Journalism Out to Lunch

November 20, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Interesting line-up on the Times op-ed page today. David Brooks’s column is on the left, Paul Krugman’s on the right. They’re both writing about Timothy Geithner. Krugman
key officials — most notably Timothy Geithner, who was president of the New York Fed in 2008 and is now Treasury secretary — have shied away from doing anything that might rattle Wall Street. And the bitter paradox is that this play-it-safe approach has ended up undermining prospects for economic recovery.
Well, the evidence of the past eight months suggests that Geithner was mostly right and his critics were mostly wrong. The financial sector is in much better shape than it was then. TARP money is being repaid, and the debate now is what to do with the billions that were never needed.
Brooks, the conservative is waving the flag for the Obama administration; Krugman, the liberal, is taking pot shots at it. Standing with Krugman are others that don’t usually line up alongside him in the same shooting gallery – The Wall Street Journal and other right-wing outlets.

The main difference seems to be the source of information about Geithner. The critics, right and left, are focusing on the Inspector General’s report on the AIG bailout, which says, essentially, that the Government gave away the store. It put much more money at risk than it had to. Rather than negotiating effectively, it protected bankers to the tune of 100 cents on the dollar.
David Brooks, on the other hand, had lunch with Geithner the day word of the report leaked.* Instead of mentioning the IG’s report, Brooks writes about Geithner’s “mentality,” his “ philosophy,” his “policy instincts.”

I was reminded of I.F. Stone and what you might call his sociology of journalism – how the interplay of networks, information, and relationships shapes what gets printed. Stone was one of the best Washington investigative journalists, often finding truths that revealed the lies the government was peddling. (All Governments Lie is the title of a biography of him; that title has to be a direct quote from Stone himself.) He had no inside sources – nobody in official Washington wanted to be seen talking to him. Instead, he relied on transcripts of Congressional hearings, other government documents, and, for foreign affairs, the international press.

Stone thought that his isolation from the people in power made it easier for him to be a better journalist.

“Once the Secretary of State invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you're sunk,” he said.

Or the Secretary of the Treasury.

*To be scrupulously accurate, Brooks does not actually say that he lunched with the Secretary. He refers only to “an interview.

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