Networks Gloss Over Geithner's Past, Ignore Criticism
It looks like journalists are adopting the Chris Matthews philosophy of covering the transition into President-elect Barack Obamaâ€™s administration: donâ€™t rock the boat.
Broadcast network news reports glossed over Obamaâ€™s chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuelâ€™s history with the Freddie Mac. And since the day after the election, theyâ€™ve been paving the way for the new administrationâ€™s incoming Treasury Secretary, New York Federal Reserve Bank President Tim Geithner.
In the immediate aftermath of Obamaâ€™s election, network journalists covering Obamaâ€™s possible picks for key economic positions touted Geithner as â€śhighly regarded,â€ť â€śbrainy,â€ť â€śwell-thought-of,â€ť â€śmuch-admiredâ€ť and deserving â€śtremendous respect.â€ť Of 56 stories mentioning Geithner between Nov. 3 and the official announcement of his selection Nov. 24, 34 portrayed him in a positive light while 22 were neutral or balanced. There were no negative stories about his appointment.
More striking, however, was journalistsâ€™ refusal to explore Geithnerâ€™s history as a bureaucrat in the
In post-election coverage on NBC, political correspondent Andrea Mitchell mentioned Geithner as a possible choice for Obamaâ€™s Treasury. She said he was â€śvery much admiredâ€ť and commanded â€śtremendous respectâ€ť from Wall Street. She also praised Geithner as â€śnot partisan. Heâ€™s an independent, registered independent.â€ť She never mentioned he had served in the
Mitchell praised Geithner again on the â€śTodayâ€ť show Nov. 6, calling him â€śhighly regarded.â€ť
ABCâ€™s Claire Shipman called Geithner â€śbrainyâ€ť on â€śGood Morning Americaâ€ť Nov. 5, and declared he had â€śbeen helping to manage the crisis.â€ť That night, CBSâ€™s Jim Axelrod told â€śEvening Newsâ€ť viewers Geithner was â€śwell thought of on Wall Street.â€ť
When it became clear Geithner would be Obamaâ€™s pick to head the Treasury Department, journalists ignored much of the criticism of his time at the Fed, instead focusing heavily on Geithnerâ€™s positives, including the stock marketâ€™s positive reaction to his selection. On Nov. 20, New York Times editor Marcus Mabry told CBSâ€™s â€śThe Early Showâ€ť Geithner fit perfectly into Obamaâ€™s image of change.
â€śIf one wants to bring new people, if one wants to bring new bodies, new blood, a kind of best and brightest, Tim Geithner, head of the New York Fed, really at the center of this Wall Street meltdown weâ€™ve seen, someone with lots of experience in this particular morass, someone might be able to bring more confidence, restore confidence in the markets,â€ť Mabry said.
In a segment package aired on the Nov. 21 â€śNightly Newsâ€ť and the Nov. 22 â€śTodayâ€ť show, Mitchell declared Geithner a â€śfirst among equals.â€ť â€śThe Obama team sees Geithner as representing what it calls change, someone who doesnâ€™t come from a Wall Street investment bank.â€ť
While Geithnerâ€™s fresh image impressed journalists like Mabry, other reporters praised him for exactly the opposite characteristics. â€śIn Geithnerâ€™s favor,â€ť CBSâ€™s Michelle Miller said on â€śThe Saturday Early Showâ€ť Nov. 22, â€śheâ€™s not new to
Mitchell, Mabry and others failed to point out Geithnerâ€™s long history working in government â€“ more than a decade in the Treasury Department and time at the International Monetary Fund â€“ and his involvement in the much-criticized decision to let Lehman Bros. bank fail â€“ two aspects of his career that might raise questions about whether the promised â€śchangeâ€ť is really coming.
Letting Lehman Fail
When Lehman Bros. filed for bankruptcy in September 2008, Geithner was in many ways the man who decided the company would fail, rather than be rescued as others had. But the criticism of his decision has been forgotten amid the glowing coverage of Obamaâ€™s new Treasury Secretary. Only five of 56 stories have references his involvement in Lehman negotiations.
â€śBut in an hour-long conference call with government officials, [Lehman CEO Richard] Fuldâ€™s hope was dashed when the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Timothy F. Geithner, refused to change the rules to enable a quick
The BBC mentioned Geithnerâ€™s Lehman connection in its profile of the incoming Treasury Secretary Nov. 23. â€śHe played a pivotal role in the intense negotiations which took place before Lehman Brother went bankrupt,â€ť the British news agency reported, â€śand also helped forge the deals involving AIG and JP Morgan.â€ť
Bailout proponents were harsh in their criticism of Geithner. CNBCâ€™s Jim Cramer advised against appointing him to Treasury in a Nov. 11 column on TheStreet.com. â€śIf Tim Geithner, the New York Fed chairman, gets a top spot in the Barack Obamaâ€™s Cabinet [sic], we are done, finished, kaput. It is that simple,â€ť he wrote.
While withholding government assistance to Lehman might have been the right decision from a free-market perspective, it earned Geithner a lot of criticism that broadcast networks generally ignored in covering his appointment.
Cramer cited Geithnerâ€™s â€śfateful decision â€¦ to let Lehman Brothers die. Geithner had within his possession compelling evidence of what could go wrong if he closed it,â€ť Cramer wrote. â€śHe ignored it. He made the most wrong decision of wrong decisions we have seen in this era. He is a total fool.â€ť Cramer predicted Geithner would â€śbe cheered when he gets the jobâ€ť â€“ which has turned out to be true â€“ but that, â€śHe will be a total disaster.â€ť
Cramer himself changed his tune on the Nov. 24 â€śTodayâ€ť show. There he called Geithner a â€śsmooth hand. I wish he werenâ€™t involved with whatâ€™s going wrong but the transition is bold, smart, fast, good.â€ť
Cramerâ€™s network colleagues followed his lead in forgiving his involvement with Lehman. Only two of the 32 stories mentioned it â€“ both came from NBCâ€™s Andrea Mitchell.
â€śGeithner does have his critics,â€ť Mitchell reported on the â€śSaturday Todayâ€ť show Nov. 22. â€śSome blame him for letting Lehman Brothers go under, a decision he shared with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.â€ť
Obamaâ€™s cabinet is shaping up to be a reestablishment of much of the
Geithner is typical â€“ having worked in the Clinton-era Treasury Department only to return under Obama.
But the connection appears to contradict Obamaâ€™s promise of change, and the networks have largely ignored it. Only nine of the 56 stories mentioning Geithner have alluded to his history.
Journalists left it to liberal commentators like New York Times columnist Paul Kruman to reference Geithnerâ€™s history in previous administrations. â€ś[T]here is really not an ideological hairs worth of difference among the various people,â€ť Kruman said on ABCâ€™s â€śThis Weekâ€ť Nov. 16. â€śGeithner is a [former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry] Summers protĂ©gĂ©.â€ť
NBCâ€™s Tom Brokaw alluded to Geithnerâ€™s
Even though Geithnerâ€™s experience seems to contradict the Obama mantle of â€śchange,â€ť the incoming administration is less ashamed of the
â€śAs you know, George, in the 90s he was the assistant treasury secretary for international affairs, and he handled a couple of international financial crises,â€ť David Axelrod said on ABCâ€™s â€śThis Weekâ€ť Nov. 23.