Advancing a Free Society

Decoding Press Coverage of the President’s Fannie/Freddie Reform Policy

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Since leaving the White House, I have written a number of articles intended to illuminate various substantive aspects of our ongoing economic policy debates. At the same time, I am often reminded that it’s just as important to help further public understanding of the process by which economic policies are discussed and decided. Certain aspects of these processes ultimately become second-nature to participants in Congress and in the White House, to the point where they simply stop thinking about them. We thus have a tendency to forget that not everyone observing from the outside is as acclimated to these process norms, and that they are worth explaining every once in a while.

A classic example of how D.C. insiders learn to interpret news reports can be gleaned from examining a recent front-page article in the Washington Post. The gist of the article was to report that President Obama had “directed a small team of advisors to develop a proposal that would keep the government playing a major role in the nation’s mortgage market.” The article was careful to note that a final policy had not been determined, but gave the clear impression that President Obama was leaning toward making only very minor changes to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, preserving their essential missions (if not their names) and not fundamentally restructuring them other than to apply tighter regulatory controls and to wind down their investment portfolios.

It’s not standard practice for a White House to go public with a policy until it’s been fully decided upon. One important job of the White House staff, after all, is to preserve the president’s flexibility until he can make a final decision. If word of a possible decision gets out before the president has had that chance, it usually means one of a few things: It could be a trial balloon authorized from the top – that is, a deliberate testing of public reaction to inform a final decision. Or, it could simply be a leak: perhaps a lower-level departmental attendee of a meeting has shared information with the press about the trend of the deliberative process, without the approval of senior White House staff. Or, it could simply be a mistake; either the reporter or other individuals have read more into the policy development process than is actually yet there.

Because I worked in the White House for eight years, I have certain skeptical instincts when I read such articles. In our case, press coverage of pending decisions was frequently inaccurate. I can distinctly remember several instances in which press articles purported to represent where various internal players were on a policy question, and got them flat wrong. This usually happened because the senior White House staff -- those few in a position to really know -- tended not to talk to the press until the president had made his decision, and didn’t reveal internal dissents even then. Press speculation was therefore often fueled by conversations with other individuals who knew much less. While premeditated trial balloons were not wholly unknown in our White House, I believe they were much rarer during our eight years than they have been over the last two. For all these reasons, my instinct when reading these articles is to examine them very critically.

One of the striking things about this particular article was that the information about a coalescing policy was attributed first vaguely to “people familiar with the matter.” The next attribution was to “people knowledgeable about the discussions.” The next such sourcing used a similar phrase: “people familiar with the discussions,” speaking on “condition of anonymity.” Then, later, “people familiar with the matter” again. Only very late in the article was any corroborative information attributed to “administration officials,” and those were simply characterizations of the thinking of current and past Administration advisors.

As sourcing goes, this is extremely weak. The strongest sourcing for a story comes when you have a specific, named individual who is willing to go on record with a quote. Failing that, reporters will try to get a “White House official” on record with a quote, and if that can’t be done an “administration official.” When I was in the White House, I was struck by how sometimes an individual needn’t even be in the administration to be referred to as a “Bush advisor,” creating the impression of being closer to the process than the source actually was. When I see sources labeled as vaguely as “people familiar with the matter,” my instinct is to believe that the reference is to someone from outside the administration, perhaps someone on the receiving end of administration outreach for ideas or information. Such a person might for example be staff for a congressional committee, or an academic economist who is a former colleague of a HUD official, or a housing association lobbyist with various administration information sources. This person would not be in a position to know first-hand whether the president was leaning toward a particular policy decision, and could simply be repeating what some administration staff had said.

Meanwhile, the story did cite a person who clearly was authorized to speak about the White House’s decision-making process. Matt Vogel, White House spokesman, stated on the record, “It is simply false that there has been a decision to move forward with any particular option.” Vogel went on to state that all three options presented in an earlier Treasury Department White Paper were “under active consideration.”

This, of course, wouldn’t prove absolutely that the Post story was incorrect. There’s no reason to disbelieve for example that the president had authorized a policy team to develop a proposal. And it’s certainly possible that the president might somewhere along the line have orally expressed a policy lean, even as a final decision had not been firmly made. Still, based on my experience as White House staff, I would believe the on-the-record denial of a White House spokesperson over the off-the-record descriptions from vague “people familiar with the matter” in the same story.

As it happened, later the same day the Treasury Department followed up with a statement from Deputy Secretary Neil Wolin stating that the Post article “mischaracterizes” the Administration’s reform principles, and that in each of the options under consideration, the “government’s footprint in the housing finance market will shrink substantially.” Wolin’s statement went on to say that it was a “factual error” to suggest that the “Administration has settled on a single proposal.” And White House press secretary Jay Carney also – again, by name and on the record – stated that “It is simply untrue that the administration has settled on a single proposal for the longer-term structure of the housing market.”

These statements from multiple officials show pretty clearly that the Administration places a value on:

1) People knowing that a final decision about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has not been made; and on --

2) The Administration being seen as moving toward more fundamental reform than that described in the Post article.

These follow-up statements will probably dampen immediate further speculation about the Administration’s housing reform policies that would otherwise have occurred in the wake of the front-page Post article. But readers accustomed to reading press articles the way D.C. insiders do would have been skeptical even before these additional denials were issued.

(photo credit: Matti Mattila)