WSJ buries the lead deep on AIG’s CEO

Benmosche says outrage at AIG bonuses was "just as wrong" as lynchings of blacks

The Wall Street Journal buries the lede in a major way in its Saturday piece on AIG CEO/bombthrower Robert Benmosche that ran on the cover of Marketplace with this anodyne headline:

At AIG, Benmosche Steers a Steady Course

CEO Stabilizes Insurer, Focuses on Core Mission

Up high in the story: Benmosche’s assurance that “‘too big to fail’ has been solved”

Left on the cutting-room floor: Benmosche’s comments saying the national outrage about AIG’s bonuses was comparable to the lynching of blacks in the South.

The uproar over bonuses “was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses, and all that-sort of like what we did in the Deep South [decades ago]. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong.

So nutty AIG paranoia about the potential of hayseeds with pitchforks stringin’ ‘em up is “just as bad and just as wrong” as the actual murder of thousands of black people by hayseeds with pitchforks.

Matt Taibbi says on Twitter, “Just when you thought nothing could ever be dumber than Charlie Munger’s “Suck it In and Cope” line…”, referring to Warren Buffett’s billionaire sidekick’s comment that Wall Street bailouts were justified, but regular folks slammed by the fallout of Wall Street’s actions should “Suck it in and cope, buddy. Suck it in and cope.” Taibbi’s right: Benmosche’s comment enters the Stupidest Quotes of the Crisis charts at No. 1 (Somewhere in the Top Twenty, Benmosche’s comment to Bloomberg in an interview at his seaside villa in Dubrovnik that “Retirement ages will have to move to 70, 80 years old.”)

Where Bloomberg led its 2010 scoop on the Munger comments with that quote, the Benmosche newsmaker—amazingly—doesn’t even make the Journal’s story, which only says he “solidified his reputation as one of the most outspoken executives on Wall Street.”

The actual quote is relegated instead to the eighth paragraph of a MoneyBeat blog post that ran two days later.

That’s some bad news judgment, to say the least.

There’s a bigger problem here too: The Journal’s perpetuation of Benmosche’s grandiose notion that he turned around the company and saved taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. Read Jessica Pressler’s excellent New York profile of Benmosche from last year on that:

By the time Benmosche and his team went to work, the market was improving, and the bonds and securities in the first set of vehicles were rising in value, enough that it seemed that the proceeds from those assets, combined with the interest, could feasibly be used to pay off the Federal Reserve’s loan.

It was the gubmint, not Robert Benmosche that stabilized AIG. But we don’t get any of that critical context from the WSJ. Instead, it employs that business-press staple: the CEO as Great Man of History.

But this CEO, at least, is a buffoon.

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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. Tags: , , , ,