Fernholz, Taibbi, and the perils of access

A few weeks ago, in response to Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article on “Obama’s Big Sellout” — a blistering critique of Obama’s economic team — Tim Fernholz posted a lengthy fact-check of the piece on the American Prospect blog. Perhaps hoping to emulate Taibbi’s provocative style, Fernholz called Taibbi’s piece a “nightmare of a story,” a “factual mess,” and a “conspiracy theorist’s dream.” He then identified one factual error, calling out Taibbi most sharply on matters of opinion and analysis.

Much of Taibbi’s piece focused on Robert Rubin’s network and its dominance of economic posts in the Obama administration, analysis which Fernholz dismissed as conspiratorial.

Interesting, then, that Fernholz recently met with one of the Obama economic officials and former Rubin underlings mentioned in Taibbi’s piece: Diana Farrell, deputy director of the National Economic Council.

I stumbled across Fernholz’s name in White House visitor logs released last week. Fernholz confirmed to me that he met with Farrell last September for an interview. The interview was for his October article, “The Myth of Too Big to Fail.” Fernholz was accompanied by Rachel Barinbaum, a Treasury Department press person.

Farrell isn’t exactly a frequent White House spokesperson, so the fact that she gave an interview to Fernholz looks somewhat out-of-the-ordinary. Factiva searches turn up a handful of quotes, in articles by reporters for the AP and the Wall Street Journal. Farrell was also on NPR in October, as part of her campaign to defend the administration’s views of large financial institutions.

The fact that Fernholz enjoys special access to White House officials may help explain why he mounted such an “intemperate attack” on Taibbi, as Felix Salmon called it. I don’t mean to suggest anything nefarious or conspiratorial (God forbid!). Just that Fernholz is on good terms with the Obama economic team and their leading lights, and this likely helped influence his views of Taibbi’s article.

What is this kind of access worth? The piece Fernholz interviewed Farrell for, The Myth of Too Big to Fail, amounts to a flimsy, meandering defense of the Obama administration’s unwillingness to break up the big banks. Fernholz says that he spoke to a wide range of sources for the story, including consumer advocates and congressional staffers. Farrell appears to be the only interviewee quoted in the piece, and she is quoted at length (Dean Baker is also quoted, but that quote appears here). Fernholz essentially built the piece around her quotes, offering no counterpoint or critical framing of her arguments (see Simon Johnson for the opposite view).

Do we really need more journalists peddling the administration’s views on Wall Street and the economy? A line from Fernholz’s critique of Taibbi comes to mind: “This is pernicious for a lot of journalistic reasons…”