Business-Press Beat-Sweetening

I wrote about beat-sweeteners in my previous post and said I’d look at it in the business press next. It’s certainly not hard to find examples.

You can pretty much pick up any copy of Fortune, for example, and find a CEO getting the pedestal treatment, though that diminishes somewhat in bear markets like now when execs are out of favor. But never fear, the heroes will return as soon as sentiment softens a bit.

But in thinking about this, I couldn’t look past one story that’s really stuck out in the past few weeks. It just so happens that it was a story printed two days ago in which The Wall Street Journal slobbered all over the TARP’s chief investment officer front-page story headlined:

Bailout Man Turns the Screws

The one negative thing about the guy, James Lambright, is in the lede, when he sends a document to a hospital where a woman’s husband is having a heart attack, and I’m not even sure the WSJ thought that was bad in the context of its Great Man Theory of business journalism, as Elinore Longobardi calls it. This fits neatly in Timothy Noah’s beat-sweetener chart under “flattery”:

Tall, bald and blunt, Mr. Lambright has gained a reputation within the government for his tough negotiating style, which at times has irked those seeking aid and ruffled the feathers of some colleagues. Some have criticized Mr. Lambright for demanding too many concessions, including restrictions on executive compensation.

Talk about A1 PR on A1 of the Journal. Treasury must be astonished at its good fortune, having been criticized for months for being a pushover to Big Finance, but now having a key guy portrayed on the country’s most-prized business-news real estate as a no-nonsense tough-guy friend-of-the-taxpayer.

But as the investment manager for TARP, Mr. Lambright is central to the government’s effort to rescue the economy. His job, in part, is to make sure taxpayers get the best deal possible.

No mention here of the searing criticisms of the TARP and how it’s been handled, like how the government has given itself raw deals on its investments in banks—hardly making “sure taxpayers get the best deal possible.” See Bloomberg two months ago on this:

U.S. taxpayers are being shortchanged by about $78 billion through the Treasury Department’s bank bailout, the panel overseeing the program said…

“The loss estimate is conservative,” said Representative Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee. “It could turn out that those assets in the end are worthless. These are massive handouts to favored institutions to try to make up with taxpayer money the mistakes they made with investor money.”

Hey, the Journal’s piece is a great read with great access, especially if you like your Unnecessary Food Detail, like Lambright’s peanut-butter-and-jelly lunches and the protein bars he and his staff used to “fuel their late-night sessions.”

But does anybody think the TARP funds have been invested wisely with the best terms for taxpayers?

Why does the Journal?

Email me your favorite business-press beat-sweeteners or post them in comments.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.