So The New York Times got its hands on Timothy Geithner's day planners and was shocked -- shocked! -- to find that as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Geithner, now Treasury secretary, spent lots of time meeting and eating with big-cheese finance executives.
OK, whatever. We just scoured Geithner's datebooks (which the Gray Lady posted on its Web site) and found something way more interesting than lunch plans with Sandy Weill -- it's the significant amount of time he spent shooting the breeze with big-cheese financial journalists.
There's tennis with Jim Impoco when Impoco was at Portfolio magazine. A few days later, lunch with John Cassidy of the New Yorker. A phone call with Greg Ip, then of The Wall Street Journal. A meeting with Jesse Eisinger, also of Portfolio, followed by a sitdown with John Plender and Thorold Barker of the Financial Times. Another call with the WSJ's Ip. And that was just during the first two weeks of 2007.
That period was hardly unique. Throughout the two years (January 2007 to January 2009) covered by the calendars -- a period spanning the run-up to the credit crisis and the implosion of Wall Street -- Geithner devoted lots of time to schmoozing select members of the Fourth Estate. Some names appear with striking regularity. From the FT, U.S. economics correspondent Krishna Guha, assistant editor Gillian Tett and U.S. managing editor Christia Freeland, were favorites, while at the WSJ, Geithner spoke often with Ip (now economics editor at the Economist), economics editor David Wessel and chief economics correspondent Jon Hilsenrath. At the Times, Geithner's contacts included Roger Lowenstein, a regular contributor to the Sunday magazine, columnist David Leonhardt and veteran economics reporter Edmund Andrews. He lunched with Gretchen Morgenson and Thomas Friedman.
A trip was made to Fortune magazine; there were chats with USA Today; meetings with Breakingviews; an off-the-record gabfest at CNBC; phoners with Maria Bartiromo. Even Crain's New York Business got 15 minutes.
So what does it all mean? Perhaps such media fraternizing is de rigeur for New York Fed chiefs; we don't know what's "normal" here. But the sheer volume of his media meetings is intriguing, especially given the beating the press has taken for its lousy coverage of the run-up to the economic disaster (not to mention the lousy press Geithner has gotten lately). What exactly did the Times, WSJ and FT -- the biggest beneficiaries of his press largess -- get out of the time their people spent with the man as the banking system was lurching toward breakdown? What did their readers get? What did he get?
Apparently, not much. The Times' page 1 opus on April 27, co-written by lunchmate Morgenson, faulted Geithner for being too close and clubby with the financiers he was supposedly monitoring. But looking at his schedule, you can just as easily argue that the media was too close and clubby with him. And a club it was.
Indeed, Geithner chatted with some of the biggest names in business journalism -- editors, colunmnists, opinion shapers. Geithner spoke three times with Times editorial writer Teresa Tritch. His contact at USA Today was deputy managing editor Owen Ullmann. He had breakfast with Marcus Brauchli after Brauchli was pushed out as managing editor of the WSJ but before he became executive editor of The Washington Post. Times business editor Larry Ingrassia got a phone meeting. This was media networking at its highest level. It was more about shaping ideas, giving direction and, yes, spinning, than it was about providing facts or producing pithy quotes because Geithner rarely appears in any stories. And it lends credence to the argument that the press was so concerned with and impressed by access to power players that it missed signs of the impending disaster. Did all the time the media spent with Geithner lead to more prescient economic reporting?
Geithner did sometimes talk to reporters who were actually reporting stories. An early 2007 meeting with the Times' Jenny Anderson resulted in a big piece on his efforts to monitor credit derivatives. Bryan Burrough saw him while preparing his Vanity Fair story on the fall of Bear Stearns. William Cohan met with him while writing his book on Bear. But a lot of good that's doing him today. As Treasury secretary, he has been bloodied by the media, which now portrays him as a bumbling bureaucrat who is in way over his head. That's the thing about clubs. Your membership can be revoked at any time.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal.