< Get Ready, Get Set ... Outrage!


Friday, March 20, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield. And here’s a viewer on CNN last Wednesday.


MAN: Can somebody tell me why they aren't handing out pitchforks right now and we are not charging AIG headquarters en masse?


BOB GARFIELD: A new Gallup poll conducted Tuesday finds that 59 percent of the people are outraged at the AIG bonuses. Another 26 percent say they're bothered. The outraged have it two to one. Rage, it seems, is all the rage. Here’s AIG CEO Edward Liddy in a House Committee room Wednesday reading a choice piece of recent AIG email.

EDWARD LIDDY: All the executives and their families should be executed with piano wire around their necks.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Liddy said he was worried for the safety of the AIG bonus recipients. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, who wanted their names, said he wasn't persuaded. Not him or anyone else, it seems. On Capitol Hill, the people’s representatives were representing all week long. We could demonstrate with a tape montage of angry legislators, but that’s so been done. Let's just say that outrage is in the House – and the Senate. Here’s Iowa Senator Charles Grassley with a helpful hint on how AIG executives could have improved their image.

SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: If they'd follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say, I'm sorry, and then either do one of two things – resign or go commit suicide. And in the case of the Japanese, they usually commit suicide before they make any apology.

BOB GARFIELD: It was a bipartisan rage-o-rama – until it became a partisan rage-off when some Republicans suggested the nation’s top Democrat was insincere in his expression of outrage. This put White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in the ridiculous position of verifying that the smoke coming out of the President’s ears wasn't fake special-effects smoke but real outraged-citizen smoke, as real as anyone else’s.

ROBERT GIBBS: I don't think anybody on Capitol Hill should doubt the genuineness of the outrage.

BOB GARFIELD: Then the President himself weighed in, claiming that the Republicans’ outrage was not only phony but hypocritical.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There are a whole bunch of folks now who are feigning outrage about these bonuses that a year ago, or two years ago, or three years ago, said, well, we should never meddle in these compensation plans. These are the best and the brightest. They know what they're doing. That’s part of the market. And now suddenly they're outraged.

BOB GARFIELD: On the brink of Armageddon, an argument over who’s more upset. It was like something out of Dr. Strangelove.


PETER SELLERS AS PRESIDENT MERKIN MUFFLEY: I’m sorry too, Dmitri. I’m very sorry. All right, you’re sorrier than I am, but I am sorry as well. I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri. Don't say that you’re more sorry than I am, because I am capable of being just as sorry as you are. So we're both sorry, all right? All right.


BOB GARFIELD: Just to point out that the way that movie ended was with the world’s destruction. So where to turn for perspective on this stuff? Where to get beyond the partisan sniping and political opportunism for some introspection and common sense? Not, as we've seen, to the corridors of power, not to the collapsed temples of Wall Street. Nah. This was a job for – cable? CNN’s Campbell Brown.

CAMPBELL BROWN: Guys, get it together, please. We don't need you to feel our pain. We need you to fix this problem, minus the histrionics. Leave that to cable news. Instead, how about you focus on what you’re going to do when it is time to write AIG yet another check.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Leave that to cable news. Yep, cable turned the outrage up to 11. Leading the charge last week in righteous indignation was Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart. But wait – he doesn't really have anything to do with this mess. He’s not running for cover. In his much-YouTubed interview with CNBC’s Mad Money man Jim Cramer, he was just sincerely – outraged.


JON STEWART: It feels like we are capitalizing your adventure by our pension and our money, and that it is a game that you know - that you know is going on but that you go on television as a financial network and pretend isn't happening.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: The money man cowered before the funny man and conceded that CNBC had engaged in some unseemly financial cheerleading. But Thursday, on The Today Show with Meredith Vieira, Cramer bravely said that he didn't mean it.


MEREDITH VIEIRA: I don’t want to rehash the whole thing, but didn’t he have a point?

JIM CRAMER: I don’t think so.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cramer said CNBC had done a lot of great reporting.


MEREDITH VIEIRA: So you don’t think the media bears any responsibility, Jim.

JIM CRAMER: I think that there are people who bear so much more responsibility that it’s just wrong-headed – the politicians, the regulators, the SEC, the lenders, the investment banks. I mean, listen to AIG. I mean, you’re going to compare the media to AIG? There’re some people who really should get in line to do – to really take the responsibility. And the media, it’s just a naive focus. It really is, Meredith.


BOB GARFIELD: It really isn't, Jim. A media critic keeping his eye on the conduct of media isn't naive. It’s his reason for existing, much as you'd imagine a financial news network exists to keep an eye on Wall Street as opposed to shilling for it. If that happens once, shame on you. If it happens twice, well, that’s an outrage. Brooke?

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim Rutenberg has long covered media for The New York Times. Jim, I want to read you something from a story. Are you ready?


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. “When the market shot up, CNBC found itself accused of being Wall Street’s loudest public address system. Its blanket business coverage, it was said, gave voice to too many bulls, letting too many fund managers promote questionable stocks in which they held positions and allowed too many analysts to talk up new companies they were being paid to cover.” The date on that is March 26th, 2001. [LAUGHS]

JIM RUTENBERG: It had a nice ring to it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Okay. So you were covering CNBC in its golden period, right before the tech bubble burst, and then right after. Have you recently felt an unsettling sense of deja vu?

JIM RUTENBERG: You know [LAUGHS], it’s so funny because I had forgotten all about that piece. But something has been nagging at me, and I've been saying to myself, wow, this feels so familiar, this feels so familiar. And I totally forgot that we'd [LAUGHS] been through this once before. I have a feeling that I'm not alone, and that might be why we are here again. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, well, I guess the big question for me is, you know, when the tech bubble burst in 2001, most of the big magazines that were covering it folded, but CNBC survived. And in the midst of this current recession, their CEO, Jeff Zucker, responded to the criticism of the network by saying that the audience ratings had been bolstered by the recession. Why aren't there consequences for CNBC being wrong?

JIM RUTENBERG: There really weren't consequences, and I would predict that there won't be consequences should we go through yet another cycle like this down the road. People, when they are making money and watching those green arrows go up, don't want to hear about potential red ahead. And so, for a network like CNBC, it gets a whole new slate, a brand new slate. It’s all forgotten, until it isn't.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there are some differences between now and then. I mean, for instance, back in 2001 there were fewer blogs, fewer media watchdog groups. Jon Stewart didn't have the same status. There were fewer people overall policing the media. Do you think that the landscape has changed sufficiently since the tech bubble, that accountability has increased, or is that a ridiculous question to be asking after everything we've seen?

JIM RUTENBERG: Certainly there’s a lot more attention being brought to it this time. The story that you and I were just talking about from 2001, it was on the cover of our business page. It was picking up some chatter out there in the ether, but nothing like the kind of crescendo right now running against CNBC, these financial journalists. But one thing that goes along with those blogs and the new media atmosphere is that attention spans are shorter than ever. And if people start making money again in the next couple of years and CNBC reverts, it will be forgotten. Mark my words. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think networks like CNBC are extra resistant to consequences for bad calls because nothing makes people want to tune in more than money?

JIM RUTENBERG: The audience that watches CNBC has a direct investment in what CNBC is covering, so no matter what, there’s a built-in interest. Now, when your investments start going down, that interest will slacken off. You don't want to watch the bad news. That said, when they watch it going up, they want to believe it because it’s their money. It has direct impact on them. But this kind of is a cable news phenomenon in general. How many political pundits went out there every day over the course of the presidential campaign and made an incorrect call, only to show up again the next day to make a new bold call that ended up being wrong, often? So cable news is a sort of alternative reality when it comes to predictions.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don't know. It just reminds me of, you know, Homer Simpson. He steps on the broom and it hits him the head and he goes, ow.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then he does it again, and he goes, ow. Then he does it again [LAUGHS] and he goes, ow.


JIM RUTENBERG: Yeah, well, I can't argue with you. Doh.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Jim, thank you very much.

JIM RUTENBERG: All right, thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jim Rutenberg is a staff writer for The New York Times.