THE BLOG

Corporate Jets and Executive Compensation May Not Be All Bad -- A Media House Cleaning

05/08/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

In the media, our job is to identify people and issues worthy of your attention, and crystallize the complex so the average Joe "gets it." Sometimes though, the media sets up an idea which, instead of clarifying for the court of public opinion, becomes the rope used by an angry lynch mob.

Did we get it right when we identified that millions in bailout bucks were being used to pay the very people who created the mess on Wall Street? In part.

Compensation on Wall Street is complex. People make big bonuses for delivering business. Some people, to make those bonuses, resorted to bending the rules. Some, like Bernie Madoff, used the complexity of the game to hide ponzi schemes.

Of course many did not. Some people even worked in departments where the higher-ups were engaged in bad business practices, but they, themselves, did not really do much more than what they were supposed to do.

If you work at a taco joint, and the owner buys tainted meat, and the manager knowingly served it up, you do not arrest the employees who cooked it, bagged it, or sold it.

We would not come in and either take away the taco stuffer's salary, or tax it at 90% either.

Corporate jets serve a purpose, beyond shuttling fat-cats' families to Vail. If putting person(s) on the ground to gain a twelve-hour edge over the guys flying commercial carriers means landing a deal conceivably worth billions, the use of the airplane, fuel, and the other associated costs are in the best interests of the company.

Make executives log trips, account for business versus personal miles, and tighten up loopholes that allow for junkets and other travel that might be questionable for those companies on the Federal bailout dole.

Unfortunately that sounds too reasonable, and moderate. In the world of the six second sound bite, TV viewers don't tune in for "Lawmakers urge curbs on executive excess." They tune in for "Capitol Hill Demands Full Refunds of Executive Compensation."

The choice of some of the crummy icons of the Wall Street debacle is not entirely of the media's doing. The airplanes, for example were the work of Congressman Brad Sherman, D-California, who pressed the issue with the executives of the Big Three auto makers.

There are a lot of these softballs that the media does not whip into big stories. Yet, in this case, the executives, flying to Congress on private jets to testify on why they needed billions in bailouts, seemed like an iconographic home run, an easy way to sell corporate tone deafness.

The problem with angering Average Joe over such icons though, is that it may stop an airplane order or two, but in some ways it helps those who are trying to AVOID fixing the bigger issues that have ground the economy to a dead halt.

One reason that Mr. Obama continues to irk the media, who accuse him of campaigning rather than governing, is because he has to continually reach around the media noise where these over-simplifications of the news occur, to get information to the people more directly.

If he is campaigning, it is largely because we in the press are not doing our job in getting the whole story out there. He is forcing us to address the complexities of the crises in front of us rather than pot boil them down to a few old-fashioned made-for-TV lynching tools.

It is resonating because an increasing amount of the electorate is reading more critically, and reading more varied opinion via the Internet, or choosing more wonky TV fare like "The Rachael Maddow Show."

We would like to see people be held accountable, not jet aircraft or the folks in companies who were doing as they were instructed and did not work at a corporate policy level.

If you work for a company that told you that you would get a $2 million bonus if you brought in $100 million worth of business and booked it in ways that were both legal and ethical, you would be mighty pissed off too if you found your deal ensnared in activities over which you had zero control.

When Mr. Geitner says that these issues are complicated, and the Fix News crowd boos and throws tomatoes, maybe we should be paying more attention to the nuance that he is offering up to us.

The media liked Mr. Greenspan because he could simplify and spin. Look where that got us.

Mr. Geitner, and the higher-gloss Mr. Obama, unlike the Bushies, are making the media work for a living. The issues are complex, as are the solutions to the crises that we face.

Simplification is good. Over-simplification underestimates the American public. We're not all as stupid as Fox News and Gannett's USA Today would like to believe that we are. Even if Average Joe is not a wonk, into the details, surely we can tell the story in a way that presents the facts to them more completely, and generates some real accountability, instead of the smoke-and-mirrors scandals of this airplane or that deal. That's the stuff of a thirty-year era of the Republican spin machine.

Mr. Obama has called for change, and that should also come from our withered fourth estate as well.

Maybe it would be better, instead of railing over corporate jets and the general salaries, for the business Woodwards to get out there and find the specific people responsible for steering the country's financial system into the tank.

Oh wait, 90% of the financial talking heads are equally responsible for this mess.

Let us not forget, while we're railing about the evils of corporate jets, that Maria Bartiromo was a guest of Todd Thompson of Citigroup for many uses of their corporate jet.

People in glass airplanes...

Before we in the media call for anyone's ouster, perhaps we should clean house, and get our own acts together.

My shiny two.