Why Geithner went on background

By Felix Salmon
March 10, 2010
Kevin Drum asks a good question about the background blogger briefing at Treasury:

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Kevin Drum asks a good question about the background blogger briefing at Treasury:

Having read a few posts from the bloggers in question, what I want to know is: Did they really learn anything? Did Geithner and the anonymous SAOs say anything interesting that they wouldn’t have said on the record? Or was it just a pure spin session?

First it’s worth noting that HuffPo’s Sam Stein made a formal protest at the beginning of the meeting, asking that at least we be allowed to quote “senior administration officials” directly instead of being forced to paraphrase. And I don’t think any of us were particularly happy about the ground rules.

That said, I think there are a few ways in which these briefings can provide something that an on-the-record briefing can’t. The Treasury secretary, in particular, has to be very careful what he says in public; his statements can and do move markets and even cause minor diplomatic incidents. Going offline allows the public official to relax a little and even have something approaching a real conversation, as opposed to simply reciting talking points.

It’s also worth noting that the audience for this briefing was pretty newsy, as bloggers go. There were quite a few people around the table — Stein included — who consider themselves reporters first and foremost. When sessions with Treasury officials are on the record, they (the sessions, I mean, not these individuals) have a tendency to descend into unhelpful dynamic where the journalists try to get the official to say something specific, and the official repeatedly talks around the subject and doesn’t give them what they want. Banning quotes altogether does solve that problem at a stroke.

Geithner in particular has a way of getting a little tongue-tied and angst-ridden (this is new, I think, since he became Treasury secretary, I never saw it before), and no one at Treasury has any interest in that becoming news. He did show some flashes of humanity in this session, cracked a few jokes at his own expense, and was surely less self-conscious than he would have been had the briefing been on the record.

And as Matt Yglesias rightly says, it’s hardly as though on-the-record briefings are spin-free zones.

It’s true that I can’t think of anything which was said by Gene Sperling or Michael Barr or Alan Kruger which couldn’t easily have been put on the record, but it’s also true that the one bit of the meeting which actually was on the record — a briefing by Neal Wolin about internet technology in Iran, Sudan and Cuba — was so far removed from newsworthiness that all of us were quite happy when it was over.

Of course, you can’t put Sperling et al on the record and then have just Geithner being the only “senior administration official” in the room — that kinda gives the game away. So you see how Treasury ends up where it does — just as you can also see how the likes of Drum end up asking if we’re not all being sucked into the age-old Washington game.

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.

And on top of all that, I’m very happy that I got to thank Gene Sperling personally for Treasury’s latest CDFI initiative. (I’m on the board of a credit union which will probably be one of the recipients.) It’s a really good idea and it probably ought to have gotten more play than it did. A lot of really useful lending will come as a result of it.

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