Treasury had its second big blogger meeting today, where Tim Geithner and other Senior Administration Officials (sorry, ground rules) fielded questions from a group of bloggers* which tilted heavily towards the newsier end of the spectrum. The Center for American Progress was there in force, as were the Atlantic and the Huffington Post; the less corporate bloggers from last time round (David Merkel, Tyler Cowen, Yves Smith, Steve Waldman, John Jansen, Michael Panzer, Kid Dynamite) were absent this time.**
I can’t quote what anybody said, even anonymously, but I can tell you that the message from Treasury was that financial reform is not dead in the Senate, and that in fact on some matters, including derivatives reform, there’s real hope that the Senate can put something together that’s even stronger than what the House passed. I’ll believe it when I see it, but the general idea seems to be that so long as something gets out of committee, the final bill might actually have some teeth.
Have we reached the point at which we’ve wasted our crisis? The official Treasury talking point is that we haven’t, and that there’s a window of time through the end of this year in which there’s still some political urgency left; after that, passing something strong will get harder. Again, I think they’re just trying to make the best of a bad situation — that we’re still months away, in a best-case scenario, from a bill actually reaching the president’s desk, and that by then (fingers crossed) the crisis will be more of a distant memory than ever.
*Daniel Indiviglio, Megan McArdle, Matthew Yglesias, Patrick Garofalo, Amanda Terkel, John Aravosis, Faiz Shakir, John Amato, James Kwak, Duncan Black, Sam Stein, Shahien Nasiripour, Ryan Grim, David Kurtz, Tim Fernholz, and me.
**Update: It turns out that this was a deliberate policy: no one who came to the last meeting was invited to this one. James Kwak, Megan McArdle, and I all for various reasons couldn’t make the last one, so were invited to this one. But Treasury has a somewhat weird policy of “maximizing touch” and therefore not repeating any blogger.
Daniel Indiviglio at The Atlantic:
I just attended a blogger briefing at the Treasury, with several prominent senior officials present, including Secretary Timothy Geithner himself. They had some pretty interesting things to say. The topic I was most interested in was financial regulation. I was curious where the Obama administration stood, given the progress (or lack thereof) thus far. In particular, I asked whether the President was holding a very hard line on any specific provisions being included for the bill to get his signature. Their responses were subtle, but sufficiently revealing of their position.
It was pretty clear that the President knows better than to demand a perfect piece of legislation. While there are clearly some priorities that the administration views as extremely important, I didn’t get the sense that the absence of any specific provision was a sort of deal breaker. I don’t think we’ll see a standoff here where the President threatens to veto whatever bill Congress eventually passes if it lacks certain components of his plan.
For example, when it came to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, officials made pretty clear that, while they prefer it be a new, independent agency, they weren’t necessarily against the idea that it be housed in an existing entity like the Treasury of the Federal Reserve. They did, however, insist that it must exhibit sufficient independence so that the regulator can accomplish its mission effectively.
So what did I learn? First, that Tim Geithner is growing into his role; this was a much more relaxed and confident team than I saw a year ago, when I first met many of them in person. And while Kevin Drum is right that these things don’t really offer earth-shattering revelations, I think they are useful for figuring out how administration officials are thinking about a problem.For example, I asked about a topic that is on many peoples’ minds right now: sovereign debt problems. The near-term deficit is basically not a problem; amortized over 15 or 20 years, the U.S. economy can afford this level of debt. But the long term deficit is a big problem, and I asked one of our “senior treasury officials” whether he was worried that we would cross some threshold where either the debt becomes a major drag on growth, or markets start demanding significantly higher yields to lend us money.His answer was smart, if not totally reassuring. Ultimately, this is not about some numeric figure, like Ken Rogoff’s 80% of GDP; it’s about what the market believes. If the market believes that we are going to get our budget in order (at least sort of), then the deficits we’re running over the next five or ten years can be sustained. If the market questions this, then we’re in big trouble. The reason U.S. debt is the “risk free” rate is that in the past, we’ve always gotten it together in the end.This is not perfectly satisfying, of course. Ken Rogoff is not worried about interest rates so much as the absolute level of debt, because eventually debt service consumes too much of your economy–a very large debt with a very low interest rate is still a very big problem. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear that we’re going to pull ourselves together this time around, because the problems we’re facing are much less tractable: growing entitlements and a shrinking workforce.But still, there are a lot of answers they could have given to this question; the one they chose tells me how they’re thinking about the problem. I’m still worried about potential sovereign debt problems, of course. But at least we’ve got some smart guys at Treasury when the crisis comes.
Having Geithner and company “reach out” and tell people that they must understand that they did their best despite fierce opposition, and did it the hard way, just doesn’t ring true when you consider the huge Democratic majority they were given. If they couldn’t fight off the moneyed interests and the Republicans with that, then what hope do we have of ever changing anything? This message is demoralizing, not inspiring. (And it isn’t exactly true, as we all know ….)
It is clear that they believe that a nice Barack Obama speech and a lively messaging campaign will do the trick , but they’d better wake up. The trained seals are not responding to that anymore. In fact, they are looking a lot more like killer whales at the moment and some respect for their power should probably be paid.
John Aravosis at AmericaBlog:
The meeting took place in an absolutely stunning room of what is the most stunning federal office building I’ve seen in all my years. Much of official Washington is kind of old. State isn’t exactly a pretty building on the inside, nor is DOD, nor a number of other agencies, and even the White House has parts that are kind of eh. Not Treasury. Stunning building, stunning hallways, stunning meeting rooms. This room was amazing. It’s called the Secretary’s Conference Room. Huge pendulum clock on the wall. Huge. Wide dark wooden doorways framed in gold. Beautiful etched transoms above the doors, ornately painted ceiling, and a beautiful 200 year old portrait of George Washington on the wall. Simply stunning. You can read more about the room here.
The meeting began on the record with the Deputy Secretary telling us about a new policy to permit private citizens in Iran, Sudan and Cuba to be able to legally have access to free US-based Internet services like Twitter and YouTube. It was a bit vague, and we pressed for more specificity, but perhaps this post over at Tapped will help explain it better.
From that point on, we entered secret-agent land where none of us were permitted to tell you what happened, other than who we met with. Judging by the content, it’s not terribly clear why Treasury didn’t want us reporting back to you, especially since everyone in attendance from Treasury did a damn fine job. There wasn’t one person who in any way said or did anything that the agency might have wanted to keep off the record. It’s unfortunate really. Sam Stein from Huffington Post, to his credit, registered a rather large protest over the fact that the meeting was off the record.
Sam Stein at The Huffington Post:
The stipulations caused griping among some attendees. But the message, delivered with candidness, was a telling one, echoed from the Secretary on down. Treasury’s policies should be judged not only based on what progressives ideally wanted from the administration but also based on the alternative — what those policies would have been under a Republican administration. The Obama administration may fall short of the former, Geithner and others acknowledged but the officials argued that what the Republicans want and what the industry is demanding would produce a far gloomier outcome.
Earlier that morning two lengthy profiles of the Treasury Secretary were published in the New Yorker and the Atlantic respectively. There too, Geithner was cast (or, perhaps, cast himself) in the role of the humble victim, doing the bidding of the country at the price of personal reputation.
“We saved the economy,” he told the New Yorker, “but we kind of lost the public doing it.”
It’s true that being briefed by anonymous “senior” officials is largely an exercise in getting spun, but in its defense doing on the record interviews with senior officials is also largely an exercise in getting spun. And I do think anonymity has some value in that by preventing journalists from doing sensationalist stories based around a single direct quote it forces you to focus on the big picture of what the officials in question are trying to say.
For example, if you looked through a transcript of yesterday’s conversation with bloggers with an unscrupulous eye, you could probably find a Tim Geithner quote about California or Greece or something that, sexed-up with a juicy headline, would constitute “news.” But since we’re not allowed to quote directly, only characterize in general terms what was said, and I can convey to you that Geithner talked a bit about both California and Greece and was sensible but didn’t have any earth-shattering insights into the situation.
I do these things more because they can be interesting experiences than because I intend to do some super important reporting, but generally I think group deep background experiences are more edifying than fully on the record ones, and much less prone to abuse by the political actors than anonymous “leaks” precisely because there are a bunch of people in the room. More problematic are the single source to single reporter leaks which are clearly orchestrated but in which anonymity either provides cover for no good reason or conveys – wrongly – that the anonymous source is doing something brave by speaking to reporters when in fact they’re just doing what they are told.
I’ve always felt that these kinds of anonymous sessions do more harm than good to the cause of good journalism, allowing government officials a chance to peddle their spin in person without really being held accountable for what they say. But that’s a cheap position for me to take since I’m out in California and never get invited to them anyway. So I’m genuinely curious: now that bloggers are going to these kinds of things, and what with blogging being so much more informal and conversational than regulation journalism, what do they really think? Did the Treasury folks say anything they couldn’t have said with their names attached? Was it genuinely interesting, or just a bunch of the same-old-same-old? What’s the verdict on this ancient Washington tradition?
Tim Fernholz at Tapped:
On Drum’s broader criticism, this meeting wasn’t Treasury “spin” — the broader message wasn’t anything new, and very little of what was said would have been problematic were it on the record — either market-moving or politically unpalatable. Most of the time, officials declined to talk about messaging or communications at all, preferring to talk policy — the attendees, on the other hand, frequently asked the officials about their political and communications strategy. As Salmon points out, though, this is indeed part of a broader messaging push from Treasury to try to improve Geithner’s image, but it’s not through some kind of secret plan but rather through exposing him to people in settings where his strengths are clearer; he’s known to be more convincing in small groups than in big speeches.
But what Drum doesn’t understand is that this isn’t an ancient Washington tradition; the SAO insistence is actually a legacy of recent partisanship. I’ve met veteran Washington reporters who used to walk in to Clinton administration Defense Secretary Bill Cohen’s office on a Saturday morning just to say hey and see what was going on. But in today’s political and media environment, the kinds of things that people do when having a regular conversation — tell jokes, air hypotheticals, misspeak, think aloud — are more likely to be printed by reporters and more likely to be used to attack the speaker. The incentives aren’t there for officials to share real insight with reporters outside of settings like this one.
While I agreed with Stein that the meeting should have been on the record, this wasn’t one of the cases where anonymous officials leveled attacks at political opponents, even though some participants practically begged the Treasury folks to do so, or discussed policies that haven’t been publicly aired before. The other thing to keep in mind is many of the people at this meeting weren’t actually reporters per se — they were independent bloggers, think tankers, etc. — and in the past probably wouldn’t have had a chance to meet Treasury officials in this kind of setting at all, and if they did, wouldn’t have been able to publicize it without telling reporters about it anonymously.
Even more Drum:
Nickel summary: count me as still on the fence. I continue to think that routine anonymity like this is more corrosive than people give it credit for. On the other hand, “sources say” really is an ancient tradition, hardly an innovation of modern journalism, and sometimes it really is the only way to get news out. On the third hand, when bloggers start getting invested in this tradition, it gets harder to say just what the value of blogging is versus traditional journalism. More and more, though, that’s a distinction without a difference anyway, so maybe it doesn’t really matter. Stay tuned.
The fact is that if I thought it would serve any purpose at all to boycott background briefings, I’d be happy to do that. But it wouldn’t. And in many ways these briefings are the closest that people like Geithner ever come to having a friendly drink with the press, not having to worry about how they might get quoted. Most of us would become very quiet very quickly if every word we said was scrutinized in the way that Geithner’s public statements are. Obviously the ground rules serve him more than they serve us. But insofar as we basically just wanted to talk to the guy, I think we came away reasonably happy.
So while Drum is absolutely right that these meetings “allow government officials a chance to peddle their spin in person without really being held accountable for what they say”, I think that sometimes it’s good to talk to someone without holding them accountable for what they say. I’d say that the walk-forwards-walk-back that we saw on the subject of principal write-downs, for instance, is more revealing than an accountable on-the-record statement would have been. Mixing things up a bit is usually a good idea; I’m generally suspicious of absolutism in these matters. After all, it’s not as though the press corps and Congress never get to ask Geithner lots of questions on the record as well.
I’m not sure if anyone still cares, but after noodling over this a bit I think I’m basically convinced by the Atrios/Salmon/Yglesias argument that there’s some real benefit to government briefing sessions that don’t allow direct quotes. Spin will be a big part of these sessions regardless, and if this rule allows government officials to talk like real people instead of worrying that the slightest misstep will produce some headline-worthy gaffe, then it’s probably a useful thing. Felix makes the case pretty well here.
On the other hand, the argument for not being able to attribute your paraphrases to specific officials still seems pretty dodgy. On balance, then, I say: paraphrase rule yes, ID rule no.
EARLIER: Meet The Financial Bloggers, Timmy