Monday, April 26, 2010

Fact-Checking The Newsmakers

The Senate late Monday voted 57-41 to block floor debate on the financial reform bill, sending it back to Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd's Senate Finance Committee for additional bipartisan haggling. Republicans are probably correct that the legislation needs more work to eventually insure passage.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) told David Gregory, moderator of "Meet The Press", on Sunday that negotiations were close.

"Inches?" asked Gregory.

 "Well--but inches sometimes are miles, but I'm hoping they're half-inches," Shelby replied.

During the MTP segment, Shelby appeared to me as the cat who just ate the canary. He was cautious and succinct in his comments unlike the loquacious Dodd. Before interrupted by Gregory's question, Shelby had embarked on his longest answer.

This is a very complicated piece of legislation, over 1,300 pages as the Dodd bill now stands.  But we're--what we're trying to do is improve two or three things in it.  It's, it's very, very tedious.  We're going to continue to work today, as Sen. Dodd said.  I think we're closer than we've ever been.  And will we get a bill by tomorrow?  I, I doubt it.  I would always hope so because there's so, so much involved.  But I think we will get a bill.  If the Democrats want a bill and will give us some things that we think that are substantive in nature, like make the "too big to fail," send a message that nothing is too big to fail in this country and tighten up the language. There's some flexibility in the language there that we're talking about is--and...

Shelby was quoted by Reuters Monday morning telling a group of bankers: "If we hang together on the floor, we can create critical mass." Whatever that means.

Okay, this is a long-winded end run around the selling of financial reform. The argument is divided into two parts. One is the substantive nature of the legislation. The other is the politics. There is a third party to this issue. That would be the voters. They think the politicians who make the rules are idiots and the bankers crooks.

For voters to understand the substance of the legislation, they are required to download a pdf of the Senate bill which runs about 1,300 pages. The chances of that happening is about as remote of a fifth grader understanding Enstein"s theory on relativity.

Accordingly, voters are at the mercy of politicians, bankers and the media in all its forms to explain it. Good luck. Most people listen to only what they want to hear that confirm their preconceived beliefs.

The politics of financial reform is as easy to explain as eating the icing on a cake.

Senate Republicans, as they have illustrated in the past, would prefer to vote against any Obama administration and Democratic proposal on principle as the party of no. Financial reform is different because Republicans recognize their voters want it. So they are holding Dodd's legislation hostage until they receive concessions that Shelby and his cohorts believe will make it stronger -- or as some Democrats believe will grease the bankers' greed machine.

We are told that substantive measures such as no bailouts for banks, an early warning system to detect high-risk deals in the derivative default markets, and a consumer protection agency are included in the package.

I'm sitting here, reviewing the evidence, and can't help wondering that the reform President Obama once touted as never again allowing the financial institutions leading us into a major depression is an act of unfilled promises.

And, here, I give Gregory credit for this question Sunday that essentially went unanswered:

All right.  But, but, but, but there--people I talk to on Wall Street say that kind of rhetoric is totally over the top, that they want stringent regulation but that there are details that are very important that, frankly, a lot of senators and congressmen and women don't understand because of their complexity and yet they're willing to just, because of this political atmosphere, pass sweeping regulation that could hurt competitiveness, that could send jobs overseas and all the, all the rest..

This leads me to the second tier of this essay and that is the rash of criticism our top news gathers, particularly David Gregory as moderator of the once esteemed "Meet The Press" program, are receiving from competitors and political website commenators.

Gregory last week refused to commit to a fact-check analysis of his show, a challenge initiated by Jack Tapper of ABC News with other less high-profile critics following suit. For details on that skirmish, I suggest you check out Jack McDonough's  Swimming Freestyle website and Steven Benen's Politcal Animal column in Washington Monthly.

In reviewing the transcripts of Sunday's show, I did see an opening for Gregory challenging Sen. Shelby on this exchange:

MR. GREGORY:  If the, if the, if the, if the complaint is government's not up to it, we had regulators before, can they do it this time, and we're so worried about bailouts, look at the track record of bailouts so far.  The president was boasting yesterday that GM and Chrysler have paid off their debts, not completely, but, but, but way ahead of schedule.  TARP is now $186 billion back.  The overall payment is supposed to be around $87 billion.  The record's been pretty good that the government's and the taxpayer have done OK so far in bailouts, have they not?
SEN. SHELBY:  First of all, the payback by General Motors and Chrysler will never happen, not all of it.  That's misleading, even what the president said there.  And they paid back some money that they were already given by the TARP money.  They haven't paid back the other, and they won't.  Some of the banks have paid back the money, and that's good.

As The Moderate Voice's  Robert Stein pointed out, Gregory's interview a week ago Sunday with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was a sorry demonstration of understanding the complexities of our financial institutions and the substance of the financial reform legislation in particular.

As a result,, I watched MTP Sunday, and downloaded the transcript, and am relatively secure in the belief that Mr. Gregory did his homework before the show featuring Dodd and Shelby.

I think we must cut Gregory and his ilk some slack when it comes to challenging facts in interviews with self-serving politicians. It is a fine line in talk television.

On one extreme is Fox News giant Bill O'Reilly who oftentimes trashes the interviewee, sending the segment into the cutting room floor.

George Stephenopoulos of ABC agreed to fact-checking after criticism for allowing a politico go unchallenged.

There is Chris Mathews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball" who can be a bulldog holding lightweights such as Minnesota Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann accountable when she suggests the media should investigate Congress members for their patriotism.

But the newsman who got it right from the start was the late Tim Russert who not only did his homework, challenged stupid self-serving politicians for contradictory remarks but forced the people whom he interviewed to sweat and prepare before appearing on "Meet The Press." Russet had a knack of axing a dimwit such as the Klan's David Dukes and then quickly moving on to continue the interview without the verbal pyrotechnics of a Bill O'Reilly.

That, I am certain, is the problem faced by David Gregory. He's following in the footsteps of a giant in the industry. It is akin to the names of coaches we have long since forgotten who followed the legendary Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers in the National Football League and John Wooden  who won nine national college basketball championships at UCLA.

Gregory has had time to get comfortable in his job, perhaps received a good kick in the ass by his fact-checking critics, but the poor soul may never walk away from the shadows of the broad shoulders of Tim Russert.

Readers comments are welcome as long as they remain civil. We reserve the right to delete any comments that are vulgar, libelous and totally irrelevant to this posting. -- Jer

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