News Flash: Some People Want to Be Rich

A USA Today story about being rich proves once again that August really is a slow news month.

Though August has a reputation for being a quiet news month, “the truth is it has never been true,” Rome Hartman, producer of The CBS Evening News, told USA Today on Sunday.

How, then, to explain this story in the Money section of yesterday’s USA Today: “$1 million: What’s Our Infatuation With This Number?”

We wonder about USA Today’s infatuation with this number. Because, really, there is no discernable reason for this article to exist.

For a news peg, look no further than the art accompanying the story, which includes a photo of a cash-fanning Regis Philbin from back in his Who Wants to Be A Millionaire days (year, 1999). For some reason, there is also a photo of the cartoon, top-hatted “Mr. Monopoly.” The caption explains that “Mr. Monopoly is the symbol of Parker Brothers’ long-running board game.”

USA Today’s Edward Iwata begins his report as follows: “Call it millionaire mania, the get-rich-quick syndrome gone wild. What’s with our obsession with bagging that magic $1 million? Ever since money became our mantra, dreamers and schemers have fixated on a million bucks as their most-prized jackpot. If you land that elusive fortune, or even come close, you’ve truly made it.”

And if you actually made it through that entire lede perhaps you, too, noticed Iwata’s continued use of “our” (“our mantra,” “our obsession”). At least he is honest about who the subject of this story really is.

“Millionaire madness fills our popular culture, literature and business lore,” Iwata observes, before citing evidence such as: “Casinos from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, plus online gambling sites and casinos on Native American reservations, entice people to drop their hard-earned cash in the unlikely crapshoot to become millionaires.” Not that casinos are seeing some kind of increase in patronage “since money became our mantra.” But, yes, casinos do exist, according to USA Today.

Experts are called upon to explain to readers shocking new developments (sports stars and lottery winners are often bad money managers) and new bits of research (“$1 million [does not] guarantee long-term happiness beyond the initial euphoria of the newly minted rich, say scholars and psychologists.”) Indeed, Iwata appears to have phoned up every author who has ever written a book with the word “millionaire” in the title — including the author of “The Millionaire Nextdoor” (circa 1996). Another expert — this one a Dutch consultant interviewed via email — told Iwata, “With the U.S. the most consumer-focused society on Earth, it is not surprising that the obsession with wealth is reaching an all-time high.”

Perhaps that is the premise of this article? That “the obsession with wealth is reaching an all-time high” in this country? If so, it’s not a particularly well-supported thesis. The only evidence can be found in the section with the “Media creation?” sub-hed. “Not surprisingly,” it reads, “many say the media feed much of the public’s wealth fantasy.”

But by “media,” Iwata is apparently referring to the producers and marketers behind such television shows as “Deal or No Deal,” not to national newspapers, which of course do nothing more than report the important facts, the latest trends — the manias we didn’t know we had, but which make us citizens of the USA … today.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.