So That’s Why the Press Won’t Cover Elizabeth Warren!

NPR badgers oversight panel chair over her legitimacy

A couple of times in the last few months I’ve taken the press to task for ignoring the Congressional Oversight Panel and its report on the TARP. I’ve talked to reporters in the biz since and got the impression that many of them don’t really take it seriously because its chairwoman Elizabeth Warren is a liberal who, they say, pushes her agenda.

So it’s worth listening to this entire Planet Money podcast from NPR, where Adam Davidson badgers Warren for more than an hour to justify her existence, so to speak.

If you want a peek inside business-press mentality, and why certain stories get reported and others don’t, you can do worse than start here. It sees Warren as an outlier whose views, based on decades of research, are suspicious. It would never, ever have badgered a former bank exec, say, like this if one had been chairman of the panel. Davidson, like the reporters I referenced above, has been talking to too many bankers and insiders who sneer at someone not inside their bubble. Perhaps he’s trying to prove his objective journalist bona fides at “liberal” NPR by taking it to a liberal.

Warren isn’t legitimate in the eyes of the press, so it just pretty much ignores her—even though she and her co-panelists were selected by Congress to oversee whether the Treasury is spending the $700 billion we gave it in a way that’s best for the economy.

This interview is really cringeworthy stuff from Davidson, who comes out looking pretty bad (which makes it all the more admirable that NPR runs the entire tape). Warren takes this fight going away.

I don’t have a complete transcript of the show but I typed up some of it.

Davidson signals early in the interview that this is going to be a contentious one:

I feel like I have a love affair/hate affair with the Congressional Oversight Panel.

And tells Warren that he’s frustrated at the makeup of the panel and especially Warren because “you have a point of view.” What’s that “point of view”? That Warren takes the side of the middle and working classes over the bankers. Heaven forfend!

To which Warren says:

So i gotta tell you, I just think you’re wrong. I’m somebody who believes in free markets. The American middle class is under assault…basically since the 70’s.

I’m not an advocate. i don’t get paid for anything. I’m an empiricist. I’m data driven.

And Warren schools Davidson on the difference between someone like her and someone like a lobbyist, who spins without concern about whether they’re wrong. She has to live with the record of what she says, while the lobbyist’s reputation is relatively untarnished by ignoring the truth because everyone expects him to lie.

But Davidson can’t get past the attempt to get her to delegitimize herself, as if the press hasn’t already done that for her:

Davidson: “I think you’re well known… as someone whose work points to a conclusion that banks and credit-card companies are giving a raw deal to consumers—I think it would not be terribly hard to find people who would agree with you—that your work is in opposition to the banks.

Warren: If you don’t have somebody who cares about American families, then they don’t have a seat at the table in this debate. i think this point is really important. We have a little tight insider world who understand exactly what synthetic derivatives are. My job in this world is to make sure that when these enormous profound decisions are being made, that the American family is there. That they are part of that process…because the decisions that are made will be different.


The blog Corrente has a transcript of a later part of the interview, and it’s worth quoting in full:

ADAM DAVIDSON: What it feels to me is what you are missing is that — I think we put aside your pet issues. We put them aside. We put them aside until this crisis is over.

ELIZABETH WARREN: The cr— What you’re saying makes no sense. Now come on. [interpolate Davidson sputtering and attempting to interrupt throughout.] It makes no sense. On an emergency basis, on one day, one week, one month, there’s no doubt in my mind we’ve got to step in, we’ve got to make sure we have a functioning banking system. I think I’ve said that like nine times now. Of course we’ve got to have a functioning banking system.

DAVIDSON: Wait a minute. I want to make you go further. I want to make you madder before I —

ELIZABETH WARREN: No no no. [Davidson snickers] We’re now at what — we’re now seven, eight months into this. And it’s the second part of what you said. We can’t do anything about the American family until this crisis is over? This crisis will not be over until the American family begins to recover. [More Davidson sputtering.] This crisis does not exist independently —

DAVIDSON: That’s your crisis.

ELIZABETH WARREN: No it is not my crisis! That is America’s crisis! If people cannot pay their credit card bills [Davidson tries to interrupt] if they cannot pay their mortgages —

DAVIDSON: But you are not in the mainstream of views on this issue. You are not —

ELIZABETH WARREN: What, if they can’t pay their credit card bills the banks are gonna do fine? Who are you looking at?

DAVIDSON: The [sputters]—

ELIZABETH WARREN: Who says a bank, a bank is going to survive — Who is not worried about the fact that the Bank of America’s default rate has now bumped over 10%? That’s at least the latest data I saw. So the idea that we’re going to somehow fix the banks and then next year or next decade we’re going to start worrying about the American family just doesn’t [Davidson talking over] make any sense.
DAVIDSON: The American families are not — These issues of crucial, the essential need for credit intermediation are as close to accepted principles among every serious thinker on this topic. The view that the American family, that you hold very powerfully, is fully under assault and that there is — and we can get into that — that is not accepted broad wisdom. I talk to a lot a lot a lot of left, right, center, neutral economists [and] you are the only person I’ve talked to in a year of covering this crisis who has a view that we have two equally acute crises: a financial crisis and a household debt crisis that is equally acute in the same kind of way. I literally don’t know who else I can talk to support that view. I literally don’t know anyone other than you who has that view, and you are the person [snicker] who went to Congress to oversee it and you are presenting a very, very narrow view to the American people.

ELIZABETH WARREN: I’m sorry. That is not a narrow view. What you are saying is that it is the broad view to think only about trying to save the banks [Davidson sputters] and say “Hey! the American economy will recover at some point and we’ll worry about the families [Davidson talking over].” I think that is the narrow view and I think I have the broad view. The broad view is that these two things are connected to each other. And the notion that you can save the banking system while the American economy goes down the tubes is just foolish.

What a disaster. I can’t think of a more dismal example of bubble thinking in the press.

(h/t to Jay Rosen via Twitter)

UPDATE: I didn’t see this at the time of this post, but Davidson apologized for the badgering in a subsequent podcast. Good for him.

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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.