An Emotional, Poorly Argued Attack on Elizabeth Warren from <i>Times</i>' Sorkin

Sorkin's periodic defenses of the powerful are no longer unexpected. More surprising is the overall theme of this attack, which characterizes the congenial senator as enraged and wrathful, and her position as petty and irrational.
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Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times has attacked Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Her offense? Criticizing the appointment of yet another Wall Street banker to a top economic post.

Sorkin's periodic defenses of the powerful are no longer unexpected. More surprising is the overall theme of this attack, which characterizes the congenial senator as enraged and wrathful, and her position as petty and irrational.

Sen. Warren is presumably inured to hyperbolic Wall Street-based criticism by now. And, like any woman in a position of power, she is probably sadly accustomed to male commentary which emphasizes a supposed emotionality.

As one of our most powerful speakers on economic injustice and Wall Street fraud, Warren needs no help defending herself. Rather, it is Sorkin's piece which warrants further examination, both for its failed arguments and -- yes, it must be said -- the misplaced intensity of his own emotions.

Hell hath no fury like a journalist scorned.

Let's get the emotions out of the way first, since they're such a conspicuous element of Sorkin's critique. Mr. Sorkin is the editor of Dealbook, the Times' financial website, so he presumably has the ability to determine his own headline. This piece is entitled "Sen. Elizabeth Warren's Misplaced Rage at Obama's Treasury Nominee."

Sorkin never gets around to demonstrating that the Senator is, in fact, enraged. But he sure says it a lot, in as many different ways as possible. "She said she was furious that the president would nominate someone from Wall Street," Sorkin writes of Sen. Warren's Huffington Post commentary on the nomination of banker Antonio Weiss.

But Sorkin has misstated the facts. Sen. Warren never describes herself as "furious." In fact, she never characterizes her own emotional state at all. Warren's piece is strongly worded but is not especially harsh or vituperative. That doesn't prevent Sorkin from going on to say that "it is rare to see such ferocious opposition to a nominee..."

Really? Has he listened to any Republicans react to an Obama appointment lately?

Sorkin goes on to say that "Ms. Warren's wrath is misdirected...", that "Ms. Warren is unhappy" about Weiss' career, and that she "reserves a special rage" for Weiss' role in Burger King's Canadian merger and tax deal. Sorkin also allows a Burger King director -- hardly a disinterested party -- to characterize Sen. Warren's behavior as "politics at its worst."

Why all this emotional talk? While Sen. Warren is a woman, she is also a progressive, and it is also possible that Sorkin has fallen victim to Wall Street's stereotypical view of its critics as "extreme" and "angry." (Tim Geithner's memoir is Exhibit A.) This canard has allowed bankers, along with their fans in journalism and government, to ignore thoughtful and reasoned criticism from a broad array of sources.

Whatever his motives, it is Mr. Sorkin who is clearly "furious." He may be projecting those emotions onto Sen. Warren.

The wrong man for the job.

Sorkin isn't any stronger on Warren's substance than he is on her style. He writes, for example, that she's "unhappy that (Weiss) has spent much of his career doing what she calls 'international transactions.'"

Is Sorkin disputing that characterization of Weiss' work as Global Head of Investment Banking for Lazard? An online bio states that "Mr. Weiss has advised many of the world's leading corporations in their most significant strategic transactions, with a focus on cross-border or contested activity." (Emphasis ours.)

The bio goes on to list a Who's Who of major corporations Weiss has assisted.

Sorkin also mischaracterizes the position for which Weiss has been nominated, writing that Weiss would be "largely responsible for managing the country's $12.9 trillion debt at a time when the Federal Reserve is ending its stimulus. The job requires deep experience in the capital markets and global relationships."

He makes it sound as if Weiss' career in international finance is precisely suited to the job. But Mr. Sorkin fails to give readers the name of the position in question: "Under Secretary for Domestic Finance."

That's a major omission. As Sen. Warren notes, the Under Secretary "oversees Dodd-Frank implementation and a wide range of banking and economic policymaking issues, including consumer protection."

Mr. Sorkin also misstates the facts when he writes that "according to Politico, if the interest on the securities the Treasury sells was just 20 basis points higher for a year because of uncertainty or mismanagement, it would cost taxpayers $32 billion."

The linked article makes clear that this figure comes, not from Politico or any other news outlet, but from "one Wall Street exec" expressing "frustration" with Sen. Warren.

Missing the point.

The Senator is making a larger point. And while Mr. Sorkin manages to quote her key statement -- "It's time for the Obama administration to loosen the hold that Wall Street banks have over economic policy-making" -- he never gets around to rebutting it.

Sorkin correctly observes that the Burger King deal is not precisely like other tax-evading inversion deals. But it's an inversion deal nonetheless, one which would allow Burger King to avoid paying U.S. taxes. Sorkin ignores substantive criticisms from Dean Baker, Robert Reich, and other experts, while failing to offer expert testimony on the deal's behalf.

"It is rare to see such ferocious opposition to a nominee for a deputy position in the Treasury Department," Sorkin writes, suggesting that Sen. Warren's objection to Weiss' Wall Street background based on "symbolism alone." But Sen. Warren never mentions symbolism. She's concerned because, with very few exceptions, all of the administration's major economic appointments have come from Wall Street.

That's a problem, for reasons the Senator explains very well:

... People with experience elsewhere in government have deep wells of knowledge -- and perspectives that sometimes differ from those who run Wall Street banks.

The over-representation of Wall Street banks in senior government positions sends a bad message. It tells people that one -- and only one -- point of view will dominate economic policymaking. It tells people that whatever goes wrong in this economy, the Wall Street banks will be protected first. That's yet another advantage that Wall Street just doesn't need.

Losing the beat.

Mr. Sorkin has made a habit out of mounting heated defenses of powerful people, like the CEO of scandal-plagued JPMorgan Chase ("The Bloodlust of Pundits Swirls Around Jamie Dimon") and pharmaceutical CEO/inversion profiteer Heather Bresch ("Reluctantly, Patriot Flees Homeland for Greener Tax Pastures").

As those headlines alone tell you, Mr. Sorkin is unafraid to risk personal embarrassment in pursuit of this goal. But why? Are these columns "beat sweeteners," journalistic puff pieces meant to ensure continued access? Do they reflect real or perceived friendships? We may never know.

But there's no need to speculate about Mr. Sorkin's motives. We already know he's failed to make his case. We know that he has projected unwarranted emotion onto Sen. Warren while radiating a peculiar vehemence all his own.

And we know that Sen. Warren's fundamental point remains unrefuted: Wall Street dominates our government's decision-making apparatus to the detriment of our economy and our society, and that must change.

UPDATE -- A response from the Warren team, via Politico:

"WARREN SIDE FIRES BACK -- Per an aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), responding to Andrew Ross Sorkin's Tuesday NYT column defending Lazard's Antonio Weiss for Treasury: "Weiss supporters keep insinuating that the undersecretary position is too technocratic and complicated for anyone else to understand, but that's hogwash. Just look at Mary Miller's many testimonies before Congress on Dodd-Frank implementation as undersecretary and it's obvious how critical and central this role is in overseeing domestic regulatory issues.

"Weiss has no background in these areas, and it's lazy to assume without a critical look that any generic Wall Street executive is up for the role or that those who suggest otherwise must oppose any Wall Street nominee. It's also disingenuous to pretend, as Weiss supporters have, that Treasury has only a small role in these issues or that the focus of the undersecretary for domestic finance is elsewhere."

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