor Tina Brown. It was a journalistic fiasco for read-the-multitude-of-responses-online-and-on-paper. Ferguson now has no credibility as an opining voice in the public square. His intellectual credibility, established as an academic historian and teacher, is significantly tarnished. Tina Brown has only confirmed, if confirmation was at this point required by anyone, the worst that has been thought of her. She plays for ratings – how they are measured in print sales and cyber eyeballs – and upholds no standard of journalistic quality beyond the volume of buzz. Newsweek even felt defensively compelled to offer the embarrassing admission that it did not fact-check Ferguson’s article. Brown may have gotten her buzz, her eyeballs,and her copies off the stands, but the damage to Newsweek’s reputation and future sales may be incalculable until it is visible.

Ferguson, however, may have a different calculation. Ah the lure of the limelight and the lime daiquiri.  Stephen Marche tells us:

The real issue isn’t the substance of Ferguson’s argument, though, which is shallow and basically exploded by this point in time. It isn’t even the question of how such garbage managed to be written and published. It is, rather, why did Ferguson write it? The answer is simple but has profound implications for American intellectual life generally: public speaking.

Ferguson’s critics have simply misunderstood for whom Ferguson was writing that piece. They imagine that he is working as a professor or as a journalist, and that his standards slipped below those of academia or the media. Neither is right. Look at his speaking agent’s Web site. The fee: 50 to 75 grand per appearance. That number means that the entire economics of Ferguson’s writing career, and many other writing careers, has been permanently altered. Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more, and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers.

That number means that Ferguson doesn’t have to please his publishers; he doesn’t have to please his editors; he sure as hell doesn’t have to please scholars. He has to please corporations and high-net-worth individuals, the people who can pay 50 to 75K to hear him talk. That incredibly sloppy article was a way of communicating to them: I am one of you. I can give a great rousing talk about Obama’s failures at any event you want to have me at.

Adds Ta-Nehisi Coates:

But if you have opportunity, if you don’t mind flying, if writing is secondary to you, then you might have what it takes to live the high life. From what I can tell, a large number of America’s more prominent pundits fit into that category. These are people who have realized that there is more money in talking than there is in listening.  For this class of “writers” writing isn’t the point, so much as having a platform for their headshots, and their ideas. You can imagine the effect this dynamic could have on an opinion class.

 

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