But the fundamental problem with these pieces is deeper than a missed observation or clashing versions of the same person. The underlying problem is that they are a species of the Great Man theory that is all too prominent in the business press. In these stories, Paulson is not just the institutional face of the credit crisis, he’s a kind of stand in for that crisis. Rather than scrutiny of the system, of which Paulson is undoubtedly a key part, it’s Paulson front and center.
And so, as with any “great man”, his story needs bits of background that illustrate the formation of his current character. Each piece falls in line with this model.
Newsweek even starts to lay out the mythological groundwork in the first paragraph with Paulson “the former college-football star” who is “carrying the weight of the troubled markets on his shoulders.” Thank you, Atlas.
Bloomberg, going back to the beginning, writes:
Henry M. Paulson Jr. developed a taste for hard work and a love of nature while growing up in Barrington, Illinois, a semirural community of 10,000 about 35 miles from Chicago with large areas of wetlands and forest preserves. Paulson still owns a farm there with his wife, Wendy, whom he married 39 years ago in September. His father was a wholesale jeweler who raised Paulson to be a Christian Scientist and to become an Eagle Scout. At Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, Paulson earned a degree in English and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He also was an all-Ivy League football player and a member of the Green Key Society, an honorary service group.
A profile should have biographical detail, of course, but look at the ones chosen. They support the picture of a man who was in Wall Street but not quite of it, who has strong ties to his family and the natural world, and who is dedicated to cultivating body and mind.
Fortune in particular plays up this view of Paulson, not only with the stock biographical details, but also is more explicit about what they say about the man:
Did you know that Hank Paulson was an Eagle Scout? Paulson, 62, grew up in Barrington Hills, a Chicago suburb, and he still comes across as a straight-shooting, down-to-earth Midwesterner, an image he does nothing to dispel. (Look for his cheap sports watch the next time he is on TV.) A Christian Scientist, he doesn’t smoke or drink, and he’s more likely to spend a Saturday night grilling hamburgers with friends at home than holding forth at a Georgetown salon.
This kind of biographical information shores up Fortune’s headline: “Paulson to the Rescue.”
And its subhead:
He came to Washington reluctantly. His job was almost a backwater. Today his task is momentous, wrestling down the greatest financial crisis of our time.
Trumpets please. And in case you still don’t get it, this sentence appears early on:
Paulson has established himself as a man of action, the tenacious firefighter working alongside Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to prevent an outright meltdown of the markets or, worse, the economy.
Add to this the photos accompanying the pieces, in which Paulson appears not just in suit and tie but as “Athlete of the Week” in Bloomberg:
And even sometimes with a fish, in Fortune:
Or a bird, in Newsweek:
At this point, Paulson is starting to look like a cross between Joe Namath and someone from Mount Olympus. Forget about Newsweek’s “King” Henry, just head straight to an even higher pay grade.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if the pieces didn’t end up serving as some pretty good pre-publicity for the bailout. By crafting a strong and reliable persona for Paulson, they also implicitly throw weight behind his decisions—even, like it or not, those yet to be made.