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 Obama‚Äôs administration: don‚Äôt rock the boat.
Broadcast network news reports glossed over Obama‚Äôs chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel‚Äôs history with the Freddie Mac. And since the day after the election, they‚Äôve been paving the way for the new administration‚Äôs incoming Treasury Secretary, New York Federal Reserve Bank President Tim Geithner.
In the immediate aftermath of Obama‚Äôs election, network journalists covering Obama‚Äôs possible picks for key economic positions touted Geithner as ‚Äúhighly regarded,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúbrainy,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúwell-thought-of,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúmuch-admired‚ÄĚ and deserving ‚Äútremendous respect.‚ÄĚ 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 journalists‚Äô refusal to explore Geithner‚Äôs history as a bureaucrat in the
In post-election coverage on NBC, political correspondent Andrea Mitchell mentioned Geithner as a possible choice for Obama‚Äôs Treasury. She said he was ‚Äúvery much admired‚ÄĚ and commanded ‚Äútremendous respect‚ÄĚ from Wall Street. She also praised Geithner as ‚Äúnot partisan. He‚Äôs an independent, registered independent.‚ÄĚ She never mentioned he had served in the
Mitchell praised Geithner again on the ‚ÄúToday‚ÄĚ show Nov. 6, calling him ‚Äúhighly regarded.‚ÄĚ
ABC‚Äôs Claire Shipman called Geithner ‚Äúbrainy‚ÄĚ on ‚ÄúGood Morning America‚ÄĚ Nov. 5, and declared he had ‚Äúbeen helping to manage the crisis.‚ÄĚ That night, CBS‚Äôs Jim Axelrod told ‚ÄúEvening News‚ÄĚ viewers Geithner was ‚Äúwell thought of on Wall Street.‚ÄĚ
When it became clear Geithner would be Obama‚Äôs pick to head the Treasury Department, journalists ignored much of the criticism of his time at the Fed, instead focusing heavily on Geithner‚Äôs positives, including the stock market‚Äôs positive reaction to his selection. On Nov. 20, New York Times editor Marcus Mabry told CBS‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Early Show‚ÄĚ Geithner fit perfectly into Obama‚Äôs image of change.
‚ÄúIf 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 we‚Äôve seen, someone with lots of experience in this particular morass, someone might be able to bring more confidence, restore confidence in the markets,‚ÄĚ Mabry said.
In a segment package aired on the Nov. 21 ‚ÄúNightly News‚ÄĚ and the Nov. 22 ‚ÄúToday‚ÄĚ show, Mitchell declared Geithner a ‚Äúfirst among equals.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúThe Obama team sees Geithner as representing what it calls change, someone who doesn‚Äôt come from a Wall Street investment bank.‚ÄĚ
While Geithner‚Äôs fresh image impressed journalists like Mabry, other reporters praised him for exactly the opposite characteristics. ‚ÄúIn Geithner‚Äôs favor,‚ÄĚ CBS‚Äôs Michelle Miller said on ‚ÄúThe Saturday Early Show‚ÄĚ Nov. 22, ‚Äúhe‚Äôs not new to
Mitchell, Mabry and others failed to point out Geithner‚Äôs long history working in government ‚Äď more than a decade in the Treasury Department and time at the International Monetary Fund ‚Äď and his involvement in the much-criticized decision to let Lehman Bros. bank fail ‚Äď two aspects of his career that might raise questions about whether the promised ‚Äúchange‚ÄĚ 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 Obama‚Äôs new Treasury Secretary. Only five of 56 stories have references his involvement in Lehman negotiations.
‚ÄúBut in an hour-long conference call with government officials, [Lehman CEO Richard] Fuld‚Äôs 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 Geithner‚Äôs Lehman connection in its profile of the incoming Treasury Secretary Nov. 23. ‚ÄúHe played a pivotal role in the intense negotiations which took place before Lehman Brother went bankrupt,‚ÄĚ the British news agency reported, ‚Äúand also helped forge the deals involving AIG and JP Morgan.‚ÄĚ
Bailout proponents were harsh in their criticism of Geithner. CNBC‚Äôs Jim Cramer advised against appointing him to Treasury in a Nov. 11 column on TheStreet.com. ‚ÄúIf Tim Geithner, the New York Fed chairman, gets a top spot in the Barack Obama‚Äôs Cabinet [sic], we are done, finished, kaput. It is that simple,‚ÄĚ 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 Geithner‚Äôs ‚Äúfateful decision ‚Ä¶ to let Lehman Brothers die. Geithner had within his possession compelling evidence of what could go wrong if he closed it,‚ÄĚ Cramer wrote. ‚ÄúHe ignored it. He made the most wrong decision of wrong decisions we have seen in this era. He is a total fool.‚ÄĚ Cramer predicted Geithner would ‚Äúbe cheered when he gets the job‚ÄĚ ‚Äď which has turned out to be true ‚Äď but that, ‚ÄúHe will be a total disaster.‚ÄĚ
Cramer himself changed his tune on the Nov. 24 ‚ÄúToday‚ÄĚ show. There he called Geithner a ‚Äúsmooth hand. I wish he weren‚Äôt involved with what‚Äôs going wrong but the transition is bold, smart, fast, good.‚ÄĚ
Cramer‚Äôs network colleagues followed his lead in forgiving his involvement with Lehman. Only two of the 32 stories mentioned it ‚Äď both came from NBC‚Äôs Andrea Mitchell.
‚ÄúGeithner does have his critics,‚ÄĚ Mitchell reported on the ‚ÄúSaturday Today‚ÄĚ show Nov. 22. ‚ÄúSome blame him for letting Lehman Brothers go under, a decision he shared with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson.‚ÄĚ
Obama‚Äôs cabinet is shaping up to be a reestablishment of much of the
Geithner is typical ‚Äď having worked in the Clinton-era Treasury Department only to return under Obama.
But the connection appears to contradict Obama‚Äôs 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 Geithner‚Äôs history in previous administrations. ‚Äú[T]here is really not an ideological hairs worth of difference among the various people,‚ÄĚ Kruman said on ABC‚Äôs ‚ÄúThis Week‚ÄĚ Nov. 16. ‚ÄúGeithner is a [former Clinton Treasury Secretary Larry] Summers prot√©g√©.‚ÄĚ
NBC‚Äôs Tom Brokaw alluded to Geithner‚Äôs
Even though Geithner‚Äôs experience seems to contradict the Obama mantle of ‚Äúchange,‚ÄĚ the incoming administration is less ashamed of the
‚ÄúAs you know, George, in the 90s he was the assistant treasury secretary for international affairs, and he handled a couple of international financial crises,‚ÄĚ David Axelrod said on ABC‚Äôs ‚ÄúThis Week‚ÄĚ Nov. 23.