The Multihyphenated Author by Thomas Larson

niall fergusson

Thomas Larson writes about Niall Fergusson, shown above. (Picture courtesy NiallFergusson.com)

Scrolling through Yahoo’s online finance page, I stumble on this purple headline: “A U.S. Debt Crisis Is On Its Way.” The article is by the British economist and Harvard professor, Niall Ferguson. I have not read his books but have savored his analysis in the New York Review of Books and in a few podcasts. (In early 2011, Ferguson was picked by Tina Brown for a weekly column in the new Newsweek.) He’s a smart guy. His view, like that of Paul Krugman, I trust, though I also admire the gloom of this article’s title—I’ve been looking for such negativity of late to help me rationalize why I’m trying to get out of the stock market: post-bailout, mid-recession, pre-crisis, wherever-we-are.

I click on the link and up pops three short paragraphs, nestled in the middle of a page surrounded by marauding ads, typographically foxy: “Buffet’s Latest Pick.” “Buzz.” “Our Premium Membership.” To the left of the graphs and the graphics is a headshot of Ferguson, which suggests a video, perhaps of the same material, repackaged into a live or recorded interview.

I pause an instant. I’m not sure what to do. Read print? Watch video? How about both?

I scan the print story and see it’s a reporter’s summarizing of Ferguson’s views. So the moment yields the video. (I seem to trust my finger’s intelligence here more than my head’s.) I choose the video without realizing there’s a “why” for this relational muddle between me and what has been, until maybe five years ago, my standard and only means of communication—good old print—whose authority as a medium (back then) I seldom doubted.

I also understand it’s not the merits of the print article over the video interview that intrigues me. It’s the physicality of what the site presents. Reading the three paragraphs is unfulfilling because that’s all there is. I was hoping for more substance, twelve-hundred curdling words, as Frank Rich or Meghan Daum can do, and with panache. My morning online reading, if I find things worth reading, may go for twenty minutes, just as my hands-on newspaper reading used to. I realize that the graphs and other moving/blinking items are teasing me to watch the video or stray farther afield, into ad-land—where I won’t go. Like a supermarket shelf that holds the same but differently labeled and quantified packages of spaghetti, the page is packed: links, ads, posts, headlines, Yahoo’s busy banner, stock quotes, more options with little triangles (pull-down menus). How fast can a man scan? I haven’t even scrolled down.

In the moment, I realize one message: They (yes, they) are providing many print/picture/color choices so that I won’t read. They prefer I watch. Which is the same as saying, they prefer to hold me here. (Where did I read that on average a person spends from nineteen to twenty-seven seconds on a Web page before he’s out of there?) Maybe I’ll tap an ad link, which means a micro-payment clinks in some global piggy-bank. Should I delve further into why they don’t want me to read but would rather have me noodle about? I know why: with my attending the online service this long, they’ve beaten the odds and snagged me.

I click on “Tech│Ticker.” Its guest host is Joel Weisenthal, who begins interviewing Ferguson while the cover of Ferguson’s book, High Financier: The Lives and Time of Siegmund Warburg, comes on screen. Our nerdy examiner opens with a question/comment about America’s massive debt. “Are we doomed?” he asks. Ferguson says, “Doomed might be putting it a bit strongly except in so far as we’re all ultimately doomed”—which I like right away; he’s got existential chutzpah—and right off, I note the tilt of his head, this way and that, his eyes squinting under the studio glare. Behind him is a backdrop of the British Parliament. (Either he’s in England or he’s in virtual England.) The man is handsome. Irish. Harvard. Professor of History. He has hair. Even better, it’s a tad tousled. A faintly bearded face, just overnight growth, meaning he’s rushed in early. Ferguson seems the perfect age, neither old nor young, a fact I pause the video for and quick-check at Wikipedia. He’s forty-seven and multihyphenated: teaches, writes, edits, lectures, is regularly interviewed on American business TV, produces documentaries based on his writing, advises presidential candidates (John McCain in 2008), consults for the hedge fund GLG Partners, and (on weekends, I guess) devotes himself to writing Henry Kissinger’s official biography, having been hand-picked by Richard Nixon’s last friend. Lest we forget, he’s also earned a degree from Oxford. With glamour and gravitas, Ferguson is neither a dallier nor a pedant, the latter, the economist’s albatross. In short, he’s got authorial grace and scholarly verve.

And then, coup of coups, he’s left the top two buttons of his white shirt unbuttoned. Suddenly, he seems a tad wanton, post-sexed, bestirred by excess testosterone. He’s a digital heartthrob, a brooding, slightly soiled presence, at home in the sack or before the World Bank board of directors. He’s a bit of a brutish-looking John Maynard Keynes for our time. (I love it that Weisenthal calls him “Niall” and not doctor or professor.) It’s clear that Ferguson has a practiced eloquence, like another spellbinder, Bill Clinton, their thoughts rapturously spoken in complete paragraphs as they’re composed. Ferguson seems to improvise his answers without any preparation. He’s a delight for the eye, the ear, and the mind—in that order.

Still, there’s more to Niall than Niall. Since I’m watching a recording, he’s already been augmented by post-production engineers. His ideas have been captioned. An example: when he recommends how we can cut the deficit, up comes—with that cartoon whoosh announcing a graphic (if you were nodding off by his analysis or distracted by his ruggedness, this audible breeze brings you back)—a list of his proposals: Cut Taxes; Incentivize Businesses; Cut Public Waste; Reduce Pension Obligations.

This is the best of both worlds: serious economic analysis and a sexy commentator. It matters that he and the producers have gamed his looks on his position. (I’m reminded of CNN’s ravishing dark beauty, Christiane Amanpour, who withstood the fire and looked ever so fine, reporting at the onset of the Iraq War.) More important, Ferguson is “authoring” his comments live—with style, rigor, deliberation, and a fervid intellectualism, which may be the real reason for those undone buttons. This is economics testimony with a dash of male modeling. With few TV-savvy peers, Ferguson is an academic media star: witness his many appearances on Book-TV, Cable News, Charlie Rose, PBS NewsHour. (Christopher Hitchens is his polemical equivalent.) Ferguson’s staying power is confirmed by this video, archived at www.gurufocus.com, where I watch it repeatedly. There, with articles and videos by financial kingpins like Warren Buffet and George Soros, the written segment of this page is called, “Niall Ferguson on U.S. Fiscal and Monetary Policy Changes,” and the video, “Niall Ferguson: America’s Problems Are More Political Than Economic.” Note that the titles are less sexy and Ferguson’s name leads each one. Probably for SEO: search engine optimization.

And, as if we needed more linkage, the homepage of Gurufocus.com steers us to “Niall Ferguson stock picks,” whose tips come only after we register, though “it’s free.” Right. Free with strings.

And then, in 5:43, the whole multiplatformed production is over.

And me? What have I been doing during the video?

One thing’s for sure, I wasn’t getting the substance of his comments. (Obviously I’m reflecting later on this Web encounter in order to make something of it which I couldn’t in the moment.) What I get in the original moment I watch him is the electricity of his delivery, his and the Web page’s presence. Now, seeing the interview several times, I’m surprised how video rivals print in terms of content. It’s worth going back to. With print, there is/there was the chance that I was concentrating, though I might have drowsed. But so what if I drowsed. I’m not learning; I’m interacting; I’m being aroused electronically. And yet this is a new cross-platform medium (text vs. video) I’m contending with. So it’s in the nature of this Web page’s design that we don’t return later to see/read/hear what we missed. Those two-dozen seconds I’m present are primary. We get what we get; we miss what we miss. Going back to the Web page or video, I see just how much I missed, just how important going back is.

Still, I’ve had to spar with two mediums to get Ferguson’s gist, namely, that Americans are in for big trouble because equity markets will not cotton to our unchecked deficit spending, which will, so Ferguson says, amount to more than our defense spending in the coming years. A crash is inevitable.

You would think that if I had just read the news article, I would have got it in one take. But getting it in one take is not the point, is it?

No. The point of this print-and-video-and-Web-page amalgam is for us to be wired into its electrical multiplicity via a photogenic financial guru who distracts and leads us. Thus, it matters who is saying what when you know that what, in Web culture, needs as much who as possible in order for what to be heard. Fame or the reliance on commanding personalities drives credibility. It’s OK to err on the side of having more who than what.

Thomas LarsonThomas Larson is the author of The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative and The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” Since 1999, he has been a staff writer for the San Diego Reader. He holds workshops on memoir writing and lectures on music and grief as well as the “social author” in the digital age throughout the United States. His website is www.thomaslarson.com.
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