A CNBC reporter named Rick Santelli created quite a stir on cable television and on the Internet on Feb. 19 when he went on a rant about President Obama's new $75 billion housing rescue or bailout plan. Santelli said the plan "promoted bad behavior" of people who shouldn't have taken out the mortgages they did and said there should be a web site where Americans could vote on whether they wanted to subsidize "losers'" mortgages.
And then in one of the most embarrassing performances ever of a television reporter, he turned to the traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and yelled: "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills?" The traders nearby booed the notion and then Santelli concluded: "President Obama, are you listening?"
You can watch the whole episode here: http://www.cnbc.com/id/15840232?video=1039849853
Like so much that passes for news on cable television, this was more shtick than substance. I have no problem with a reporter, and I use that term a bit loosely in this case, raising questions about a president's policies. But let's have a serious discussion about the issues involved here and not a public tirade. For sure there were many people who took out mortgages without enough income or assets to pay for them when the interest rates went up and who tried to get more house than they could reasonably afford. But that's only one piece of the housing crisis.
If Mr. Santelli wants to demonize folks, he should pick up a copy of the Feb. 23 edition Time Magazine. In a virtual rogue's gallery of the financial crisis, Time lists "25 People to Blame" for our current economic predicament. The list is led by Angelo Mozilo, founder of Countrywide which "popularized" exotic mortgages to "iffy" borrowers and was later sold to Bank of America. Second on the list is former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, presided over deregulation which many critics contend contributed to the current mess. The list goes on and includes heads of major investment firms, federal agencies that were supposed to be watching what was going on but didn't, both Presidents Bush and Clinton, and American consumers "who enjoyed living beyond our means." There are many "villains" to choose from in Time's list. It's a bit cathartic and stress-relieving to put a name and a face on the reason your 401K or your kids' college funds or your home's value went South in such a hurry.
Santelli's comments apparently struck a raw nerve at the White House because Press Secretary Robert Gibbs spent several minutes criticizing the rant at his Friday (Feb. 20) briefing. He said, according to The New York Times: "I would encourage him to read the president's plan and understand that it will help millions of people, many of whom he knows. I would be more than happy to have him come here and read it. I'd be happy to buy him a cup of coffee---decaf."
Santelli, not one to shy from a fight, went on television again and said he would be glad to come to the White House, but insisted he had read the report and started a new rant about the plan. He ended by tearing up a copy of the report on live television.
You can watch Gibbs comments and Santelli's response here: http://www.cnbc.com/id/15840232?video=1041856849&play=1
I would not use Santelli as a role model for my journalism students. Gibbs is right. Get out the decaf.