Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Elizabeth Warren in Newsweek

I see that Newsweek has an amiably puffy profile up of my friend Elizabeth Warren, Harvard professor known to the larger world as scourge of the mighty in her role as chair of the bailout oversight board. If I were Elizabeth, I'd take this piece as evidence that she is bound for greater things: it bears all the earmarks of a reporter who wants to make sure that he polishes the apple before it goes golden.

Which is may be a complaint about the piece, but not about the subject. I like Elizabeth. We've had our differences here and there but as far as I'm concerned, she's mostly on the side of the angels. She is also, not incidentally, an enthusiastic (some would say "savage") street-fighter with boundless energy and a full complement of elbows and knees. I wouldn't want to be around her while going all pompous and prissy about the rights and privileges of big banks: she'd waste little time in having me trussed and stuffed and cuffed to the doorknob. For which, God bless her.

But ranked just as journalism, I'd say the Newsweek piece is remarkably slack. Mr. Reporter says she has spent "three decades ... churning out treatises that are rarely read outside of law libraries," which is just reportorial laziness--the kind of sentence you write because it fits a script, before you ever leave the office. To check my instincts, I just helped myself to a quick look at her CV over at her Harvard Law School faculty page and there isn't a treatise in sight. Granted, for most of her career she's written primarily for law audiences. But her primary achievement is that she (with her co-authors) has been to serve as co-proprietor of the first- or second-best bankruptcy data set in the country. And she has always done her best to present her findings in a manner that is straightforward, dynamic, and gratifyingly non-technical.

It's equally formulaic to suggest that her interest in public issues is a new-come thing. I'd say she has seen her work in a larger context since at least the first time I ran across it (about 1980). More: Elizabeth was an energetic and active combatant in all the conflicts that led up to the bankruptcy amendments in 2005. On balance, I think you'd have to say that she lost far more rounds in that fight than she won in that campaign, but she left some blood on the table--not all her own--and I'd also have to concede that the odds were pretty much stacked against her from the start. She may have broadened her audience somewhat in recent years, but looking over her whole career, I'd say it is pretty much all of a piece.

Bottom line: it's fun to read, and I am pleased to forecast that it will do her more good than harm. But as is so often the case with journalism, a truer story would have been subtler and more complex. Also, for my money, a lot more interesting, but I guess those guys make up their own minds about what will sell.

[H/T: John, who still reads Newsweek]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree and this move helps her personal stock, yet her TARP Oversight role is a task with almost no real public policy upside. They are not going to let her find out all the details.