OLD Media Moves

Reporting on the Fed

October 25, 2005

I spent some time on Monday talking to reporters and editors who follow the Federal Reserve about the new chairman Ben Bernanke and how he will differ in his dealings with the media compared to outgoing chairman Alan Greenspan, who was one of the most visable people covered in business journalism in the past 18 years.

Here is what some of them had to say:

Brendan Murray, who covers the Fed for Bloomberg in its DC bureau: “Basically, picking Bernanke will be the next chapter in the Fed’s shift to more transparency, which began under Greenspan. The question is will more openness — Bernanke the clear-speaking economic versus Greenspan’s famous obfuscation — help or hurt the fed in its effort to serve several masters: the public, Wall Street, Congress, the White House and so on?”

Peter Coy, who is the economics editor for BusinessWeek: “I think Bernanke will work hard to depersonalize the conduct of monetary policy. In fact, that’s what I was just told by Frederic Mishkin, a Columbia economist who has worked closely with him. Mishkin thinks the Bernanke appointment is bad for journalists in that we’ll lose a colorful, oracular figure. Bernanke will promote transparency, which deprives journalists of the role of interpreter of the oracle.”

Jodi Schneider, economics editor for Congressional Quarterly: “I’m not sure that coverage of the Fed will change appreciably, at least not from my understanding of Bernanke or his background. I think the Fed apparatus remains largely in place despite who is sitting in the chair, and that while Greenspan gave off-the-record interviews, Bernanke probably will as well. He has written widely, and I’m sure folks will pore over those documents as they look into his record, background. As a respected academic, he does have a trail of work, some of it opinionated, and that I think will make it somewhat easier to cover him as there are opinions, etc., that are there. He does appear more to be the typical academic economist (i.e., not married to a famous, celebrity journalist like Greenspan) and may be lower key.”

Andrew Cassel, who writes a column on the economy for the Philadelphia Inquirer three days a week: “I’ve personally never had an off-the-record interview with Greenspan, although I have heard that he occasionally spoke to a very select number of key reporters for papers such as the WSJ, NYT and Washington Post. (I was in the audience once when he did speak off-the-record to a group of about 30 reporters.) I’ve spoken to Bernanke exactly once, and he frankly wasn’t that helpful or encouraging. If he cared much about what I was writing, he gave no sign of it.

“I can’t imagine that for most of us, covering the Fed will change in any material fashion under Bernanke, because Fed coverage is driven less by what the institution itself does than by the reactions of others, in the financial markets, Congress and academia. We’ll still echo the analysts’ parsing of every word in the FOMC’s policy statements, the wires will still dog every Fed member whenever they speak, and the public will continue to understand very little of what’s said or reported anyway. This will only change if economic conditions become either dramatically better (i.e., another ’90s, style stock-market boom) or dramatically worse. In which case the Fed will become a vital player, scapegoat and populist whipping boy, just like always.”

My interpretation: There is no consensus as to where Bernanke will head in his dealings with the media, which is like Greenspan’s obfuscatory talk and is probably making the outgoing chairman smile today.

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