Annie Lowry reports in today's New York Times that the Federal Government has just sold off the last of its shares of General Motors stock. President Obama's decision to invest billions in Chrysler and GM was fraught with risk but turned out extremely well.
How well did it turn out? There is an empirical, factual answer to that question, and the purpose of this piece in the NYT is to report that answer. And yet, at the crucial moment, the reporter steps aside, disclaiming all responsibility for the task that she herself created, and leaves the reader with meaningless mush.
Ms. Lowry does manage to report some facts. The Federal Government purchased the shares for about $50 billion and sold them for $39 billion. But the bailout of the auto industry was not a transaction in an IRA. Chrysler and GM were headed toward certain doom. The bailout meant that hundreds of thousands of workers who would have been unemployed collecting benefits were instead on the job and paying taxes.
These are all empirical facts. The balance sheets of both companies are public records, filed with the SEC. There are thousands of bankruptcy lawyers with an expertise in corporate liquidations who could accurately sketch the results had the government not stepped in. You can, if you so chose, go the the various factories and physically count the employees, survey their salaries and calculate their combined tax contribution to the penny.
Nonetheless, some of these facts are reported as "true" while others are not really reported at all. Instead, they take the form of quotations, put in the mouths of mysterious unnamed people, and labeled as "arguments." Watch:
Some economists have argued that the bailouts have saved the taxpayer money by keeping tens of thousands of workers on the job — and thus paying taxes and off of government support. A recent report by the Center for Automotive Research found that the bailouts “saved or avoided the loss of $105.3 billion in transfer payments and the loss of personal and social insurance tax collections.”
Lowry has magically made the facts disappear. When she makes a statement, I can estimate how likely it is to be true based on my past experience with her writing. Her byline is on many financial stories in the NYT, and before that she was at Slate, so if she had a propensity to be wrong, I would know. But who the fuck is the "Center for Automotive Research"? It could be a bunch of 10 year-olds in China practicing their English for all I know.
Which is a shame, because whomever they are, they bear the responsibility for the truth or falsity of the single most important fact in the story. What would happen if Lowry called it a fact in her own voice and then added the quotation to flesh out the point? Would that be a sin? Seriously, why can't reporters tell the truth?