It's hard to open a paper today without reading Fed-this
and Fed-that. While the Federal Reserve might not be quite as publicly
familiar as city hall, it is nonetheless on the lips of many, thanks
largely to America's obsession with the stock market and the love-hate
relationship the market is purported to have with Fed-related monetary
In spite of the ubiquitous mention of the Fed in newspapers
and on the Internet, TV and radio, the number of news organizations
and reporters with a dedicated "Fed-beat" remains surprisingly
small, according to some of the leading reporters on the Fed.
So small, in fact, that the vast majority of breaking news and
analysis comes from an inner circle of reporters who have access
right up to Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. This elite core of reporters,
in turn, feeds a greatly expanding list of secondary sources and
media outlets interested in bringing anything-Fed to the general
Among those who have a keen interest in keeping an eye on the
Fed-known as Fed watchersthe Washington Post
and the Wall Street Journal stand out for their coverage
of the central bank. A survey compiled by The International Economy
last year showed that most Fed watchers would pick either the
Post or WSJ if they had only one source
for information on the Federal Reserve.
Much of that following is based on the Fed reportings of John
Berry of the Post and David Wessel of the WSJtwo
reporters with arguably better name recognition than most of the
Fed officials and policymakers they report on, save for Greenspan.
Wessel has since been appointed head of WSJ's Berlin bureau,
with Jacob Schlesinger taking over Wessel's Fed-watching duties.
But in an interview before receiving his new Berlin post, Wessel
and other reporters waxed philosophic about media coverage of
"Given its import to the American economy and consumers and
businesses, [the Fed] is surprisingly lightly covered by the press,"
Wessel said. "There aren't very many [reporters] who seem to pay
that much attention to what the Fed does."
Berry agreed. "Once you get beyond just a few newspapers and
a few magazines, there are not major staffs working on the macroeconomic
Several sources familiar with Fed coverage produced a short
list of media outlets in addition to the Post and
WSJ: the New York Times, Boston
Globe and LA Times, Associated Press, financial
wires like Bloomberg, Reuters and Dow Jones, Business Week
and Fortune, virtually no electronic media outside
of CNBC and CNNfn, and only a few foreign publications
like Financial Times and The Economist.
Even some of these outlets run hot and cold when it comes to covering
the Fed beyond Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meetings,
where monetary policy is discussed.
Wall Street also has its Fed watchers, some of whom carry influence
because they either speak to policymakers at the Fed or are somehow
familiar with their views. But sometimes "you later find out that
they [Fed watchers on Wall Street] are peddling you something
that they in fact got from someone like Wessel or Berry," according
to Rob Norton of Fortune magazine.
Wessel said there is plenty of room for more reporters on the
Fed beat. "Someone could just march right in and do some good
stories on the Fed."
So why don't they? Despite a widespread perception of the Fed
as a fortress of secretswhere access is the problemthe
reluctance to cover the Fed has more to do with the need to become
a student of the Fed and monetary policy.
"It's hard to write about the Fed," Norton said. "Monetary policy
Backstage passes to the Fed
While it may surprise some, access to the Fedto good information
and sources on monetary policyis not all that hard to come
According to a former Fed official, news organizations themselves
control whether they get access by virtue of deciding whether
"to cover the Fed full time with intensity," rather than including
the Fed as one of a reporter's many beats.
"I think the way people get access is by sort of proving themselves
in print," Norton said. "They have to demonstrate through the
work they do for their publications that they're paying attention,
that they're familiar with the debate, that they understand the
terms, that they know something about the history" of the Federal
Norton added that access is predicated on the understanding
that a Fed policymaker "wouldn't have to worry about being misunderstood
or misquoted, and that they would feel that somehow they were
improving the quality of the general debate" by talking to a reporter.
Norton said Berry and Wessel "are excellent examples."
Berry said that familiarity breeds comfort, trust and, by extension,
access. Reporter familiarity allows Fed officials to "know what
it is they can tell you-not in terms of secrets, but do they have
to watch every word, or do they need to be concerned that you're
going to take something out of contexteven if it's an accurate
quotewhich might make a great headline," he said.
Understanding such nuances ultimately gives this small circle
of reporters access to Chairman Greenspan, whose conversations
with the press are always off the record. Interviews with the
chairman are typically done more for issue clarification than
newsmaking, according to one Fed insider. One-on-one sessions
are important to reporters, he said, because such background gives
reporters a better sense of what Greenspan's feelings are.
Berry said the reputation of the news organization often precedes
the reporter, and can influence a reporter's access. He said it
would be "much, much harder" for someone from a regional newspaper
to get an interview with a member of the Board of Governors than
for either he or Wessel.
"We don't even try," said Jim Gallagher of the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch. Instead, Gallagher said the Post-Dispatch
looks to the Eighth District Federal Reserve Bank in town to give
readers some insight on the regional economy.
The Fed beat = rocket science?
Ultimately, the shortage of reporters on the full-time Fed beat
appears to stem from a mystique about monetary policy that is
intimidating to reporters and media outlets aliketoo complex,
too arcane, too fill-in-the-blank for the average reader, they
Much of it is overblown, Wessel believed. "Some of what the
Fed does is technical, but it really isn't all that abstract.
The stuff that matters is pretty easy to explain to people. Everybody
understands now what happens when interest rates go up, and they
care about it."
He compared perceptions of the Fed to that of the Supreme Court
years ago. "There are people that said the Supreme Court was impenetrablethat
all you could do is read their decisions and try and discern what
they meant," Wessel said. But a few reporters, including the Post's
Bob Woodward, "have pierced that veil. So I think there isn't
any institution in Washington that is impenetrable."
To the uninitiated reporter, "impenetrable" might be an apt
description of an Alan Greenspan speech. "When you're listening
to Alan Greenspan testify for the first time it seems almost like
listening to someone read in a foreign language. But if you do
it for a few years and you sort of learn to get with the Zen of
listening to Greenspan, it really isn't all that hard," Wessel
said. "Some of it is practice."
The typical Greenspan speech contains a lot of previously used
facts and ideas. But he often uses speeches and congressional
testimony to introduce newsworthy items. "So that when he says
something that you haven't seen beforewhen he uses the phrase
'irrational exuberance' in the same sentence as stock market,
you take note," Wessel said. "You almost get the sense he wants
you to look for it, so part of the Zen of listening to Greenspan
is trying to figure out that one thing that he wants you to know."
While on the beat, Wessel himself was immersed in the Fed. He
said he read as much on the Fed as he could-working papers, testimony
or speeches given by Greenspan, members of the Board of Governors
and district presidents. He also attended Fed conferences and
was a regular visitor to Fed Web sites.
"I get a lot of faxes from Wall Street Fed watchers and I always
look them over to see what they think," Wessel said. "I'm always
interested in what other people are saying about the Fed because
it sort of gives you a check on what you think, even if you think
they're full of it."
That's not to say that studying the Fed and monetary policy
leads everyone to the same conclusions. Wessel and Berry, despite
their dual studiousness, have at times come to very different
conclusions while beating the same Fed path. But understanding
the Fed goes well beyond the FOMC, in contrast toor maybe
because ofthe market's fixation with it.
"The most important thing is understanding what it is that all
the policymakers are thinking, and the process by which they reach
their decisions," Berry said. He added that while there is often
little dissention at FOMC meetings, "I doubt any two [board members]
get there by the same analytical process."
That means going beyond Greenspan and the Board of Governors.
Norton considers the research directors of the 12 district Reserve
banks to be excellent sources of general economic intelligence
"because they're sort of the regional filter of a lot of economic
intelligence." "You know that [research directors] are guys who
sit in the room" during FOMC meetings, Norton said. "They're the
only ones who can really tell you in retrospect or in general
whether the president of the Tallahassee bank is a hothead and
liable to vote with a minority or whatever. [They] are a way you
can sort of get a feel for what's actually going on."
Berry's not afraid to mingle below the top brass, either. "They
all count, and I think why I've been successful in writing about
the Fed is that it isn't a matter of just going out as if I were
a tape recorder and having somebody tell me something and then
come back and putting that in the story. It's having a lot of
people tell me a lot of different things and understanding what
it all adds up to," Berry said.
"Occasionally there's a certain amount of detective work in
this, in the sense that you talk to somebody, and you talk to
somebody else, and you talk to a third person, and none of them
may have told you something that you can hang your hat on," Berry
said. "But when you've talked to all three of them, you see, 'OK,
this comment here has a meaning that wasn't obvious.'"
Use of anonymous Fed sources is common [we're doing it ourselves],
but sometimes reporters get too far down the Fed pecking order
to someone who "doesn't really know what's going on overall in
policy," said a former, high-level Fed official. "A lot of the
reporters don't realize that everybody in the organization doesn't
know what's going on generally, and if they get down too far they're
going to get misled."
This was most common with the newswires, he added. "They would
quote these unnamed sources on monetary policy. Just drive us
Just the facts, ma'am
Interest in the Fed has been a boon to some news gathering organizations.
Not every media outlet can afford to have a Fed reporter. Newswires
like the Associated Press (AP), with more than 1,500 newspaper
members, have helped fill that gap as the public's interest in
the Fedor maybe more accurately, in things that can affect
the stock market-has increased.
"The AP is one of the places that [newspapers] look to if they
are not putting as many resources into [covering the Fed]," said
Martin Crutsinger, chief economics writer for the AP.
Cut from the same cloth, a new financial newswire industry has
been created to meet the market's demand for up-to-the-minute
information on the Fed and other important financial matters.
Bloomberg News, for example, has exploded onto the news-gathering
scene in just the last decade. Originally started as a business-news
subscription service, Bloomberg now makes news publicly available
online, sells breaking news stories to 850 newspapers worldwide,
and has introduced radio and television broadcast services. In
just the last two and a half years, Bloomberg's subscription service
has grown 65 percent to almost 124,000 terminals in over 100 countries.
Bloomberg's "U.S. economy team" handles macroeconomic and Fed
coverage in tandem. In the last three years, the team has more
than doubled in size to four editors and eight reporters, "and
it's likely to grow further in the coming year," according to
John Cranford, co-team leader. "We throw lots of bodies on stories
about the economy."
Gallagher said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch relies
heavily on wire services which often "aren't very good." AP's
coverage can be stale, he said, and Bloomberg doesn't write for
a lay audience. The Post-Dispatch tries to "keep it simple ...
and more lively," Gallagher said, showing readers how Fed action
affects the average person.
"If we don't, nobody's going to read this stuff," he said.
Some reporters bemoan the "wire effect" on Fed coverage, believing
the wires pass over deep analysis and forgo context, if necessary,
in favor of spot news and predictions of future Fed actions that
might affect the stock market.
"I repeatedly feel that the world gets its news and the market
reacts to news out of context because of this developing and quite
extensive financial wire industry," Berry said. "By the very nature
of their [wire] transmission process, the first thing you see
is a headline, and again by definition, there can't be any context.
And often, the next things you see are sort of brief comments,
snippetsagain, no context."
"Financial newswires have a very positive incentive to do things
in a way that will move a market, or be seen to move a market,
because they have a limited number of customers who pay a lot
of money for the service," Berry said. "I think, as a result of
that, the newswires have a very strong incentive to always push
a story, to hype a story."
In covering a speech or testimony, for example, the wires "will
emphasize what the market thinks it wants to hear," Berry said,
adding that the public's understanding of Fed issues has suffered
as a result.
That quick-trigger news finger is characteristic of most wire
services, particularly when Greenspan was testifying at the Capitol,
said one former Fed official. After answering a question, "all
of a sudden five wire service reporters will jump out of their
seats and run for the door," he said, and the story would be about
what just was said or just happened, without much interpretation.
"It's just the idea of getting the information into the market
first, because then that's a promotional thing for them. Then
they can say, 'Well, we were first with the important news of
Cranford disagreed, noting that Bloomberg makes a concerted
effort "not to manufacture news." He pointed out that financial
news wires dedicate significantly more reporters to covering the
Fed than other media outlets. With a dozen people fluent in "Fed-speak"
in its economics team, Bloomberg has the unique ability to regularly
tie Fed policy into its coverage of economic issues, Cranford
For the past three years, Bloomberg has assigned three people
to every public speech given by members of the Board of Governors
as well as the presidents of the 12 district Reserve banks. This
"full court press," as Cranford called it, has one reporter cover
the speech in person, with another reporter and editor listening
to a live audio feed in the office. Bloomberg reporter Rob Wells
said such regular coverage gives the reader or subscriber "much
more depth than you would get in any of the dailies."
Bloomberg has also developed a product called "voices" for its
news subscribers, Cranford said. Rather than report on every speech,
"voices" excerpts relevant statements from speeches given by various
Fed officials and sends them to subscribersa group that
is well-informed about the economy and has the background knowledge
necessary to interpret the meaning of such excerpts, Cranford
Berry also acknowledged the difficulties that wire writers face.
"To be fair to the wire services, I almost always have a lot more
time than they do to think about what's said, to digest it. I
don't have to pick up the cell phone and dictate a headline or
a six-paragraph story or something," Berry said.
Norton agreed, "The wire service guys have my sympathy. That's
a very tough gig."
One Fed source noted that no media were without sin in the spin
department. "They all try to get a different angle."
Reading the Tea Leaves
In 1998, The International Economy, a bimonthly policy
magazine, asked 27 top financial traders and Fed watchers the following
question (publications are ranked by the number of times each was
If you had only one source for information regarding potential
changes in Federal Reserve policy, what would it be? Put
another way, which mass publication over the last year has provided
the best analysis of coming changes in monetary policy?
The Washington Post
The Wall Street Journal
None of the Publications
The New York Times
Wanted: More nattering nabobs?
The very nature of "good" Fed coverage is also a topic of debate.
Some have argued that in order to protect high-level access, reporters
have to treat the Fed with kid gloves, which ultimately results
in favorable analysis and tepid criticism.
Berry said the Fed does not whimsically cut off access after
critical stories. "My experience is that Fed officials are not
that thin-skinned. They know that they're in a public policy arena
in which there are lots of opinions," Berry said. "They want you
to be fair."
Still, Berry acknowledged that he's been accused "of pulling
my punches," but disagreed with the charge. "I don't go for the
quick hit and the sharp headline. ... Sometimes I think about
myself as wanting to behave as a monopolist in dealing with the
Fed. I want to maximize my long-term profit, not my short-term
gain, and so I'm going to want to come back and see these people
again, because I'm going to be in my job and they're going to
be in theirs."
Even if it were true, Berry would have a lot of company. "Right
now, there are very few people around who have anything critical
to say [about] things that are at the heart of what the Fed does,"
Berry said. "It's very hard, when all of your critics, or virtually
all of your critics, have been silenced by your performance."
There have been critics of the Fed's recent interest rate hikes
and its support for some international measures, among other things.
"So it's not all gravy," Berry said. "But boy, in terms of where
the domestic economy is," Greenspan and the Fed have few ardent
When Greenspan gives testimony at the Capitol, Berry said, "Democrats
and Republicans, conservatives and liberals [are] just falling
all over themselves to say, 'What a really great guy you are'
and 'What a marvelous job you and your colleagues have done.'"
It is the throttling of inflation that has given the Fed high
visibility and popularity today, at a time when trust in government
is lower than our belief in alien life. "I've always thought that
the fact that inflation had gotten so bad and created so much
concern and so much uncertainty was why it was politically possible
for the Fed to effect a cure," Berry said.
Crutsinger of the AP pointed out that Paul Volcker came in as
Fed chairman in 1979 "with the expressed intent of dealing with
inflation," subsequently pushing interest rates and unemployment
rates to their highest levels since the Civil War and the Great
Depression, respectively. At the same time, federal fiscal policy
failed to provide any economic stability as Congress rang up record
Combined, these two factors made the Fed "the only policy game
in town, in a sense," Berry said. "Then the Fedwith some
luck undoubtedly, but also with good policyjust had enormously
positive results" in bringing inflation under control.
Those positive results have produced largely favorable treatment
by the press, leaving Greenspan little room for an encore that
could outdo the original act, according to Berry. "Greenspan's
on the cover of Barron's. He's on the cover of Time.
Everybody reveres him as this immensely wise and immensely powerful
figure. I think he's actually a little uncomfortable with that
because he knows it's not all his doing."
Mike Meyers, a business reporter at the Minneapolis StarTribune,
said the media's "herd mentality" bears much of the blame for
Greenspan's larger-than-life stature, calling it "kind of naive"
to think that Greenspan has total control over monetary policy.
"They [the media] make it a cult of personality," Meyers said.
"The idea that every utterance of Greenspan is a page one story
An open door behind the Fed curtain
One other important factor in the media blitzkrieg has been a
conscious effort by the Fed to be more open and transparenta
move that other central banks worldwide are following as more
countries move to market-based economies.
"The Fed has become much, much, much more open," Berry said.
Greenspan has publicly stressed the need to have a central bank
that is independent from short-term political pressures, but still
accountable in a democratic society. Accountability requires openness,
"and that means explaining to the public what you're doing, and
why ... and never deliberately misleading people," Berry said.
The Fed's move to greater transparency shows "that's not just
For a long time, the Fed found it convenient "to let people
regard them as sort of mysterious," according to Berry. Some Fed
policies exacerbated this tendency by restricting access to time-sensitive
information. Crutsinger said that when he started covering the
Fed in 1984 as the Treasury reporter, "announcements were not
even made when they changed the federal funds rate. You had to
watch the big banks and brokerage houses."
The move to more openness, according to Norton, was useful because
"you don't need people reading the tea leaves if people [at the
Fed] actually tell you what's up." If the Fed announced an asymmetric
directive, he said, there inevitably would be a lot of guessing.
"Wessel and Berry might have gotten it right, but somebody at
the Daily Planet might have misunderstood something
that a junior economist told him and concluded wrongly" about
where Fed policy was headed.
Wessel said it was in the Fed's best interest to be more proactive
with the media. "The problem with never talking to the press is
you let other people fill the vacuum, and sometimes they don't
necessarily fill it with high quality information." While things
have been improvinghe cited the immediate announcement of
changes in the fed funds target"there is a long way to go"
regarding openness, he said.
"I think Greenspan and the other people here can take a lot
of credit for making [the Fed] more open," Berry said. "But I
don't feel that the Fed has done anything that's going to make
my job obsolete."
David Levy, Minneapolis Fed director of Public Affairs, conducted
the interviews with Berry, Wessel and Norton.