Thursday, December 04, 2008

Press Coverage: Wall Street vs. Detroit

We admit it. We're conflicted about the Wall Street bailout and we're dubious but still undecided about bailing out the auto industry.

A large part of the angst we're feeling has to do with lack of confidence. Not the kind of "confidence" Treasury Secretary Paulson says he wants to rebuild in our financial institutions. We've never had much of that to begin with; and, somehow, seeing bankers, brokers, and hedge fund managers racing to Washington in a panic to raid the Treasury of trillions of dollars hasn't done much to increase our confidence level.

No, our larger lack confidence is over the disreputable state of the financial press, that is to say the news media -- newspapers and television -- in the way they cover financial news. Their news coverage actually is more superficial, vapid, and downright stupid than the "horse race" mentality they bring to political coverage.

No clearer, more revealing example is at hand than in the contrasting coverage our organs of journalism brought to the first breath-taking series of Wall Street bailouts versus the way they are covering the troubled auto industry as it, too, seeks to stick its hands in our cookie jar.

For Wall Street titans like Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, A.I.G., and all the rest, the tone of the press coverage has been mostly shocked, sympathetic, and a bit frightened. Not many questions are raised, not much information is offered beyond "we gotta do it or we're all in the soup."

Sure, there has been mention made, spottily, about the astronomical compensation packages -- upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars annually -- paid to the C.E.O.s who brought their banks and insurance companies to the brink of ruin. But nothing much revealing beyond that and certainly not one jot or tittle offering specifics on any sort of Wall Street corporate "recovery plan."

For Detroit, on the other hand, it's been all derision, all the time. How did the auto executives get to Washington? By private jet! How much are they paid? Well, the assembly line guys might make $50 or $75 an hour (or so it has been deceptively reported). Can Detroit recover its mojo? They don't know!

As it happens, just this past weekend we were speaking with a friend who was wondering aloud what sort of Christmas bonus his own stock broker might be getting. The guy's broker is just a chump, a mid-management guy far down the organizational chart from any C.E.O.

And, actually, our friend's words were a little more pointed: "Paulson better not give that stupid bastard one thin dime of my tax money. He ruined me."

Except for a few scattered and often incomplete or inaccurate references to the salaries of the top guys at Wall Street firms, the financial press essentially has let Wall Street completely off the hook. But when it comes to the auto industry, reporters get down in the trenches and manufacture all kinds of faux outrage at the (often misreported) hourly wage rates paid to blue collar assembly line workers and the lack of a recovery plan.

Last evening on the Keith Olbermann show, Michael Moore made the same point, more forcefully. It's definitely worth a listen:

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