Note to media: Please stop referring to Eliot Spitzer as the Sheriff of Wall Street. The title certainly doesn't fit now, and arguably didn't fit a decade ago when he took Wall Street to task for putting out conflicted research on stocks. Lest we forget, Spitzer never prosecuted -- let alone jailed -- a single person he implicated in Analystgate. Preferring to try his cases in the court of public opinion, Spitzer resembled less a sheriff in the wake of the dot-com bust than a demagogue, who in the end did little to reform the market.
But that hasn't stopped Spitzer from glomming onto the Occupy Wall Street movement and hoping it provides a media comeback of sorts, brandishing his alleged bona fides as protector of the proverbial Little Guy from the evils of finance. In the past few weeks, Spitzer could be found throwing his support behind protestors on Keith Olbermann's show on Current TV, which he followed up by sharing a stage with ProPublica reporters Jake Bernstein and Jesse Eisinger at the Tenement Museum on New York's Lower East Side for the first in a series of monthly "Tenement Talks" that ProPublica plans to hold.
It was during that gig that Spitzer, always one to give a good sound bite, called for a petition demanding the ouster of Timothy Geithner in favor of Paul Volcker, Joe Stiglitz, Paul Krugman or Robert Reich -- "people who understand what can be done and are willing to flex their muscles in a meaningful way."
That, of course, led to a slew of celebratory headlines in other outlets, such as The Atlantic Wire's "Sheriff of Wall Street Backs Occupy Wall Street." Spitzer has also dedicated at least two of his recent Slate columns to the protests, including one where he correctly calls out Bill Kristol for running TV ads that paint the movement as anti-Semitic. In addition, Spitzer could be found opining on Occupy Wall Street with The New Yorker's David Remnick at the magazine's "The Big Story" event. And New York magazine tapped Spitzer to discuss capitalism with a protestor and ran their conversation as an "annotation" to an essay by Frank Rich on class warfare.
In talking to that protestor (Manissa Maharawal, a CUNY graduate student in anthropology who seems to be having her own media moment), Spitzer pats himself on the back for being one of the good guys. "Over the last ten or fifteen years, the global economy has lifted millions of people out of poverty," he tells Maharawal. "It's also had very significant and often negative effects here; I was one of the first people to say that we should deal with those problems."
Really? To be sure, Spitzer went after unscrupulous subprime lenders in New York as early as 2001 and brought down AIG's Hank Greenberg a few years later (a move Michael Lewis has suggested only hastened the insurer's disastrous demise, but that's another story).
But it was Spitzer's camera-ready pursuit of conflicted analysts such as Henry Blodget that earned him his metaphorical sheriff's badge and is now routinely rolled out as proof of his tough stand against Wall Street. "I know you worked to reform banking," Maharawal responds to Spitzer's self-adulation. "I know you took on all these cases as attorney general."
Reform banking? Since when does reforming an aspect of Wall Street research qualify as taking on the banking system? At a time when banking remains plagued by critical but unresolved issues that range from too-big-to-fail to executive compensation to capital requirements, crediting Spitzer as a bank reformer is crazy.
Furthermore, as much as Spitzer and his media admirers like to spin Analystgate as a crusade to protect the Little Guy, many of that scandal's victims were hardly members of the 99%, whom Spitzer now claims to feel such empathy for (neither is Spitzer, a Harvard grad and son of a wealthy real estate magnate). They were well-heeled individual investors -- well, speculators -- who were playing the stock market, like the Queens pediatrician who filed the arbitration suit against Blodget after spending nearly $1 million on dot-com stocks. And that's what rankles about the media's infatuation with New York's former attorney general and onetime governor: Most, like Maharawal, simply accept his own description of his accomplishments.
Before booking Spitzer for another appearance, commissioning him to write another column or conducting another interview, editors should ask themselves this: If so many people wanted to hear from Spitzer, wouldn't more of them have watched his now-canceled cable TV show? Maybe the public has spoken.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal magazine.