the audit

Elizabeth Warren Is Smeared, and the Press Is Along for the Ride

McHenry controversy shows the media copping out with he said-she said stories
May 27, 2011

You’d think the press could resist the he said-she said copy when the truth is easy to discern.

Congressman Patrick McHenry’s smearing of Elizabeth Warren is a good test of how the press handles dishonest politicians and their lies. And most of the press gets a big fat F on this one.

On Tuesday, McHenry, a North Carolina Republican, called Warren a liar, both on CNBC before she testified and during her actual testimony.

Here’s how The New York Times, with its delicate sensibilities, put it:

Decorum Breaks Down at House Hearing

Goodness! Pass the smelling salts!

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The NYT piece is about as pure an example of he said-she said reporting as you’ll see and a good showcase for why such false equivalence is a bad thing for readers. We’re told in the lede that:

A House committee hearing on Tuesday about the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau disintegrated into heated accusations of lying, with the panel’s chairman accusing Elizabeth Warren of giving misleading testimony at a hearing in March and of making up facts about her agreement to testify this week.

Two paragraphs later, the paper says this:

Ms. Warren denied Mr. McHenry’s accusation, saying that she clearly stated in March that she had provided advice to officials of the Treasury and Justice Departments about their investigations of fraud among mortgage-servicing companies and about their settlement discussions with the companies.

So somebody’s got to be wrong, right? Who is it? We’re not told. So readers end up with McHenry says Warren lied, and Warren denies it. Thanks for nothing.

The Wall Street Journal was no better, nor was Reuters, The Hill, or almost any of the other mainstream news stories I read.

But for anyone half paying attention, much less a beat reporter, this is not a close call: McHenry is full of it.

McHenry had already been on CNBC earlier in the day and called Warren a liar, falsely alleging that she lied to Congress about her activities related to the AGs’ proposed mortgage settlement. Applaud CNBC’s Becky Quick, almost alone among the mainstream press, for pushing back on McHenry’s nonsense:

QUICK: You think that she was less than accurate in some of the testimony that she gave earlier. Why don’t you explain that to us?

REP. MCHENRY: Well, first of all, she’s testified multiple times that in terms of the mortgage settlement, she was simply an adviser. She was giving advice. Well, now it’s clear, and it’s been publicly released, that they put together a PowerPoint presentation on the terms of the settlement.

Now, in terms of advice, it seems the result was that it’s the explicit outline of the settlement agreement that we’re hearing about in the press. I question the veracity of her former testimony in relation to the reality that we now see in terms of the release of this PowerPoint presentation with the terms of the settlement.

MS. QUICK: I’m confused by that. You think she was lying when she testified that she was only an adviser because there’s a PowerPoint settlement that has the terms of some of these agreements?

REP. MCHENRY: Sure. Yeah.


She’s baffled (or acted that way) because this a fake controversy, one that Republicans have been ginning up for three months now. Warren testified to Congress in March that she had advised on the settlement. The Republicans said that her document “did more than provide advice: it recommended the goals and provided a detailed framework for the structure of the settlement.”

Andy Kroll of Mother Jones dispatched that back in March:

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of “advice” is a “recommendation regarding a decision or course of conduct.” That is, to give advice is to recommend. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner asked the bureau for advice about the proposed servicer settlement, and Warren and the CFPB did exactly that: they said what they thought the settlement should include. The “detailed framework” cited in Bachus and Moore Capito’s letter was nothing more than a 10-page PowerPoint presentation written by the bureau, laying out its advice. Nothing nefarious there.

The Bachus and Moore Capito letter goes on to say that the CFPB was in fact the “primary architect” of the mortgage servicing settlement. It’s a claim that is far from accurate. For starters, the mortgage servicing settlement is far from finished. How can Republicans accuse the CFPB of being the architect if the deal is still in the making? Perhaps Republicans are referring to the term sheet (PDF) released by Iowa attorney general Tom Miller, a Democrat, earlier this month, a rough guide to how the settlement might look. That draft was 27 pages long. And while it included ideas offered by the CFPB, it featured plenty that was not in the CFPB’s recommendations. To call the bureau the “primary architect” simply isn’t correct.

You can read Warren’s devious PowerPoint presentation for yourself here.

Better yet, read David Weidner’s column over at on the disingenuous attacks on Warren by the banks’ buddies (McHenry’s No. 1 campaign donor is too big to fail behemoth Wells Fargo. The American Bankers Association and Bank of America are tied for No. 5).

Mr. McHenry’s challenge—and the wider Republican opposition to Ms. Warren—is about authority.

On that point, there isn’t really anything to debate. Ms. Warren is not only within her right to participate in the mortgage settlement talks, she is obliged to by law. The Dodd-Frank Act spells it out. It’s in Title X, Sections 1001 to 1100H.

For example, the CFPB is required to create an office for fair lending to oversee a range of products, including mortgages. The CFPB also is supposed to maintain an active dialogue with states regarding lending practices.

Finally, there’s Section 1013 on Page 1,618, which requires “coordinating fair lending efforts of the Bureau with other Federal agencies and State regulators, as appropriate, to promote consistent, efficient, and effective enforcement of Federal fair lending laws.”

There’s no way around it: By passing on McHenry’s already debunked claims without fact checking them, the press lent credence to falsehoods. In other words, it’s helping politicians lie and perpetuating a smear against Warren.

There’s no excuse for that.

Finally, about that scheduling spat. It’s somewhat harder to avoid a he said-she said here. But when you already know one side is lying about something else, it’s a lot easier to figure out who’s telling the truth.

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.