Spotty Coverage of the Financial Reform Amendments

The Senate has been adding tough amendment after tough amendment to the financial-reform bill. Okay, tougher than anybody thought they would be.

Yesterday saw the passage of an amendment that would rough up the credit-ratings firms, as well as one that would threaten those sky-high debit-card interchange fees that are so lucrative for banks. So how did the press handle it? Well, let’s just say it’s had better days.

Let’s look at some ledes and placement issues. The New York Times’s lede is off (emphases here and throughout this post are mine):

In the latest sign of the zeal in Congress to get tough on Wall Street, the Senate approved two initiatives on Thursday aimed at addressing the role that major credit rating agencies played in the 2008 financial collapse, including a proposal to end the reliance on companies like Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s.

Why don’t you leave the editorializing to Bob Herbert and Ross Douthat? You know what would make that story a lot better? A straight-news lede. Here come the scissors:

The Senate approved two initiatives on Thursday aimed at addressing the role that major credit rating agencies played in the 2008 financial collapse, including a proposal to end the reliance on companies like Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s.

Isn’t that better? And it doesn’t start with a dependent clause.

The Wall Street Journal’s lede is even more of a mess:

The Senate approved a provision that would thrust the government into the process of determining who rates complex bond deals, in a move to end alleged conflicts of interest blamed by some for worsening the financial crisis.

Thrust, huh? And is it really an “alleged” conflict of interest? I mean, it’s a simple fact that the whole setup is a conflict. And “some” people blame them for worsening the crisis? Do the ratings firms themselves deny that they worsened it?

The Financial Times does best in the lede department:

Credit rating agencies faced a growing threat to their business model yesterday after the US Senate voted to establish a government appointed panel to decide who rates an individual asset-backed security.

Simple, straightforward, and analytical.

The Journal and FT, rightly, put the news on their respective front pages. The Times stuffs it on B2.

Meantime, another semi-tough (maybe) amendment passed yesterday that would toughen scrutiny of bank interchange fees, the vig they get from retailers when you use your debit card to pay for something.

The Times, unfortunately, gives it short shrift, folding it into that story on the credit-ratings amendment. The Journal does better, giving it its own story on A4. Unfortunately, the lede again:

The Senate, voting 64-33, moved Thursday to curtail the “swipe fees” that financial companies impose on debit transactions, underscoring the increasingly populist tint of pending legislation that would overhaul regulation of the financial-services sector.

Yeah, because it’s real “populist” to help one of the most powerful industries in America—the retail business.

We and others have written quite a bit on how the press misuses the word “populist,” which implies that a position—inevitably, any real change to the status quo—is unsophisticated and essentially mob rule.

What does this particular “populist” move do? It hands over power to potentially regulate these fees to the Federal Reserve. I don’t know if you realized, but Bernanke & Co. aren’t exactly pitchfork-wielding Iowa farmers.

In effect, what the Journal is saying is that breaking up a completely uncompetitive market is populism. Here’s the last paragraph:

One supporter, Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), said the proposal would level the playing field between merchants and card issuers. “I’m hearing increasingly from retailers who are having to pay large fees on debit cards and feel that they have no ability to negotiate with Visa and MasterCard because they control so much of the market,” she said.

And the paper is confusing. It says in the lede that the Durbin amendment is about debit cards and then it says this later:

According to the Merchants Payment Coalition, which represents retailers, “nearly $2 of every $100 consumers spend using credit cards goes directly to Visa and MasterCard.”

Bloomberg, meanwhile, has this interesting piece of information:

Debit transactions should pass at face value, just like checks, according to the National Retail Federation.

Debit cards formerly passed at face value, but now the biggest banks and card companies are using them to circumvent the system and are reducing the face value of debit-card transactions through higher fees,” NRF chief lobbyist Steve Pfister said in a statement. “This hurts retailers and merchants of all sizes, including doctors’ offices, restaurants and florists, and it causes all of our customers to pay more.”

And it notes that credit-card fees are high:

The industry escaped previous attempts to regulate interchange on credit cards, which average about 2 percent per transaction, saying the fees are needed to compensate them for the risk of lending money. That argument isn’t relevant to interchange on debit cards, which tap funds held in consumer checking accounts.

But how much is the average debit-card cut banks get now? Bloomberg doesn’t tell us, and neither does the Journal. Why not? That’s what the whole story is about.

In what little the Times writes about the amendment, it doesn’t tell us either (it quotes Durbin saying it’s “1 to 3 percent on credit or debit transactions). What little space the Durbin amendment gets results in an error:

The amendment by Mr. Durbin would direct the Federal Reserve to set limits so that fees charged for credit and debit card transactions were “reasonable and proportional” to the cost of processing the charges.

That’s not right. That change only applies to debit cards.

Better coverage, please.

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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.