The Richest Journalist
Thomas Friedman’s wealth is a frame on the world.
Thursday, November 2, 2006
A few weeks ago my column was a parody of how Thomas Friedman writes about the global economy. Since then, I’ve learned that I was in error on a matter that shines some light on the worldview of the syndicated New York Times columnist and best-selling author.
“Let’s face it—at this point I’m a rich guy, and I work for a newspaper run by guys who are even richer than I am,” the satirical version of Friedman said in my article. But actually, Friedman is not just “a rich guy.”
Days ago I read a long feature in the July issue of The Washingtonian magazine. It provides some background on the world of Thomas Friedman—and the personal finances that have long smoothed his path.
Much of Friedman’s emphasis in recent years has revolved around economic relations. He’s been a strong supporter of “globalization”: the international rules and policies allowing corporations to function with legal prerogatives that routinely trump labor rights, environmental protection and economic justice.
The long profile of Friedman in The Washingtonian had scant ink to spare for criticism. But it did include a telling comment from the economist Joseph Stiglitz, who said: “Participation in the new world requires resources, computers, education, and access to those is very unequally distributed. He has this level of optimism that means that anyone can do it if they just have wills.”
Stiglitz, a winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, added that Friedman has understated the impacts of “some of the forces of inequality.” And Stiglitz pointed out that “globalization inherently increases the inequalities in developing countries.”
Friedman’s great wealth is a frame for his window on the world. The Washingtonian reports that “his annual income easily reaches seven figures.” In the Maryland suburbs near Washington, three years ago, “the Friedmans built a palatial 11,400-square-foot house, now valued at $9.3 million.”
Throughout his career, Friedman has been married to Ann Bucksbaum—heiress to a real-estate fortune estimated at $2.7 billion. When the couple wed back in 1978, Friedman became part of “one of the 100 richest families in the country.”
Does Friedman’s astronomical wealth invalidate what he writes? Of course not. But his outsized economic privileges become relevant when we consider that he’s inclined to be glib as he advocates policies that give very low priority to reducing economic inequality.
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During a CNBC interview with Tim Russert in late July, the acclaimed savant made a notable confession: “We got this free market, and I admit, I was speaking out in Minnesota—my hometown, in fact—and guy stood up in the audience, said, ‘Mr. Friedman, is there any free trade agreement you’d oppose?’ I said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ I said, ‘You know what, sir? I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.’”
It’s reasonable to ask whether Friedman—perhaps the richest journalist in the US—might be less zealously evangelical for “globalization” if he hadn’t been so wealthy for the last 25 years. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the corporate forces avidly promoting his analysis of economic options are reaping massive profits from the systems of trade and commerce that he champions.
“Thomas Friedman is arguably the world’s most influential and popular foreign-policy thinker,” The Washingtonian reported. If so, he may be a prime example of the unfortunate effects of “globalization.”
NORMAN SOLOMON is the author of the new book War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.