Picture this: Citigroup's Vikram Pandit (or Bank of America's Ken Lewis or Wells Fargo's John Stumpf) decides that the question-and-answer session at his annual meeting will be handled differently this year. Instead of fielding an uninterrupted stream of potentially wacky queries from a vast shareholder audience, Pandit (or Lewis or Stumpf) will handpick three journalists to sort through questions for him. These journalists will share the stage with the CEO and will each ask questions gleaned from thousands e-mailed directly to them.
Sounds fishy, doesn't it? After all, how exactly did Pandit pick this trio, anyway? What makes them so special? By agreeing to do this, isn't this trio, in a roundabout way, working for the CEO or his company? And why do they get to sit on the stage with him while every other member of the media has to wait for a press conference to lob his or her (single!) question?
Besides, if I'm a shareholder who's schlepped all the way to the annual meeting, shouldn't I be able to grill my CEO myself? You know, like Evelyn Davis?
Well, this scenario isn't so far-fetched. It's already been employed, not by Pandit or by any of his TARP-racked peers, but by none other than Warren Buffett. And nobody seemed to mind in the least.
In fact, Buffett was widely applauded for tapping The New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin, CNBC's Becky Quick and Fortune's Carol Loomis (sorry, Wall Street Journal) to filter questions for him at his annual shareholder jamboree. By so doing, the argument went, Buffett ensured that this year's love-in, er, meeting, had a "serious tone" befitting the fact that shares of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. are down 40% from their peak. With results like that and the economy in the toilet, the reasoning went, we shouldn't waste a moment of the Oracle's precious time with frivolous questions about Paris Hilton.
OK, true enough. Perhaps the presence of Sorkin, Loomis and Quick ensured that this year's meeting was more high-minded than in the past -- a little less Woodstock, a little more Davos. But their participation is a reminder of how Buffett has an entirely different relationship with the media than any other CEO; how Buffett is viewed more like a statesman than a mere money-grubbing CEO. And how access to Buffett is viewed very differently from access to other high officials.
Now this isn't the biggest issue since Jayson Blair. Buffett's complex relationship with the press is nothing new, with the most shop-worn example being his ties to Loomis, who helps edit his annual reports, and her home (and arguably his), Fortune magazine, whose cover he graced yet again a few weeks ago, touting an electric car made by a Chinese company Berkshire invested in last year. (Never mind that it was Buffett's sidekick, Charlie Munger, who discovered the company. Fortune's cover screams, "Buffett's Electric Car.")
But it's always been tolerated, mostly because Loomis is an excellent journalist and, more importantly, because Buffett is an exceptional investor. With a track record like no other -- not to mention a well-cultivated, folksy matter -- Buffett gets a pass in the eyes of the media.
Put simply, Buffett is the greatest example we have, despite current woes, of our continuing desire for financial gods. A recent "Frontline" segment on PBS about Bernie Madoff brought home the power of that craving. Madoff, of course, is the anti-Buffett: He avoided the press, and he was about as transparent as a dirty window. But his customers deeply believed in his financial powers and his ability to make money for them. So even when they felt something was amiss -- feeder funds could not use Madoff's name in prospectuses; a tiny accounting firm audited his operation -- they stayed with him. After all, they reasoned, Madoff knew how to beat the market. Who were they, mere mortals, to question him or others who believed in him? His exceptionalism kept naysayers at bay.
Buffett's exceptionalism, meanwhile, enables his unique relationship with the media. At a time when the financial press is in the doghouse for cozying up to CEOs and failing to see the economic disaster ahead, Buffett remains above the fray. Indeed, rubbing elbows with him, or broadcasting his every word, is a reporting coup, even as we deride such "access journalism" elsewhere. Buffett is different, we say; he's exceptional. For the media's sake, let's hope he stays that way.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal.