The Elephant in the Control Room

Should Andrea Mitchell be reporting on the economic meltdown?

When Andrea Mitchell reports on the current financial crisis—or on anything that relates to the crisis, which is, these days, a lot—there is an excessively large elephant in the control room. Its name is Alan Greenspan.

That Greenspan is Mitchell’s husband doesn’t, under normal circumstances, warrant disclosure or special treatment. Mitchell is a career journalist who knows what conflict of interest is—and how to avoid not only its appearance, but also, one hopes, its effects. Under normal circumstances, it would be unfair to hold her husband against her.

Under normal circumstances. But the credit crisis—and the current meltdown we’re facing, whose effects, assuming we can find a way to stanch them in the short term, will likely be with us for generations to come—is not normal circumstances. Greenspan, by virtue of his nearly-nineteen-year chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board, is, to some extent, culpable in the crisis we’re facing. Critics have accused the Greenspan-led Fed of inflating the housing bubble by keeping loan rates too low for too long, encouraging reckless lending and borrowing. Greenspan himself has admitted as much, telling CBS last year, “While I was aware a lot of these practices were going on, I had no notion of how significant they had become until very late. I really didn’t get it until very late in 2005 and 2006.” And as The New York Times put it in a December 2007 article headlined “Fed Shrugged as Subprime Crisis Spread” (emphasis mine),

Until the boom in subprime mortgages turned into a national nightmare this summer, the few people who tried to warn federal banking officials might as well have been talking to themselves.

Edward M. Gramlich, a Federal Reserve governor who died in September, warned nearly seven years ago that a fast-growing new breed of lenders was luring many people into risky mortgages they could not afford.

But when Mr. Gramlich privately urged Fed examiners to investigate mortgage lenders affiliated with national banks, he was rebuffed by Alan Greenspan, the Fed chairman.

The degree of Greenspan’s culpability in the current meltdown is certainly debatable. One could argue, as he does, that its root cause wasn’t the interest rates of the mortgages themselves, but their repackaging. What isn’t debatable, though, is the fact that, as chairman of the body that presided over the economy while it began its slow-before-sudden descent into Dante-conomic hell, the legacy of Greenspan’s Fed chairmanship is intimately entwined in the crisis. (If the awkward evasiveness he and Mitchell exhibited at the opening-night gala for the New York Philharmonic last week is any indication, the couple is acutely aware of that.) The oft-repeated comparison of the credit meltdown to September 11 is flawed in many respects, but it’s valid in the sense that we had warning signs of this crisis long before it exploded last week. There’s a reason that “asleep at the switch” has become a truism in the treatments of the crisis; and one of the people manning that switch was Alan Greenspan.

None of which is to say that Andrea Mitchell is culpable for her husband’s credit-crisis connection. She isn’t. But nor does that mean that her reporting isn’t, to some degree, compromised by Greenspan. Take Mitchell’s commentary on today’s episode of Morning Joe, in which—wearing a pundit’s hat more than a reporter’s—she tried to find a silver lining to the Paulson plan’s $700 billion investment request (emphasis mine):

Once there’s some stability in the market, then the real value of these mortgage loans will become apparent, and then people will get back in.

And, by the way, there’s some really interesting data that is just beginning to surface in these hearings. Lockhart, the regulator of Fannie and Freddie, testified to this yesterday, largely overlooked. There was an article in the Wall Street Journal, an op-ed, by a Columbia professor and by Peter Wallason, who has done some advising for McCain, but is a former treasury official and a former White House counsel. And what they said is that there was a domino effect.

What happened was, the Bush Administration started threatening to regulate Fannie and Freddie and to take away some of their special, implicit benefits where they got cheap money, where they got special implicit subsidies in their interest rates, they could get money at a lower cost. And during that period, they had to prove—and Congress was pressuring them—both parties—pressuring them prove that they were fulfilling their commitment to low-income housing…. And all of the sudden you saw a surge in what they were putting into these subprime loans. And it practically doubled in the last couple of years, in what they were putting into those subprime loans. This was between 2006, 2007—that’s when you saw the big increase in bad loans. So there’s a lot of blame here to go all around, but they’ve got a lot of answers to deliver, as well.

Again: this was between 2006, 2007. And Greenspan resigned from the Fed’s chairmanship on January 31, 2006.

Which is troubling. Mitchell may be making a fair historical comparison to add context to the current crisis; but the fact that it’s a comparison that would also partially absolve her husband from guilt in that crisis means that it’s probably a point another reporter should be making. While the shades of populism in Mitchell’s concern for blame assignment may be legitimate, they could just as easily be the symptoms of a wife wanting to protect her husband’s reputation, now and for the future. It’s one thing for Mitchell to report the facts of the credit crisis, but venturing into commentary is a precarious trek. So is reporting on the Fed itself, as Mitchell did last Monday:

I’m Andrea Mitchell, live in Washington today. The Federal Reserve has agreed to lend one of the world’s largest insurers, AIG, $85 billion to stave off financial crisis in exchange for a major stake in the company. Let’s get right to CNBC’s David Faber, who’s been reporting this all night and all day. David, the Fed said just two days ago they would not be in the bailout business. Now they are taking over, practically, this business by converting these shares and having such a big stake in AIG. What changed?

A fair question, in every sense. But when Mitchell asks another reporter about the Fed—and, really, about anything related to the economic crisis—it’s not so much a question of fairness as it is one of accuracy. While Mitchell may be able to be balanced and sober in her own assessments of the crisis, or in her ability to ask good questions about it, she’s not the only player in her reporting. She has sources and interviewees. And it’s debatable whether those sources and interviewees would be similarly able to answer Mitchell’s questions fully, given the ties of the person who’s asking them.

NBC News doesn’t share that doubt. As Allison Gollust, NBC News’s Senior Vice President for Communications, told me via e-mail:

We make decisions about Andrea’s reporting on the current financial crisis on a day-to-day, case-by-case basis. There are countless aspects of the story that present absolutely no potential for conflict whatsoever. In cases where we feel the focus of a given storyline may present a problem, we assign those stories to another correspondent. We are 100 percent comfortable with all of her reporting thus far.

Still, though. I worry that, to the extent that TV segment interviewees are sources, and to the extent that they provide useful information and analysis, rather than just, you know, “good TV,” an interview with Mitchell might constrain their honesty. You wouldn’t want Laura Bush asking you about the federal government’s reaction to Katrina. You wouldn’t Maria Malan interviewing you about apartheid. And so on. Those interviews would be awkward, but, more to the point, they would be unproductive. They’d yield, at most, partial truths. It’d be naive to think that an interview with Mitchell would be any different.

In reporting on the financial crisis, journalists need to help viewers and readers and listeners fully understand what we’re facing right now. (And to fully understand what, exactly, our tax money will be paying to bail out, assuming that the Paulson plan passes.) “What went wrong?” should be a standard question Mitchell and other journalists are asking right now. When one potential answer to that question is “Alan Greenspan,” there’s a conflict. A big one.

Mitchell—who’s recently been doing the work of a national political reporter, though her official title at NBC News is Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent—has been, like a select smattering of NBC’s on-air talent, pretty much omnipresent during the campaign season. As MSNBC has pushed to make itself worthy of its self-supplied tagline (“MSNBC: The Place for Politics”), it has put its most respected personalities—Tom Brokaw, David Gregory, Chuck Todd, and Mitchell—on the air as often as possible. Mitchell regularly guests on Morning Joe and on the evening juggernaut that is Countdown with Keith Olbermann. She anchors the 1 p.m. hour of MSNBC Live (Mika Brzezinski joked on today’s Morning Joe that that hour should be called, simply, Andrea). She’s been a correspondent and commentator during the network’s live evening coverage of political events: primary nights, the conventions, etc. On MSNBC, Mitchell is everywhere.

But maybe she should be a little less everywhere while the financial crisis is at its height. Maybe MSNBC should consider whether its viewers are served by an anchor and reporter who is, in so many ways, so close to the story she’s covering. That isn’t to say that Mitchell should be simply taken off the air right now. That would be a loss to MSNBC and to its views; Mitchell is not only one of the best reporters NBC News has, but also a gravitas-giving presence on a cable network that is desperately seeking, among other things, gravity. But it is to say that, when it comes to covering the financial crisis, the expanse of Mitchell’s space in “The Place for Politics” is worth questioning. Particularly since whatever space she occupies must also accommodate her elephant.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.