New York, NY – Towards the end of 2008, I was walking briskly to Wall Street with a crew to begin filming my documentary, Plunder: The Crime of Our Time, about financial crime. A sudden call of nature forced me to divert into a nearby Borders bookstore with facilities.
As I was leaving, I ran into none other than former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, who had just finished a book-signing event, and was also on the way out.
My crew watched in amazement as I exited, almost hand-in-hand, in the company of one of the most powerful men in finance, the nation’s biggest economist, then known as “The Maestro”, who was surrounded by a coterie of book flacks and securitymen.
“Greenspan’s star… fell after the financial meltdown.”
Unfortunately, our camera was not on to capture my spontaneous back and forth with the author of the pompous tome The Age of Turbulence, which was all over the media at the time, with fawning interviews paying homage to the “genius” who ran the Fed from 1987 until 2006.
He was a right-wing political celebrity, known for mumbling, obfuscation and refusing to stop massive subprime mortgage abuses, even when warned to do so by a Fed governor.
To memorialise this unlikely occasion, I asked the “Chairman” to sign a dollar bill for me, a practice he had become known for, whatever its legality in a country with laws against defacing money.
He happily accommodated, but it was actually a Federal Reserve note that he autographed, a currency that is backed by nothing – issued by a reserve bank that is actually a private corporation controlled not by the government, but by the banking industry.
He soon had people in the street applauding his presence. I often thought of that moment when I was back on Wall Street years later covering the Occupy movement. The Borders chain bookstore we both visited had been shuttered because of all the unsustainable debt Wall Street firms shovelled into that company.
Greenspan’s star – kept highly visible for years by the company he kept, including wife Andrea Mitchell, an NBC TV correspondent; and former girlfriend, ABC News star Barbara Walters – fell after the financial meltdown. In 2006, one of his acolytes, Tim Geithner of the New York Federal Reserve (and now Obama’s Treasury Secretary) told him, “I’d like the record to show that I think you’re pretty terrific, too”.
Time magazine later included Greenspan on the list of the 25 “geniuses” responsible for the financial crisis, writing: “The maestro admitted in an October congressional hearing that he had ‘made a mistake in presuming’ that financial firms could regulate themselves.”
Greenspan’s role in all this is well-documented. Not as widely known was his service as a loyal member of the Ayn Rand Cult that advocated a philosophy of “objectivism”, which translated into aggressive opposition to all regulation and social safety nets, Medicare, Medicaid, even public schools and public hospitals.
His “mistake” was actually a core value in his belief system.
Writer (and illegal immigrant) Ayn Rand’s paean to selfishness in books like Atlas Shrugged popularised the ideology that today drives the Tea Party, almost all of the Republicans’ candidates, and even the extreme austerity movement in Europe and parts of the US.
It is the subject of financial journalist Gary Weiss’ brilliant new book, Ayn Rand Nation, which investigates the close political relationship between Greenspan and Rand. (Rand, however, called Greenspan “the Undertaker” for the way he dressed.)
In those years, Greenspan even wrote a letter to the New York Times, defending Rand’s brilliance after the newspaper carried a denunciation by anti-communist stalwart Whittaker Chambers, who wrote dismissively, “Out of a lifetime of reading I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal.” Gore Vidal called her work “nearly perfect in its immorality”.
What interested me is why, despite this intellectual opposition on both right and left, Greenspan and Rand were given a mostly free ride by a mainstream media that glorified and promoted Greenspan’s financial acumen and Rand’s work – labelled a “nightmare” by a Time reviewer – into bestseller status.
Neither had celebrity panache, but both were elevated to positions of high respectability and deep gravitas.
Some answers can be found in another new book, asset manager Barry James Dyke’s self-published The Pirates of Manhattan 2, which factually shows how closely our mass media is tied to the interests of Wall Street mutual funds.
In one chapter, “Media Madness & Truth Decay”, he not only shows the massive role that advertising by financial firms has on TV and newspapers – in which advertisements comprise 87 per cent of revenue – but also how media executives pay themselves like bankers with outsized salaries and huge bonuses.
Dyke shows that this same pattern prevails in public broadcasting, where shows like Nightly Business Report and National Public Radio’s Marketplace Money are, in effect, “pep rallies for Wall Street” funded by financial firms that also pay their elite managers high salaries.
But more telling is how media companies themselves are financed – a story rarely, if ever, investigated by the media outlets themselves. If they did, they would find high salaries being paid out of 401(k) retirement funds paid by their own workers. They are, in effect, diverting the savings of the people who work for them into their own pockets.
Many of these companies are financially troubled themselves, and serve the industry and its owners more than the public. In page after page of charts and hard data, Dyke lists key media companies with major ownership shares held by Wall Street’s Mutual Funds and institutional investors.
|CBS||90 per cent|
|Comcast (NBC)||83 per cent|
|Walt Disney (ABC)||69 per cent|
|McClatchey||95 per cent|
|News Corps NWSA||86 per cent|
|New York Times||65 per cent|
|Washington Post||65 per cent|
(If you don’t trust these figures, go to Yahoo’s Finance site, plug in any company’s name and click on ownership.)
Dyke contends these ownership patterns connect back to what we see, arguing that the “CNBC cable programming format treats business news and the stock market like a football game with half-time reports, talking heads… and football-like diagrams… The editorial tone is sympathetic to the Wall Street illuminati – traders, speculators, the nation’s banks, mutual fund companies, hedge fund managers.”
Now you can see why some stories and personalities, some ideologies and ideas are more equal than others, often bathed in coverage – while more critical views are ignored or even suppressed.
There may be a free press in the United States, but interests that can afford to advertise heavily in the media or, better yet, own the media are always the most visible.
“Maestro” Greenspan – whose own net worth soared to $10m on an $180,000 annual salary – may not have known how his philosophy could lead to a financial catastrophe, but he did understand how even an “undertaker” could be turned into a cultural hero celebrated by the media. It’s also why the worst ideas often become the best-known.
The “marketplace” of ideas is as manipulated as the others.
News Dissector Danny Schechter now blogs at Newsdissector.net. His latest book is Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street. His latest film, on Wall Street crime, is Plunder: The crime of our time. He does a show on Progressive Radio Network. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.