Roundtable: AIG Scandal Sparks Blame Game The AIG bonus controversy is shaping up to be the first big firestorm for the Obama administration, as the president vows to "fix the system and culture that made this possible." Plus, the hype surrounding the death of the newspaper industry is quickly becoming reality. For more, Tony Cox speaks with Jerome Vaughn and Marcus Mabry.
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Roundtable: AIG Scandal Sparks Blame Game

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Roundtable: AIG Scandal Sparks Blame Game

Roundtable: AIG Scandal Sparks Blame Game

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TONY COX, host:

Now, though, we're going to continue this discussion of the week's headlines with two of our favorite reporters for our very final Reporters Roundtable: Jerome Vaughn, the news program director for the WDET in Detroit, and Marcus Mabry, international business editor for The New York Times. Gentlemen, welcome to News & Notes one more time.


COX: You know, some have criticized the president, as we just talked about, for leaving D.C. at all when there are so much to be done, and a lot has been made about his appearance on the Jay Leno show and whether or not it's the first time a sitting president has ever made an appearance on a late-night show. It reminded me of Bill Clinton going on Arsenio, but I think Clinton was, if memory serves, a candidate at the time.

Mr. MABRY: Right.

COX: Marcus, how big a deal is this, his going on that show?

Mr. MABRY: It's not a big deal. And as we just heard, I think, the importance that it will play is one of, I think, character and one of stature and one of calm. It's the image that the president gave off of not being scared, of not being at his wit's end, of not being in a panic that I think will actually be the lasting import of his appearance on Leno. I think it actually - there was some conservative and some Republican commentary beforehand saying that Barack Obama was diminishing the presidency. In fact, I think seeing the president out and not fearful actually is a good thing for Americans. I think we're in a very anxious-filled time - anxiety-filled time, and I think he actually modeled the right behavior for us, and I think that was an incredibly useful thing. I - when I heard the criticism, I thought about back to Jimmy Carter, back who, you know, would not leave the White House during Iran-Contra, wouldn't campaign on his re-election bid because he was trying to get those hostages out - excuse me, the hostage, Iran hostage crisis, trying to get hostages out of Iran, he didn't want to be out, you know, do anything else. He wanted to show that he was serious about that problem. As President Obama said - and he has criticized Carter for that, for being held prisoner of the crisis. And as President Obama said from those critics who said he should focus only on the economy and not do anything about, you know, green policy, environmental policy, not doing anything on health-care policy. It's a kind of a ridiculous supposition.

COX: Well, let me bring Jerome in to get his opinion.

Mr. MABRY: Sure.

COX: Because Jerome, I'd like to know, is this a new tactic for talking directly to the people?

Mr. VAUGHN: I think absolutely that's the case. I mean, he could talk about the issues. He could talk about it in a relaxed sort of way. He showed that he was in command of what was going on, but he was talking to a different audience. He wasn't talking to, you know, news junkies. He wasn't talking to hard-core news reporters. He was talking to Jay Leno sort of as a surrogate to talk to the public. And I think that's an important thing, an important part of it. The whole world is not Washington, D.C., and Washington, D.C., is not the only place that has to deal with the effects of this economic crisis. So by getting outside of D.C., by having these town halls in California and by talking to a large audience at once, I think he did himself well.

COX: Well, the issue of AIG is certainly one that has been dogging him as he has been moving around, and it's shaping up as the first big, potential firestorm of this administration. My question for you, Mark, is this. We have a parallel track going on. We have on one hand people trying to deny culpability or responsibility for the language that allowed this to take place. And on the second track, we have Congress now acting to try to close that problem by taxing those who get the money. Let's deal with the issue of who's responsible. Will we ever get to the bottom of that satisfactorily, do you think?

Mr. MABRY: You know, I think not, Tony. Because I think in fact, who was responsible ultimately, I think was AIG and I think, you know, the executives who felt this through in the first place. I think the finger pointing to Washington is a political scrimmage. While it's important in this moment - and for those of us who are, you know, Beltway junkies - I don't think it's important in the long run. I think that as part of the long run it's a fact not - you were talking about $165 million in bonuses. We're talking about an economy here. We're talking about trillions of dollars, not even just billions anymore. We're already up to trillions of dollars in bailout, so we have to do to save this economy. I think the real danger from AIG is the fact that public outrage may sap popular support for the next round of bailouts, for the next American companies that need it, and there will be next companies that will need it. And if we don't bail those out, if we can't help those companies because public outrage is so great over this AIG nonsense, then that means we're going to hurt ourselves, the American - public American consumer. The American taxpayer will be hurt in the end because if the economy doesn't rebound, then we're all going to pay a much, much heavier price than $165 million to - to some people who did not deserve it.

COX: Well, you're right. But Tim Geithner, Jerome, seems to really be the one with the biggest target on his back at the moment.

Mr. VAUGHN: That's right. You know, people are really down on him for not stopping these bonuses from going forward. And I know here in Detroit, for example, there are a lot of people who are upset about the bonuses. They feel sort of slighted. There's been this Wall Street versus the automakers going on for several months. And people here feel like well, you know, Congress got all on the automakers for flying out on a private jet, which they already owned. And here these people are getting millions and millions and millions of dollars in bonuses after they've, you know, run the company into the ground. So, I think Marcus is right. I think it's going to be very interesting to see how the political capital gets outweighed by the fear of what's going on in Main Street.

COX: Now, I mentioned that there was a parallel track, one blaming people for what happened, the other trying to figure out a way to fix it. I'd like to ask both of you to just hold on for a few moments; we're going to take a break. And when we come back on the other side of that break, I want to examine just what Congress is intending to do to try to recoup some of that money, and what your opinions are about how likely that is to work. We'll be right back.

This is News & Notes, I'm Tony Cox. We're back now with our final Reporters Roundtable. And with us, we have the venerable Jerome Vaughn, the news program director for WDET in Detroit, Michigan, and Marcus Mabry, international business editor for the New York Times. All right guys, we were talking about AIG, and the president has vowed to quote, fix the system and culture that made this possible. Here's my question for you, Marcus. One of the reasons that we got into this situation, at least if you believe what Tim Geithner said, is that they had to put this language in there because of the existing binding contracts that AIG had. So now they're trying to - Congress - to do an end run around that and tax the money so heavily that the net effect is nobody gets the money. But if they can do it this way, on the back end, why couldn't they have done it this way on the front end?

Mr. MABRY: Well, you know, I'm not sure it's going to work, and that's the - there's discussion whether or not this is even constitutional, to single out one group of taxpayers in this way. I don't know if they could've done that on the front end. I don't know if you can abrogate those contracts, which is what we've been told, is what Secretary of Treasury Geithner said, or initially that he had been told by lawyers of the Treasury, that that was his understanding before the president said, well, let's go back and take a second look and see if we can do that. You know, it's very interesting. Jerome mentioned, of course, you know, the Big Three in Detroit and the fact is they're currently, you know, renegotiating contracts with the United Auto Workers. Those are contracts that existed and, you know, worked but they're going to be changed. So, I really do worry, though, about, you know, if we abrogated the contracts, will these financial companies say, well, OK, if you're going to determine our compensation, our taxes on bonuses - and many of these folk are actually, get most of their income through their bonuses - then the companies are going to say, well, we're not going to participate in the government program. So we're not going to lend any money out to consumers; we're going to keep our own money. And the recovery will be stunted.

COX: Well, you know, Jerome, it's an interesting point because not only are they trying to negotiate a new deal on top of the deal that was already struck, they're trying to negotiate it in public. Anyone that's been a part of any sort of labor negotiations or contract negotiations can tell you doing so in public really is not the best place or the best way, is it?

Mr. VAUGHN: No, not at all, because everyone has little secrets and whatnot in the negotiations that they want to keep that way. But, you know, this has become such a political spectacle now. This is about the people in Congress, and to a lesser degree the Obama administration, you know, saving face and wanting to be on the side of the people because the people are so angry about this. And as Marcus was saying, that, you know, that might not be the best way to handle this. The real purpose is to make sure that AIG remains solvent and can continue operating in the way it needs to operate. It'll be interesting, I think, whether or not this is seen in the long run as constitutional. Also, the battle between what the Senate is going to do, which seems to be much less taxation than what the House has already approved.

COX: Let's move on to another topic. For the last few years, we have been hearing the hype about the death of printed newspapers. And now that hype is quickly becoming reality - the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shutting its print division, the Rocky Mountain News is gone, the Christian Science Monitor only offered online, the Detroit News, the Detroit Free Press cutting home delivery to three days a week, even NPR has announced that it will no longer subscribe to any newspapers. Jerome, is this the beginning of the end for newspapers as we have known them?

Mr. VAUGHN: Briefly, I say yes. I mean, you know, we were stunned here in Detroit when we heard that the News and the Free Press, you know, these papers that Detroiters rely on day in and day out, they're going to cut back to three days of delivery a week, and that this is going to be a new model. The question I have and a lot of people have, you know, besides saying, all right, I'm going to miss having that textile in my hand every day is, you know, how are these papers going to make money? The Web model is not there to make money in the same way that it was for an actual newspaper. So I think there are real questions about, are papers going to be able to stay financially viable with this new model?

COX: Well, let's ask Marcus Mabry. You're the international business editor for the New York Times. What about that?

Mr. MABRY: Yes, well, so far, right? For now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MABRY: No, Jerome raises exactly, exactly the crucial question. As hard as it is for those of us in the business who are, you know, losing jobs or seeing colleagues lose jobs, who are seeing colleagues have to go out there and you have to find some other work at the time in which it's obviously - as we've been discussing, this is not the economy which you want to be looking for a job. In addition to that kind of emotional - you know, painful side of it, there is the business reality, which is if we all were to stop making our newspapers, which does incur a certain cost to make a printed newspaper, and if we all went only online today, we would not be able to support the kind of newsroom that we have in the New York Times, and international correspondents around the world and with investigative reporters who can try to keep people honest in Washington. That model would not be able to be supported because we make much less money from the ads that we do online than we do from the ads in the printed paper. Even today, that remains the case, even though there are circulation challenges throughout the industry for the printed paper. So it really - we have not found the business model that's going to work that's all online. And if we were to try to do that right now, you'd basically see the end of American journalism if we all try to migrate online only. We wouldn't be able to support what we do as journalists, and I think that would be a huge loss for democracy. So we're going to have to - you know, hopefully there will be a business model. Hopefully, those of us who remain will be able to find a business model where we can actually make money online and then, you know, that would save journalism as we know it.

COX: We'll, let's end the conversation with this, gentlemen. We have only a couple of moment left, and as you know, this is our final broadcast, and both of you have been a major part of our conversations on Reporters Roundtable here at News & Notes. Without - I don't want this to sound self-serving for us because we're leaving, and we have our own personal feelings about that, but I do want to ask you both as journalists, you first, Jerome, really briefly, where will the voices be heard without shows like ours and others that do what we try to do?

Mr. VAUGHN: I think there needs to be new shows that will continue that voice. I think Tell Me More with Michel Martin is along that line. I think we need to find the place for people like Doug Mitchell, who used to work at NPR.

COX: Yes he did.

Mr. VAUGHN: He got let go a little while ago, and he had the next-generation radio project training young journalists, young minority journalists to come and be the next generation. I think we need to continue efforts like that to make it work because you and I, and Marcus, we're going to hopefully retire one of these days, and we need somebody to come and be that next generation. It's difficult. It's difficult.

COX: Absolutely, it is. Marcus, I've got about 30 seconds for you to give us your wisdom on where people can go to continue to hear the kind of voice and content that we've been trying to provide.

Mr. MABRY: Well, my hope - one hope as we go into the sunset is that - as we've been discussing, the digital medium will provide a new way, and perhaps on the bright side of it a more democratic way, a less expensive way to have more voices out there, a plethora and a pluralization of voices because we need to be everywhere, as we've always said, people of color, our voices need to be everywhere.

COX: I appreciate you gentlemen for being a part of this and contributing so much to our program over the years. On behalf of everybody here at News & Notes, let me personally say thank you to the both of you. Marcus Mabry is the international business editor for the New York Times. He joined us by phone from New York. And Jerome Vaughn is the news program director for WDET in Detroit, Michigan. He joined us from the studios there.

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