Good TARP News Doesn't Fit; Media Are Flummoxed

Sept. 10, 2009: A protester holds a sign as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner testifies about TARP

A year ago, TARP was a clear villain -- as when this protester appeared on Capitol Hill when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was preparing to testify. Many in the news media haven't caught up with the more recent better news about the program. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images

What do we do with the end of TARP?

And what do we do with the news that TARP will not have cost anything like the $700 billion we thought it would? What if it really cost $50 billion, or less?

What if, in the end, the Troubled Asset Relief Program so controversial at birth and vilified throughout its two years of life turns out to have turned a profit for the government and the taxpayer?

We — most of the news media this is — simply don't know what to do with this news.

The suggestion that TARP did not blow a hole in the federal budget potentially blows a hole in some other presumptions as well. Economists will argue for years over the necessity of TARP, and the rest of us can argue over the bonuses investment bankers still got (and continue to get).

But we won't argue about whether the government could or should have done more to prevent the collapse of the credit markets and the mass failure of banks in 2008. Because the government did do TARP, and those other things did not happen. We did not go back to 1929 or worse. And, unlovely as it may be, TARP remains the closest thing we have to an explanation for that.

Still, the expiration of the program as Sunday turned to Monday passed largely unremarked. And insofar as the media have noticed the story of TARP's apparently much-reduced cost, that tale has been anything but ballyhooed.

(For an exception, see the package offered Sunday evening by Guy Raz and the crew at Weekend All Things Considered.)

On the last business day before TARP expired, The New York Times and The Washington Post did report the much-reduced cost figures — mentioning the potential for the program to actually make money for taxpayers in the final accounting.  But the Times put the story in the Business Section, and the Post played it on the Federal Page.

Their judgment may well have been affected by the fact that the numbers available were coming from the White House, which is obviously interested in defending a program President Obama voted to create and administered once in office.

But it's also apparent that the TARP-as-hero story does not fit well with the TARP-as-Beelzebub narrative that has been so strong throughout this election year.

And narratives matter. Nothing is more central to journalistic practice than the telling of stories. Stories are how we capture, comprehend, explain and deliver the news. Without stories, we would be wandering lost across the landscape of events and sensations. We need a narrative, or we have no organizing idea.

This imperative applies not only to each day's events, but to the broader sweep of occurrences in succession. We need a narrative for each week, each month and each fiscal year. We need a narrative for every electoral cycle.

And once we have established such a narrative, everything is under control.  Everything, that is, except whatever fails to fit the narrative.

And in 2010, there's been no clearer story line than the toxicity of the Toxic Asset Relief Program. It's a burden for many a Democrat, of course, but its weight is being borne by many Republicans as well.

Lifelong conservatives with careers of faithful adherence to free market principles have seen those careers wrecked this year, and no issue looms larger in their downfall than TARP. We are not just talking about moderate Republicans like Rep. Mike Castle in Delaware, or moderate-to-conservatives such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. We are talking orthodox conservatives such as Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah and South Carolina Reps. Bob Inglis and J. Gresham Barrett.

Thus we are confronted with a problematic moment just now in the telling of the tale of the 2010 elections. We know we have a firm grasp on our narrative, which has been fixed for months: The Democrats are in deep, deep trouble because of high unemployment and a perception of government overreach and government interventionism — symbolized by the health care law and the bailouts. And it all started with TARP.

Part and parcel of this overarching narrative is the anger of the populace at the persistent effects of the recession. Even if economic growth has resumed — at least in a stingy and stubborn sort of way — the recovery is not sprouting jobs the way a good recovery should. And while Ronald Reagan held down his party's losses in the 1982 midterms by blaming that year's persistent unemployment on his predecessor, Barack Obama and his majority Democrats have not been nearly so effective in pushing the same message.

Right now, the narrative is running so strong that when a coalition of unionists and other activists on the left marches in Washington — as happened this weekend — the media characterize the gathering largely by comparing its size and tone to Glenn Beck’s Tea-flavored rally of a month earlier. "Marchers say we're angry too," shouted one headline.

There you have it.  In the year of the Tea Party you must be angry or be forgotten. That's how you make yourself part of the narrative.

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