The Story Behind the NEWSWEEK 50

After leaving the White House, Gerald Ford never received $100,000 for a single speech or $15 million for his memoirs. He focused on golf and kept his musings mostly to himself. Edward R. Murrow was once the most powerful broadcaster in the land, but even at the height of his fame—and adjusting for inflation—his earnings never remotely approached $58 million. And never before has a losing vice presidential candidate been rewarded with a reality show about Alaska.

How things have changed. Money in politics—who’s donating how much to whom — has always been a hot topic; this year’s debate centers on shadowy donors and corporate cash. But few observers have been paying attention to the revolution that’s taking place right out in the open: the commercialization of political personality. In the not-so-distant past, aspiring commentators and retired officials entered the political-media arena mainly seeking prestige; the big money was reserved for behind-the-scenes players like lobbyists, lawyers, and consultants. But over the past decade, the public’s ever-expanding appetite for political chatter—particularly of the polarized variety promoted by cable news and amplified by the Internet—has transformed the marketplace of ideas into an extremely lucrative place. In the oversaturated, hypercommodified media culture of 2010, the most influential political figures are generally the ones who make the most money peddling their perspectives.

To figure who’s tops in this new world, NEWSWEEK asked Wealth-X, an intelligence and research firm, to compile a list of the 50 highest-earning political figures of 2010. Included in the rankings are politicians, ex-politicians, media personalities, and political consultants who hawk their personal brands in the public marketplace—and influence American political discourse in the process. Where appropriate, we’ve weeded out figures who make millions but rarely contribute to the public conversation, and we’ve factored in brokers (like book agent Bob Barnett and TV host Charlie Rose) who don’t contribute ideas directly but earn a considerable keep ensuring that their clients or guests do. News anchors such as Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, and Jim Lehrer earn more than enough money to appear in the top 50, but they serve mostly as conduits for information, not merchants of ideas. So we left them off.

Conservatives dominate the list, claiming four of the top five spots. Rush Limbaugh ranks first with $58.7 million in annual income—or 34 times Murrow’s 1952 salary, adjusted for inflation. Fox hosts Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly trail with $33 million, $22 million, and $20 million, respectively. The closest liberal commentator is Jon Stewart, who collects a combined $15 million as host of The Daily Show and head of Busboy Productions. The highest-paid politician is former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who raked in $14 million this year, mainly from her books ($11 million) and her Fox contract, and also from paid speeches.

Our estimates are of pretax income earned between Sept. 1, 2009, and Sept. 1, 2010. We considered all income streams related to politics, including earnings from television, radio, print, and Internet positions; book advances and royalties; speaking fees; government pensions; and consulting income. We didn’t include investment income, nor did we deduct fees for agents, managers, or staff. All told, we investigated more than 130 American political entrepreneurs.

How accurate are the estimates? Every member of the list was informed of our earnings estimates prior to publication. While some confirmed our numbers, others would not. Several declined to comment at all. The majority of the NEWSWEEK 50 did not dispute our conclusions, and many provided guidance on background if they believed our initial calculations were flawed.

Not all of our power players were comfortable being identified as participants in such a profitable marketplace. (Colin Powell’s spokesperson was indignant, as were PR people at Univision.) A few members of the list, including former NEWSWEEK editor Jon Meacham, disputed our estimates but would not comment further on the numbers. In those entries, we made the disagreements clear.

This is our first stab at a power list, so chances are we overlooked some political players who should have been included. If you think an important politician, ex-politician, media personality, or political consultant is missing, submit his or her name at tips@newsweek.com. We’ll be sure to consider all of your nominees for next year’s edition.

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