Tim Geithner, I know what you did last summer. And last spring. And most of last winter, too. That's because the media is obsessed with your calendar and with using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain it.
The New York Times started the trend in April, when it FOIA-ed Geithner's daybooks and was shocked! -- shocked! -- to find that, as head of the New York Fed, Geithner spent a lot of time schmoozing with bankers. Now both the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal have demanded a glimpse of Geithner's calendars for his first seven months as Treasury secretary and found that -- guess what? -- he's still taking lots of phone calls from his big-banker pals.
Not that there's anything "inherently wrong" with that, the AP is quick to inform, explaining how it's perfectly natural that a treasury secretary would want "to keep tabs on the market's biggest players," especially in an economic crisis. But there is something at least superficially wrong here, the AP hints, since he mostly talks to heads of just three Wall Street behemoths: J. P. Morgan Chase & Co.'s Jamie Dimon; Citigroup Inc.'s Vikram Pandit and Dick Parsons; and Goldman, Sachs & Co.'s Lloyd Blankfein. (The WSJ added BlackRock Inc. CEO Larry Fink to the list of frequent contacts.) "What the calendars show," the AP intones, "is that only a select few can call the treasury secretary."
There's nothing "inherently wrong" with these stories, which wonder why Bank of America Corp.'s Ken Lewis and Morgan Stanley's John Mack aren't big Geithner gabbers (we know what happened to them) and worry that Goldman et al. have too much influence over economic policy. But as the blogosphere celebrates these allegedly investigative pieces -- "The Associated Press rakes a little muck onto Tim Geithner's shoe this morning courtesy of his own phone records," cooed Columbia Journalism Review's The Audit -- we can't help but ask, what do they really tell us? I'm neither defending nor indicting Geithner here. I'm simply wondering: What can a daybook, a completely anodyne document filled with dates, times and names but no notes, outcomes or additional information whatsoever, really tell us about its keeper?
The AP, for one, is vexed that Geithner spoke to Citi more often than he did with Rep. Barney Frank and with Blankfein more than with Sen. Chris Dodd. And that when Rep. Xavier Becerra called in the midst of General Motors Corp.'s bailout, Geithner was yakking to Dimon, having just hung up with President Obama, so Becerra left a message. I suppose we're supposed to be outraged that Geithner talks more often, at least on the phone, to bankers than lawmakers, but, frankly, I need more info. What was Becerra calling about? To get more info about GM? TARP? Golf?
More importantly, what is "normal" when it comes to a Treasury secretary and his contacts with bankers and Congress? Is there any level of communication with either of these two camps that would please us? Would we know it when we saw it?
Just how devoid of context these calendars are became clear as the blogosphere devoured them. The WSJ's Washington Wire observed that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel appears on Geithner's schedule at least 108 times, far more than Blankfein's 22. (For more perspective, consider that most days show 20 or 30 scheduled meetings and phone calls.)
Then there are the stories behind the names. Reuters' Felix Salmon, among others, pointed out that one reason Geithner might not talk much to Mack is because Mack, according to the excerpt of Andrew Ross Sorkin's "Too Big to Fail" in Vanity Fair, told Geithner to get you-know-what when Geithner tried to reach Mack during deal talks with Mitsubishi UFJ. Similarly, is it any wonder that Geithner didn't speak much to Lewis, considering how at odds BofA has been with the government since buying Merrill Lynch?
But you can't get that from a daybook, or the daybook of one person. Sorkin, meanwhile, plans to post on his book's Web site the calendars, call records and other documents of many players involved in the crisis. It will be fascinating to cross-reference these schedules and see whether they jibe with one another. We're likely to learn from that more about what actually occurred last fall -- and how deceiving a single daybook, viewed in a vacuum, can be.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of the Deal.