Transparency or Trillions?

Papers make different choices about what to highlight in IG report

One criticism commonly heard about the dread MSM is that all the major outlets are operating out of the same playbook. Whatever its merits at other times, that complaint doesn’t apply to the coverage of the Troubled Asset Relief Program that appeared in Tuesday’s papers.

The round of stories was occasioned by a report released Monday by Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the TARP, in advance of his testimony to Congress on Tuesday. In this report—and full disclosure, I’ve read only the executive summary, not the full 262 pages—Barofsky did two potentially newsworthy things: He faulted the Treasury Department for failing to adopt his earlier recommendations to make TARP more transparent; and he estimated the total potential value of government support to the financial system at $23.7 trillion. That’s trillion, with a “T.”

Coverage of the report in yesterday’s papers represents as clear an example as you’ll find of different publications following their own sense of what the story is—articles in different outlets varied so widely that I had to re-read the stories to make sure they were based on the same underlying event. The Wall Street Journal, in a piece written by Meena Thiruvengadam, took the most straightforward approach: open with the transparency criticisms, then follow that up with the big number. As if to explain why the dollar figure wasn’t the lede, the Journal cited Barofsky’s acknowledgement that “these numbers may have some overlap, and have not been evaluated to provide an estimate of likely net costs to the taxpayer.” And when it granted GOP Congressman Darrell Issa space to pile on to the criticisms of the Obama administration, it used a quote that focused on transparency, not cost.

The Los Angeles Times went a different route, one even more focused on the issue of transparency. Reporters Tom Hamburger and Peter Nicholas used Barofsky’s report as the starting point for a broader inquiry into whether the Obama administration has lived up to its promises of open government. The conduct of the health care debate gets ample space, Issa is quoted again to blast the White House for falling short of its commitment, and Barofsky generally comes across as a transparency crusader dogging a secretive or stubborn Treasury Department. Meanwhile, the other “T” word gets nary a mention.

Then there’s the New York Times story, written by Floyd Norris. If the WSJ discounted Barofksy’s $23 trillion figure, and the LAT ignored it, Norris’s goal was to demolish it. In his effort to demonstrate the number’s “sheer unreality,” he did everything but stamp “B.S.” on a copy of the report. Norris writes:

But in the report accompanying his testimony, Mr. Barofsky conceded the number was vastly overblown. It includes estimates of the maximum cost of programs that have already been canceled or that never got under way.

It also assumes that every home mortgage backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac goes into default, and all the homes turn out to be worthless. It assumes that every bank in America fails, with not a single asset worth even a penny. And it assumes that all of the assets held by money market mutual funds, including Treasury bills, turn out to be worthless.

It would also require the Treasury itself to default on securities purchased by the Federal Reserve system.

And it doesn’t stop there. Issa appears again as a critic, but Norris quotes him not on transparency, but on cost—as if to demonstrate the political damage done by irresponsibly floating inflated figures. The Treasury Department comes off not as secretive, but as beleaguered by having to swat down what should be a non-story. And “transparency” gets only a cameo, snuck into a brief quote from Barofsky.

Norris returned to the subject on his blog yesterday, describing Barofsky’s actual testimony. After noting that Barofsky “took great umbrage at reports that said he had exaggerated the numbers on federal bailout cost,” Norris concluded:

Much of his testimony was an attack on Treasury for not being more transparent about the value of TARP assets, and for not doing a better job of monitoring and disclosing what banks are doing with the money.

Those are good points. But they are not helped by his decision to come up with the $23.7 trillion number that he now denies was intended to shock and awe. That simply makes him seem to be an irresponsible headline hunter.

So how to make sense of these varying approaches? There’s a lot to be said for Norris’s call-it-like-you-see-it approach, especially compared to the common journalistic practice of noting some anodyne “disagreement” or “clash,” without trying to discern who gets the better of the argument. It also provides a valuable counterweight to credulous accounts like this Politico story, which takes the $23 trillion figure at face value (not to mention various cable TV reports on the subject). And Barofsky’s credibility is part of the story here—if he’s using inflated numbers to grab attention, that has a bearing on his conclusions.

But his conclusions deserved consideration nonetheless. The trouble is that Norris, in his fit of pique, didn’t just prove his point on the $23 trillion. He also scanted the concerns Barofsky raised about transparency—concerns Norris himself later acknowledged are “good points.” (A search of the Times’s online archives Monday evening found no other stories that focused on those concerns.) And while Barofsky’s credibility is significant, it is also secondary—the ultimate issue is whether TARP is appropriately administered. The press’s job is to help answer that question, one way or the other. Norris’s article Tuesday provided a useful reality check, but it didn’t do enough to advance the most important part of the story.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.