I was sorry to read over the weekend of the death of Dan Seligman, whose "Keeping Up" column was for years not just the best thing in Fortune magazine, but the best column of its kind in American journalism. Though the tone was unfailingly light and witty, the man swung a mean bat with telling effect, often against his journalistic cohorts. Unlike many of his fellow scribes, he could crunch numbers. And he pioneered the use of the Nexis database as a tool of media criticism. Here is a typical sample from the March 17, 1986, edition of Fortune:
Every time we pick up the paper these days, it turns out that the price of oil is skidding, tumbling, heading South, and generally manifesting rampant declivity. That is the good news. The bad news is that the reporter on the oil beat always feels obliged to bring an expert onstage to explain the deeper significance of the lower quotes -- someone who will explain why oleaginous energy is suddenly below $15 per barrel and what these Dixieland prices portend for the future. What we cannot figure out is who decides which experts are worth listening to and how did it come about that so many of these selfsame characters keep finding their way onstage even though having quite visible holes in their heads and known to be notorious wrongsters when the assignment for the day is the forecasting of petroleum prices. Take Daniel Yergin. Now a consultant, this individual was lecturing at Harvard when he co-edited (with Martin Hillenbrand) a 1982 volume called Global Insecurity that learnedly worried about endlessly rising oil prices. In Yergin's optimistic scenario, they rise only by 2% a year in real terms, and by 2000 the price gets to be $45 a barrel in 1980 prices. In the pessimistic scenario, the comparable figure is $72 a barrel. So with oil now selling for $12 or so in 1980 prices, what makes Yergin the wise man of the hour when the media reach out for a little petropunditry? A fast mid-February search in Nexis, still our favorite computerized information-retrieval system, showed that just since the turn of the year the New York Times had quoted Dan six times, the Christian Science Monitor another time. On February 5, Dan managed to get himself quoted in the Times twice. To one reporter, he opined that ''it's just about every man for himself with OPEC.'' To the other, he ventured that ''we're pretty close to an open war in the market.'' At least he didn't contradict himself. An even bigger quotee, year in and year out, is John Lichtblau, an oil economist long associated with the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation. It is considered bad form among oil reporters not to quote John extensively, and the Nexis scorecard lists 37 official comments by the man since last September 30. (In the interest of full disclosure it will now be disclosed that even your favorite business magazine has latched onto Lichtblau from time to time.) But if you were to casually ask Nexis about John's proclamations back in 1980, you would instantly ascertain that the man's record is no better than Yergin's and that he was guilty of chronic consensusism about oil prices. Here, for example, is Hobart Rowen of the Washington Post citing him on September 14, 1980: ''Lichtblau . . . conceded that as OPEC prices move steadily higher in real terms over the coming decade, oil company profits will continue their march upward.'' Not a word about the road to Dixieland.
You can find many more wonderful examples with a search of the Fortune website. Seligman contributed only one article to The Weekly Standard, but it was a classic, "How Microsoft Pays Its Bills" (October 6, 1997) Here is the beginning:
WHY DOES BILL GATES wear his hair in bangs? This question had never previously infiltrated the left hemisphere of my cerebral cortex, where the big issues get pondered, and I am not even sure I was conscious of the Gatesian hairdo until just the other day. That is when I found myself staring at his boyish visage on the computer screen, watching his lips move soundlessly. The absence of sound reflected problems with the CD-ROM that came bundled with The Road Ahead, Bill's huge-selling book.
Be sure to read the rest here.
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