The Good Uncle

Why is the media coverage of Warren Buffet muted, lacking in verve, and often downright sympathetic?

Journalists are schadenfreude junkies: We get our kicks from watching great careers flame out. Show us just a glimpse of clay feet—a few toes will do—and we're all over the story.

Normally we are, anyway. There are exceptions to the vulturous rule, and one is on prominent display right now. Warren Buffett, the billionaire uber-businessman and folk hero, is embroiled in a scandal. An insurance company that Buffett controls through his conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway, is under investigation for its involvement in questionable transactions with another big insurer, American International Group.

So far, the scandal is mostly about AIG, and Buffett himself is reportedly not the target of any probe, although he is cooperating as a witness. Nonetheless, just in terms of reputation, this is a rare slip for Buffett. A man often described, without irony, as a "sage" has been forced to publicly defend the probity of his company and people. It's exactly the kind of high-profile embarrassment that usually fills newshounds with joy.

I've been following the Buffett story pretty closely, in part for a selfish reason: I own some Berkshire Hathaway "B" shares (i.e., the cheap ones) in a retirement account. Wondering if I should bail, I keep looking for signs of media bloodlust. And so far, this scandal seems to be bringing little pleasure to the outlets reporting on it. The coverage is muted, decidedly lacking in verve, and often downright sympathetic to Buffett. Why?

Several reasons. The first is that the company at the center of the story is filling the schadenfreude cup quite nicely. Heads have been rolling at AIG, including the considerable cranium of CEO Maurice (Hank) Greenberg, who stepped down in March and is now in such dire straits that comparisons to Enron are popping up in the coverage. Greenberg isn't half as famous as Buffett, of course, and his troubles have a limited popular audience. But he was an authentic corporate titan, and his fall has been spectacular enough to keep the business press sated. The depth of Greenberg's troubles is also a daily reminder that, by comparison, Buffett is on easy street.

But here's another, larger reason why the news club doesn't enjoy watching Warren Buffett squirm: We really like the guy. The stereotype of scandal coverage is that it's a matter of simple math—the bigger the public figure, the harder they fall, and the more fun for us. In fact, the truth is more subtle and complicated. Over time, journalists acquire a sense of the people they cover, based on close observation and, often, personal interaction. As any seasoned reporter can tell you, public figures run the human gamut. There are truth-telling mensches, and there are lying weasels—and every gradation in between. And once you have a gut sense of a public actor, it inevitably informs and shapes how you evaluate and present the news about that person.

Thus, different Washington figures receive vastly different treatment from the media depending on its sense of them as people. Because journalists tend to consider John McCain honest and likable, his role in the "Keating Five" scandal was never a matter of media jubilation and is now largely forgotten. Conversely, because many reporters found Bill Clinton personally slippery, scandal stories stuck to him like glue, and his second term was a nonstop schadenfreude party.

We think of news as information that's somehow surprising. But often the biggest stories are the opposite of surprises, in that they confirm a hunch we already had about someone. Richard Nixon was called Tricky Dick long before Watergate, and on some deep level, that story was driven by a suspicion of the man's character.

There are no such suspicions about Warren Buffett, or at least none with wide currency. He isn't just an investment guru —he's a symbol of middle-American values, widely beloved for his plain-spoken ways, his humor, his modesty, his attachment to Omaha, and his various quirks and hobbies. Several years ago, an animated public-television series about the American Revolution, called Liberty's Kids, debuted with Buffett doing the voice of James Madison, and it made perfect sense. Who else on the popular landscape has the stature of a Founding Father? (Walter Cronkite was Benjamin Franklin.)

So, rather than present the insurance scandal as a clue to some darker reality about Buffett, news outlets are framing it as a smallish bump in an exemplary career. Last Sunday, the day before the Berkshire Hathaway board was to gather in Omaha for its annual meeting, The New York Times ran a long, extremely lucid explanatory article about the story, on the front of its business section. Written by Timothy L. O'Brien, the piece was headlined, "For Buffett, the One That Got Away," and it featured an illustration of two full cartons of eggs, each egg bearing the logo of a Berkshire company. Just one egg was broken, the one for the embattled insurance unit, underlining the exceptional nature of the flub.

The next morning, The Wall Street Journal had a front-page story about Buffett, also clearly timed to coincide with the annual meeting. A whimsical feature, it focused on the possibility that America's two most famous Buffetts—Warren and Jimmy—might be distant relations, although DNA tests have yet to be performed. The story didn't mention the insurance scandal at all, and the headline referred to the Berkshire chairman as "Uncle" Warren Buffett. That's what "Cousin" Jimmy calls him, after all. Warren is everyone's uncle, in a way. And don't you wish your uncle all the best?