James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Newspapers, economics and the phony troll

On Sept. 9, the Star Tribune here carried this multi-column headline at the top of page one:
"Economy regains ‘traction.’"

A much smaller sub-head said: "Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan delivered an upbeat report to Congress."

The relatively short portion of the headlined article on the front page, before it jumped to an inside page, was more of the same, and repeated Greenspan’s oft- and long-repeated claim that the deterioration of the American economy that has accelerated throughout the Bush presidency actually is just a "soft patch" that happened only last spring.

That, in a nutshell, is a fine example of why intelligent readers who used to believe that our newspapers did their best to bring us fair and complete information now mistrust almost everything they lay before us.

First, the main headline states Greenspan’s claim as a fact – an unacceptable action throughout most of my approximately 45 years in the newspaper business. The rule is that a questionable statement, even in a headline, must somehow be attributed.

The next problem is that the article doesn’t show until it moves to an inside page that Greenspan actually wobbled and "flip-flopped" more than a little in his testimony before Congress, nor does it ever point that fact out clearly, so that an economically unsavvy reader can understand what went on. All newspaper people know that only a minority of readers will follow a story to an inside page, and the minority gets much smaller when the subject is economics.

And then there is the issue of Greenspan himself. The country’s corporate news outlets treat him as though he is the very font of economic wisdom, the greatest source of fiscal truth the world has known, the equal of the mighty Wizard of Oz.

In fact, he is much like the wizard of the Emerald City: If you look behind the curtain, you find a fraud, though not such a benign one as Dorothy and friends discovered.

The Fed chairman is a ridiculous old troll who is pitifully desperate to hang onto his position and prestige, and the vestiges of his power, into his dotage. For all of the Bush years, he has bowed and scraped and said most of what his master wanted him to say in order to stay in the job. His increasingly veiled suggestions of error on the part of the Bushies are never more than absolutely necessary to maintain some slight appearance of independence.

Greenspan has been overrated throughout most of his career. Washington insiders have known that for years, but he’s a whiz at conning an economically dim press core, and that has given him real power. Bill Clinton wanted to fire him but was talked out of it by people who feared it would create a political storm. Canning the troll would distract the press and public from more important Clinton efforts, it was feared, and hand right-wing Republicans another phony issue to howl about. Yet over the years, there were rumors aplenty that Bush Senior also wanted to be rid of the man.

In truth, the right wingers also know Greenspan is a faker – they’ve admitted as much here and there although he’s useful to them.

But just about everybody in the news racket treats the Fed chairman like a god. They don’t bother to qualify the headlines because they assume that if Greenspan says something, that something, no matter how weasel-worded and false, is akin to holy writ.

So, when it comes to news of the economy, or understanding the fiscal and financial realities with which we must deal, you have to be very, very careful about what you read in the newspapers and most other news publications. But if you read carefully, and with a high degree of skepticism, pretty much disregard Greenspan and most other Fed types, you can get at the truth. It is worth the effort. Money, as the fella said, makes the world go ‘round.