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.