PBS Screws Up Report on Financial Crisis
Last week, an action thriller move called The International opened nationwide. It is a big-screen shoot 'em up about a bank gone bad. A crime story, involving gun running, buying up debt and conniving with politicians. It seemed timely but was actually a dramatization of a real, if barely remembered, story -- the corruption of that notorious failed bank, BCCI, popularly known as the Bank of Crooks and Criminals.
It was a story that we at Globalvision knew well, because in 1992-93, we produced a strong documentary about that crooked bank shut down by federal authorities, for Frontline, the PBS investigative series.
I didn’t work on the project directed by Rory O’Connor but recall that we worked with independent journalists to investigate its entanglements with public officials and drug cartels. It took about a year to complete.
In that era, the idea that criminality and finance were related was considered a legitimate subject for prime time on PBS. In those years, Frontline welcomed independent journalism, too, not just programs from a small insider clique.
This past week, Frontline was back to reporting on banks with a quickie hour special called "Inside the Meltdown." The subtitle: "How the economy went so bad so fast, and what Bernanke and Paulson didn’t see and weren’t able to fix." To my shock, the Baltimore Sun’s reviewer praised it to the skies, calling it "one of the finest hours of nonfiction TV that I have ever seen in 30 years of writing about the medium."
Gag me with a spoon.
The film had all the hallmarks of the polished format and tony style that has come to embody Frontline productions, Will Lyman’s powerful voice, dramatic if not ominous music, beauty shots of Wall Street at night, limos crisscrossing Washington, faceless men working behind Bloomberg computer screens. It conveyed more a feeling offering any new facts to challenge us. It was more concerned with what government officials did after the meltdown than what the bankers did to cause the crash.
The New York Times was more impressed by another doc, CNBC’s doc House of Cards -- which also named few names or investigated few crimes (even as its host David Faber also appeared on Frontline).
"Oddly enough, the PBS offering is showier and more melodramatic, embellished with the kind of foreboding sound effects and stark black-and-white photographs that are a specialty of Sept. 11 films or accounts on the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis," writes reviewer Allesandra Stanley. "Frontline builds a persuasive case against Mr. Paulson, but relies for the most part on secondary sources to do so: academics and reporters."
But even if the Frontline style was more commercial-looking than the one by a commercial channel, it substance was narrower and its experts never ordinary people like those who watch PBS and/or progressive analysts like those on Bill Moyers' show. Instead, there was a procession of columnists and reporters from the mainstream media whose views are accepted (and acceptable) as the only legitimate sources.
You can watch online (at PBS.org) and see what I mean. There were scores of "names" from elite media like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair and even CNBC. An NPR host from the "Planet Money" show had a sound bite, but as you will see on the Frontline Web site, they are cross-promoting with that program.
The program indicts the interconnected nature of Wall Street firms, but the perspectives in the show showed the interconnected nature of the mainstream media, with Frontline lining up star journalists -- some on target, others just repeating their print stories -- from institutions that were mostly derelict in exposing subprime lending when it was happening and might have been stopped.
Many of those media institutions were complicit in the crisis, spending the boom years running ads from dodgy lenders, bank fraudsters and credit card purveyors. There were no voices from bloggers, no airtime for critics of the financial system, and oddly, no original interviews with the players they were covering like Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke or Tim Geithner. It was mostly B-roll and archive.
No current bankers were interviewed; no new conflicts of interest were exposed. There was no reference to the discriminatory and predatory lending practices that fueled the housing bubble. "Inside the Meltdown" should have been retitled "After the Meltdown." It retold several stories -- on Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and the first bailout -- that had already been covered in detail.
There was no mention of the arrests of Bear Stearns execs for insider trading; no reference to the "put options" by unknown investors that helped bring that bank down. There was no discussion of any debate about whether Lehman Brothers should have been allowed to fail -- or what the major consequences would be. Only Paulson’s weird rationalization of "moral hazard" was cited. Where did Geithner and Bernanke stand? They must have known that by punishing Lehman, the global economy would be dealt a punishing blow given all the "counterparties" to their deals. So much for selective morality.
And on the bailout, there was no examination of why no conditions were placed on capital injections into banks, no hearings allowed, not even full disclosure. Frontline skittered over the surface of these stories but did not advance them. Its big "gotcha" seemed to be the irony of Paulson, pictured only as a free-marketer (when he was also an environmental liberal) forced to become an interventionist. If he was so against government, why did he become Treasury secretary? Duh?
Even the Times, which concluded its review with the familiar, "We are all guilty, everybody did it" mantra, noted the thinness of the reporting: "Mr. (Chris) Dodd and Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, are the only members of Congress interviewed in the piece, which is a weakness. Many voters hold Republicans and Democrats equally responsible for oversight failures. Frontline holds these politicians up as reliable, unbiased witnesses, but some viewers may feel they don’t deserve that trust."
Frontline once offered original, investigative reporting as an alternative to superficial mainstream reporting. Now it seems to be reformulating and repackaging that reporting. From the front of the line, it’s gone to the back. All the pretty effects and dire narration cannot conceal that. The best place to view the program is on the Web site because of all the other information there.
Unfortunately, at a time when we need hard-hitting investigations into our financial catastrophe, we are getting warmed-over reprises that seem consistent with the larger media failure that has accompanied the financial failure.
Media writer Howard Kurtz said in the Washington Post, "the press may own a share of the financial mess."
"The shaky house of financial cards that has come tumbling down was erected largely in public view: overextended investment banks, risky practices by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, exotic mortgage instruments that became part of a shadow banking system. But while these were conveyed in incremental stories -- and a few whistle-blowing columns -- the business press never conveyed a real sense of alarm until institutions began to collapse."
And not just the business press!