Do the Media Hate the Rich?

With the super-rich as its core readership, Robb Report has fired the initial volleys of a nascent media class warfare. In a two-page note in the June issue entitled "Putting Luxury Into Perspective," editor in chief Brett Andersen attacks "the mainstream media" for its "demonization of the wealthy and the industries that cater to them." This antipathy toward the magazine's prime audience and advertisers, Andersen charges, is "a media phenomenon we have observed lately with increasing dismay." He lambastes the wave of populism as failing "to recognize the ways in which luxury industries have enriched society not only economically, but also intellectually, technologically and culturally."

It was the magazine's second broadside in a row: In Robb Report's May issue, Andersen wrote a similar essay about the media's "pernicious prejudice" against the wealthy.

It's a sign of how the current economic distress is exposing class tensions. For more than a year, newspapers and mass-market magazines have been chronicling the recession's sociological and psychological impact on the nation's top 1 percent of the income scale. A stream of headlines heralding an era of asceticism ensued—"Luxury's Lament: The End of Flaunting" (Women's Wear Daily), "Class Dismissed: A New Status Anxiety Is Infecting Affluent Hipdom" (The Atlantic) and "Even in Recession, Spend They Must: Luxury Shoppers Anonymous" (The New York Times). At the same time, populism has reemerged as a key political force.

In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Andersen decried this "luxury bashing" (which some might conclude includes a piece on "luxury shame" I wrote for NEWSWEEK last November). "There's a sense that coverage in many of the mainstream news outlets wasn't quite balanced," Andersen says. "All of the wealthy get lumped in with [$60 billion Ponzi schemer Bernie] Madoff. Anyone getting a bonus on Wall Street is regarded as dishonest."

To accompany his June essay, Andersen enlisted the CEOs of some of the world's elite luxury brands to pen small companion pieces. They include Isadore Sharp, the founder, chairman and CEO of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts; Christophe Georges, president of Bentley Motors; and W. W. Boisture Jr., chairman and CEO of Hawker Beechcraft Corp., and several others. "What we wanted to do was give some of the industry we deal with a platform to share their point of view," Andersen says, "and to convey to our readers the importance of understanding that buying what they buy and traveling to where they go supports the economy."

One of his wingmen leaves no doubt that their antagonists in the ink-soiled media masses are uncouth, with little or no grasp of the meaning of high-living. "If you read The New York Times, you find that its writers consider buying Starbucks coffee a luxury during this downturn," writer Henri Barguirdjian, CEO, of the U.S. arm of high-end jeweler Graff. He emphasizes his industry's economic impact—annual revenue of $25 billion from 30,000 speciality stores. "That represents a significant amount of sales and corporate tax revenue, not to mention employment opportunities," Barguirdjian wrote. Meanwhile, Margareth Henriquez, CEO of the prestige champagne brand Krug, extols luxury's transcendent virtues. "Luxury companies have lighted the way for the rest of the world," she writes, explaining their high-end products and services generate "new ideas and directions" that also advance the fortunes of companies that can't readily afford to fund innovation and set standards. Bentley Motors president Christophe Georges cites "a kind of self-flagellation in the United States at the moment." But Bentley's 4,000 autoworkers at its Crewe, England, plant don't buy the notion, he says, "that owning a Bentley is a bad thing."

Perhaps the reigning target of luxury bashing, Andersen and his allies agree, is the private jet. Detroit auto executives, after arriving hat in hand in Washington for a federal bailout last fall, were slammed for having hopped separate corporate jets to the capital. They subsequently trimmed their fleet. And when word that a $50 million executive jet was on order for Citigroup—propped up as it is by more than $300 million in taxpayer backing—the humbled banking behemoth promptly canceled the purchase. This may seem like needless excess, but Hawker Beechcraft's Boisture argues that private aircraft are the product of a $150 billion industry that employees about 1 million people. Populist rage against his industry's products has already led 30,000 people to lose their jobs, he claims.

Robb Report's not-so-refined offensive appears notably in its "Best of the Best" special issue—an annual edition that features the crème de la crème in luxury, including yachts, gems and jets. In short, it's the shopping list for the people who make the cut for the yearly Forbes 400 list of global billionaires. Not surprisingly, it's Robb Report—not Forbes, Fortune or the luxury publishing empires of Condé Nast or Hearst—coming energetically to the defense of its wealthy readers, who are, on average, 54 years with household income of $1.21 million, a primary residence worth $1.6 million and another $3.378 million worth of real estate.

Attacking CEOs, wealth and luxury may be commercially or politically expedient for "the mainstream media, the Obama administration and 97 percent of the American population," says Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. But it's not surprising that Robb Report would offer a spirited defense for the moneyed minority. "It takes guts in this day and age to come to the defense of the 3 percent. But that's their bread and butter," Husni says. So you can't really excuse the magazine for spreading it on thick.