Sunday, February 06, 2011

Weekend Edition: “Norman Rockwell, American Monster”

The worst interview we ever saw—and that includes anything Jay Leno ever did—was a Deborah Solomon interview of Steve Martin for the New York Times’ television magazine a few years ago.

Solomon is—or was, until recently—the Sunday Times Magazine columnist who made a career of short, sharp, solipsistic interviews with subjects chosen mainly as a means of injecting Solomon’s own uber-liberal world-view into whatever topic on which she wanted to vent.

You had to cut through Solomon’s annoying technique of twisting each question-and-answer into a validation of her own personal demons (as opposed to the subject’s), but the interviews were lively and interesting, and worth reading—although this appears to have been due as much to good editing as they were to good questioning, a factor made clear by the aforementioned videotaped interview of Steve Martin (see our Weekend Edition column, “Wisdom of Solomon?” from February 2008.)

Shorn of the ability to manipulate words on paper, Solomon’s maniacal self-absorption came across, on camera, less clever than obnoxious. Of many low-points, the lowest came when Martin was explaining that he had stopped performing stand-up altogether because comedians need to be on the road constantly in order to stay sharp, and Solomon said in complete, clueless seriousness, “Can’t you practice at home?”

But that was when she was writing a column for the New York Times.

Today she is, as she says, working on a “long overdue, almost-finished biography of Norman Rockwell,” thanks, apparently, to one too many strident columns, including a recent interview with Goldman Sachs strategist Abby Joseph Cohen.

Now, we here at NotMakingThisUp harbor no particularly positive, or negative, view of Abby Joseph Cohen.

When reading the Barron’s Roundtable each year, we do skip Cohen’s blandishments on the economy or whatever big-cap stock she currently favors—it always seems to be either J&J or IBM, or both—and go straight for Marc Faber.

But such is the by-product of the job: being a “Strategist” for a high-profile firm on Wall Street means never having to say anything that may come back to haunt you. In other words, the blander the better—and if you don’t think that’s the way it works, you haven’t worked on Wall Street.

Still, Cohen missed a great chance to go toe-to-toe with Solomon in last weekend’s column, and that is a shame, because Solomon’s interview technique is like the playground bully—aggressive questions and lots of them—without much in the way of actual knowledge on the subject beyond her own narrow instincts.

Indeed, here’s how we here at NotMakingThisUp would have liked to see it go down.

A Steady Hand

Deborah Solomon: As a partner at Goldman Sachs and one of the best-known market analysts in this country, you’re surely aware that women continue to be thinly represented among the senior ranks on Wall Street. Why is that?

Not Making This Up: For the same reason that of the 11 senior executives at the New York Times, only 1 is a woman.

DS: I assume there’s no shortage of candidates.

NMTU: I assume there’s no shortage of female English majors for the New York Times, either.

DS: But if women make up 30 percent of M.B.A. programs, as has been reported, why do they represent only 12 percent of the current partners at Goldman Sachs?

NMTU: You do realize that women bear children, don’t you? I mean, you are aware of that? And you do realize that, as a result, in the real world—whatever you and the editors of the New York Times might wish for—many highly educated women at a certain age face a choice that men don’t face? And many do in fact reject the notion of sacrificing everything else in their lives for the brass ring of becoming a Goldman partner?

DS: Let’s change the subject... Do you have a Facebook page?

NMTU: Deborah, if you knew how to use Facebook you’d know whether I do or don’t—you can search for them, you know.

DS: Ah, well let’s change the subject to something I can score points on… Goldman Sachs just withdrew its offer to American clients to sell shares of Facebook, which could violate all kinds of rules.

NMTU: What, exactly, are these “all kinds of rules” you say the deal could have violated, specifically?

DS: Uhhhhhh….

NMTU: Name one.

DS: (Feverishly thumbing through her notes, which happens to be a single New York Times “DealBook” article)…uhhhh….Let’s change the subject to class warfare. Do you think it’s ethically justifiable that certain bankers earn $50 million or $60 million a year at a time when unemployment is nearly 10 percent and income inequality is widening in this country?

NMTU: No, so why does Obama keep hiring them for his Chief of Staff?

DS: I hate you. Let me try this another way… You could say that entertainers at least provide entertainment, as opposed to a C.E.O. What is a C.E.O. contributing to society?

NMTU: What about the C.E.O. of the New York Times Company, Janet Robinson? [Editor’s Note: This is the one response Abbey Joseph Cohen got right.]

DS: What about her? She’s contributing a newspaper to society, which presumably keeps the American public better informed. It has been widely observed that the financial-services industry is not creating a product in the tangible sense.

NMTU: Aside from the howler about “no tangible product”—Wall Street funds lots of companies that create tangible products, like, oh, the iPad—your well-paid CEO blew the digital revolution, for starters.

DS: Well, we have a successful web site.

NMTU: Why on earth is Huffington Post the go-to name in online news? How did you let Politico become the go-to name in online politics? What was going on over at the New York Times while the Wall Street Journal was making the online transition so successfully and you did not? Why do more people watch Yahoo! TV than New York Times TV on the web?

DS: Uh, well, we don’t have a “New York Times TV” on the web.

NMTU: Precisely. You guys blew it. And for that, your CEO received $6.2 million in compensation in 2009, according to my Bloomberg—which happens to be the go-to name in financial data, not the New York Times.

DS: (Fumbling for a cigarette, trying to get the wrapper off.) Son-of-a—

NMTU: You smoke?

DS: (Lighting up.) I quit thirteen years ago. Let’s move on… Do you feel any responsibility for the economic meltdown of 2008, which you failed to foresee?

NMTU: How, exactly, am I responsible for pushing Fannie Mae to make bad loans to people who couldn’t afford them?

DS: We’re talking about your life; there was a big meltdown in 2008. I’m wondering, how do you deal with that emotionally?

NMTU: Do you feel any responsibility for the collapse of the New York Times as a leading source of news?

DS: Please leave.

We’ll miss Solomon’s columns but look forward to her almost-finished biography of Norman Rockwell, the artist who painted lovingly iconic scenes of an Americana that must set Solomon’s hair on fire: family gatherings at Thanksgiving; rosy-cheeked Boy Scouts; flag-waving parades.

Indeed, given her left-wing muscle-memory, it should be about as suffused with her own blinkered mindset—and therefore just as uninformed—as a biography of Pablo Picasso by Sarah Palin.

The working title, we understand, is “Norman Rockwell, American Monster.”

Jeff Matthews
I Am Actually Making This One Up

© 2011 NotMakingThisUp, LLC

The content contained in this blog represents only the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes investment advice, and should never be relied on in making an investment decision, ever. Also, this blog is not a solicitation of business by Mr. Matthews: all inquiries will be ignored. The content herein is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.


Byrne said...

Solomon's most amazing interview was with Umberto Eco:

She refuses to believe him when he says that fascism started in Italy before migration to Germany. And this is after editing.

Mark said...

Bravo, Jeff (except for the part where you write that you'll miss her)! Also, it's rather sad that you chose Cohen for this, as her vast history of "prognostications" provide clear evidence that she's either a dummy or amoral, either one of which render her undeserving of the honor of eviscerating Solomon, even in an imaginary revenge fantasy interview.

I actually had an email exchange with Bill Keller (the Times's executive editor) last year pointing out that Deborah Solomon was one of the primary reasons that the once-vital New York Times Magazine section had in recent years become the first part of the paper to get tossed into the trash, unread. I also indicated that if he got rid of her, Frank Rich and Michiko Kakutani (the obnoxious and humorless book reviewer), rather than merely glancing through the Sunday paper for free on line, I might even add a paid subscription to it to my Monday through Friday home delivery. Well, I guess it's now one down, two to go.

fivetonsflax said...

This is not up to the standards of your usual blogging, Mr. Matthews. Your version of Ms. Solomon just sounds plain stupid. I don't know the real Ms. Solomon, and my familiarity with her work is only glancing, but I believe if she were quite so stupid, she would not be where she is today. Therefore, I think your arrow fell wide of its mark.

wcw said...

After reading that interview with Eco, I think you may be wrong.

FD: I know nothing about her work. I gave up on the Times a long time ago.

Anonymous said...

This is one of those New York things, isn't it?

Realize that those of us out here in flyover country regard this sort of intra-city stick-poking with all the rapt attention you would give reports concerning the machinations of the Des Moines City Council.

Just sayn'...

Anonymous said...


So, I'm not the only human who saw that interview with Steve Martin and was, as the English would say, gobsmacked. I watched it on a plane, and was dumb-founded regarding the incompetence of DS --- I almost started shouting to my fellow inmates, nay passengers, "Is anyone else watching this". I am surprised it took the NYT so long to show her the door

BobE said...

Worst interview, including Leno's? Too bad you never saw The Magic Johnson Show.

I'm not sure who came out worse in the Solomon/Cohen scrum....I assume most of your readers are, like I am, financial professionals, so we can sympathize with Cohen's weak answers to an ambush interview. I wouldn't quite know what to say either if a reporter came to my office and started asking me to defend the pay of my CEO (which is indefensible because he's an astonishingly terrible executive). We reflexively think Solomon is a wingnut baed on our knowledge. I have no idea, since I've only heard of her Steve Martin interview, read the Cohen interview and otherwise have no knowledge of her.

But there's a segment of the Times readership that sees a Goldman executive squirming and evading legitimate questions. For that group, Solomon looks totally proper and Cohen's weakness simply feeds the Vampire Squid Stereotype.

Now, if Solomon could have gotten Lucas van Praag for a sit-down, then the evisceration you imagine would have been quite real. Heck, I'd have paid cash money to watch or read it.

Stanley said...

I guess this is why they pay Janet Robinson (the CEO of the NY Times) $6.2M.

The new pricing for the NY Times on-line access that she's been working on for the past two years was just announced.

Unlimited Digital access to and the NYTimes tablet and smartphone apps is $35 every four weeks.

However, if you subscribe to the print version - The Daily Delivery price is $7.40 a week (that is $29.60 for 28 days)and unlimited Digital access is include for free.

Yes its less expensive for all the online access plus the paper delivered to your home than it is for just the online access.

...... so basically they are "paying you" $4.40 to have 28 days of the newspaper printed and delivered to you (that's a lot of gas and paper).

Let's say the fully burdened cost (paper,ink, cost of running the printing press,cost of the driver, gas, depreciation and expense of the truck, etc.) is 40 cents per paper per day. 40 cents per day for 28 days is $11.20. Add to that the $4.40 they are paying you to have the printed paper delivered and the NY Times total cost is $15.60 for four weeks per customer that takes the printed paper. That comes to about $405 for 2 years. A brand new iPad first generation is $399. I think if the NY Times gave away a free iPad with a two year online subscription it would cost them less than the paper delivery and it would attract a lot more online subscribers and attention than giving away a bunch of paper and ink every morning to on-line subscribers who are subscribing to digital access because they prefer it over paper.

Jeff Matthews said...

We here at NotMakingThisUp officially nominate Stanley for the CEO job at the New York Times.


Mark said...


As not even the socialist New York Times can be THAT stupid, I suspect this must be tied into the advertising rate base, and the fact that they can command premium rates for print subscribers vs. web subscribers, and that those rates are enough to compensate for the physical distribution costs.

(Of course, an alternative explanation might be that they're "walking the talk" of their editorials, and don't want to offend their unions!)

Stanley said...

I was also going to write about their poorly thought out system for allowing free access to all articles via referral links. However their logic was so flawed that I didn't have the energy to explain it in writing. Many others have written about it in the past few days and I think the link below does a fairly good job.

Once again, its hard to believe that it took Janet and her team two years to come up with this strategy for the NY Times digital business model.

Stanley said...

They're getting closer.

If anyone from the NY Times is reading this stuff. I have three things to say to you.

1. Getting around your 20 article limit per month is ridiculously easy. It takes virtually no work and doesn't violate any of your policies(no hacking, no setting up of a blog, links, or RSS feeds, etc. etc.). I'm curious to see how long it takes you guys to figure it out.

2. There is such an obvious way (IMO) for the NYT to make money on the web (and probably as a company) that you are not taking advantage of. If you haven't thought of it by now you probably never will.

3. "Jeff Matthews Is Not Making This Up" posting my comments and nominating me to be CEO of the NYT is reward enough for me. However, if you are interested any further creative ideas, my consulting services would probably cost you somewhat less than what you are paying your current CEO and probably only a bit more than what it costs for you to operate one delivery truck for a year.

Stanley said...

To Arthur Sulzberger Jr,

If you go back and read my posts (regarding Ms. Robinson's digital strategy and salary) I think I can honestly say that four words of my consulting services would have been worth way more than the millions you paid and are going to pay Janet. Oh, those four words are... I TOLD YOU SO. Regardless, I think there are simple ways that the NYT can unleash its value in the digital world and it's not being done with your current ridiculous plan. My services are available for less than $4.5M.

Stanley said...

Really no need to write anything this time. Just read today's episode of the destruction of a once great american institution.

oh and BTW, besides CEO Janet R. "retiring" a few weeks ago....The New York Times senior vice president and chief of digital operations Martin A. Nisenholtz "retired" a month earlier.

What da ya think the December quarter is going to look like?

Stanley said...

You can lead a horse to water.......

In my first post about the NY Times digital "strategy" I suggested that giving a free iPad to digital subscribers would have been a better and less expensive idea than forcing them to have the paper they didn't want delivered to their home. That was 10 months ago on March 18, 2011. Well yesterday, Barnes and Noble announced a promotion giving customers a Nook for free if they subscribed to the NY Times NOOK digital edition version for a year. The NYT is the ONLY newspaper that B&N offered in this promotion (I assume the NYT is subsidizing part of this... this is good). Now for the NYT management touch. Do you think the Times is promoting this themselves or sending an email out to 8 million former subscriber (we know they know how to do this). nooooooooooooooo. The only mention is this headline from the NY Times Media Decoder Blog..."Barnes & Noble to Offer Nook Discount to Subscribers of 2 Publications". Other newspapers (e.g. the WSJ and other competitors of the NYT) have done a much better job reporting this deal. The fact is that B&N is offering the NYT for free to subscribers of only one publication.. THE NEW YORK TIMES. The other publication mention in the offer is People Magazine and that is only being offered at a discount ..not free. You think the NYT would put out a release saying something like this...."B&N NOOK is FREE for new NY TIMES NOOK DIGITAL SUBSCRIBERS. The FIRST and ONLY newspaper that will get you and a popular e-reader for FREE" oh, I forgot they are still paying Janet Robinson (the former CEO) $4.5M for consulting services. Stuff like this just doesn't happen by itself.