CBS Fawns Over Pay Czar Feinberg: He Speaks With 'Moral Authority' and Knows the Value of Human Life

On the June 20th edition of Sunday Morning, CBS reporter Richard Schlesinger conducted a glowing interview with pay czar Kenneth Feinberg, lauding him as someone who speaks with "moral authority" and who has "become an expert assessor of the value of life itself."

Feinberg, who will now be in charge of distributing the $20 billion BP has pledged for the oil spill, previously worked with President Obama to control salaries and bonuses of Wall Street CEOs. Schlesinger could barely contain his disgust for the executives.

He scolded, "How do you avoid looking at these guys on the other side of the table and say, You're just a bunch of greedy so-and-sos?"

After Feinberg explained that this would be a bad negotiating tactic, Schlesinger marveled, "After all you've seen, you don't [call them greedy]?" The reporter also highlighted the government official's work over the last decade, including working on compensation for the families of 9/11.

According to Schlesinger, "More than a learned attorney, he's become an expert assessor of the value of life itself. He wields the kind of power with which no politician would ever be trusted."

The journalist later rhapsodized, "That after all Ken Feinberg has seen-the greed, the grief and the grace- he doesn't just speak with legal authority, he speaks with no small amount of moral authority, earned during the toughest crises this nation has faced."

In contrast, when Feinberg was working with the Bush government to compensate 9/11 family members, the same Schlesinger wasn't nearly as fawning. Consider this CBS Evening News exchange between the reporter and Monica Gabrielle, a wife of a 9/11 victim on September 11, 2002:

RICHARD SCHLESINGER: The money is awarded tax-free but only after some strings are attached, including a requirement that recipients give up the right to sue anyone except the terrorists themselves.

MONICA GABRIELLE: For me, it's a shut-up fund.

SCHLESINGER: It's a what?

GABRIELLE: Shut-up fund.

SCHLESINGER: Shut-up fund. What does that mean?

GABRIELLE: You take the money. You don't-don't have any recourse in-in the courts to get answers. And hopefully you just go away.

To be sure, Schlesinger on Sunday did mention some of the problems with 9/11 compensation, but he was nowhere near as effusive back in 2002.

A transcript of the June 20 segment, which aired at 9:14am, follows:

CHARLES OSGOOD: Assignment: BP. That's the task now on the shoulders of Kenneth Feinberg. Settling the claims of oil spill victims is an unenviable job and as Richard Schlesinger of 48 HOURS now tells us in our Sunday cover story, the number of people able to take it on is very small, indeed.

KENNETH FEINBERG: The President of the United States has made it abundantly clear and BP has acquiesced that if the $20 billion escrow account is insufficient that BP is confident that it can meet its additional financial obligations.

RICHARD SCHLESINGER: He may be the one person considered experienced enough to spend twenty billion of BP's dollars fairly.

FEINBERG: I think that my independence is, I would hope, unquestioned.

SCHLESINGER: Kenneth Feinberg has waded into some of this nation's biggest man made disasters. He's gotten earfuls from people suffering through the worst kind of loss-

WOMAN #1: I think if you could feel our pain for one hour, your tone and your mannerisms would be so drastically different than what they are.

SCHLESINGER: -and handed out fistfuls of money to try to make things better. How much of that is an honor and how much of that is a burden?

FEINBERG: Not a burden at all. It's all an honor. It's not a burden to be called-on to try your hand at another intractable problem. If you're not down here- And I'll be next week in Alabama and Florida. If you're not down here, hearing from the front line on what has to be done here, there's no way this program can work?

SCHLESINGER: Just like that. Matter of fact, it's his style. And it's served him well over the past twenty-five-plus years, as he's carved out his role as the go-to guy for the very toughest jobs.

FEINBERG: Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman. My name is Kenneth Feinberg, the special master.

SCHLESINGER: More than a learned attorney, he's become an expert assessor of the value of life itself. He wields the kind of power with which no politician would ever be trusted.

FEINBERG: We must apply it as a precedent across the board to everybody similarly situated.

SCHLESINGER: He became a star as a mediator in 1984. Vietnam Veterans had sued the manufacturers of the defoliant Agent Orange. They said it made them sick, the companies denied it all. After an eight-year legal fight yielded nothing, Ken Feinberg negotiated a settlement in just six weeks.

FEINBERG: The first day that I mediated that case, I said to them together, chemical companies, what are you willing to put up? They said together all eight of us will put up twenty-five thousand dollars. Then I asked the Vietnam veterans, and they said we want 1.2 billion dollars.

SCHLESINGER: If it were me, I would think-

FEINBERG: No, you know, you have to be a little bit of better chess player, Richard. There's plenty of room to move. They're here to participate.

SCHLESINGER: But that case was nothing like what came next. After the 9/11 attacks, he volunteered to decide how much money each family of victims would get from a compensation fund Congress set up.

MAN #1: -deserve. There's no- no money involved on a life. We all know that.

SCHLESINGER: Feinberg was used to dealing with lawyers representing victims. Here he came face to face with unfiltered emotion and anger.

MAN #2: You have an arrogance about you that is so painful you can't possibly believe.

FEINBERG: Oh, I- I misjudged it for the first year I was at odds with these families. I had a lawyer's disposition in trying to deal with families in grief.

SCHLESINGER: Congress ordered Feinberg to use each victim's earnings to help established the value of every life lost. The lives of a banker and a busboy were valued differently, even though they both ended the same way.

FEINBERG: Money equals economic value. It does not equal moral worth. I tried to explain to these families quite unsuccessfully that I was not attempting at all to value the moral integrity or the intrinsic worth of any individual. I was simply applying that cold calculus.

MICHAEL FEINBERG: I think he was caught off guard emotionally and personally by the- the- the how affected he was by 9/11.

SCHLESINGER: Michael is the oldest of Feinberg's three children.

MICHAEL FEINBERG: And it changed him. And any free time he had was spent listening to music.

KENNETH FEINBERG: Because from- from seven in the morning to seven at night, you are dealing with the fallout from the most barbaric, the most callous tragedy in American history. You've got to escape somehow from that or you'll go mad.

WOMAN #2: It was not his job to leave my three children and myself alone for the rest of our lives.

RICHARD SCHLESINGER: He worked for almost three years, never took a penny in pay and by the time he was done he had given out about seven billion dollars. All but a handful of families eventually decided Ken Feinberg represented their best option.

WOMAN #3: And although it is difficult, Mister Feinberg, the fund has treated my family very reasonably and very fairly.

SCHLESINGER: But he is still haunted by one woman who couldn't handle any of it.

KENNETH FEINBERG: She lost about two million dollars tax free by being so paralyzed by grief she couldn't even sign the application that I brought to her doorstep. How do you forget stories like that?

SCHLESINGER: But that one seems to have been the one you, that you- - that really sticks with you.

KENNETH FEINBERG: It sticks with me because I- I failed, you see.

SCHLESINGER: But he got high enough marks for handling the 9/11 fund that about three years later when a student gunman killed thirty-two people and himself at Virginia Tech, authorities turned to Ken Feinberg once more to decide who deserved how much.

FEINBERG: Virginia Tech involved the serendipitous, haphazard nature of death. Here's a school, rural Virginia. You- you say to yourself, nowhere are you assured of being safe.

SCHLESINGER: And then the man who dealt with people who lost so much had to deal with people who wanted so much. After the financial meltdown, when Congress bailed out the banks, it ordered the Treasury Secretary to control the salaries and bonuses of the top executives. And Secretary Geithner went to the go-to guy, Ken Feinberg, who came to be known as the Pay Czar. How do you avoid looking at these guys on the other side of the table and say, you're just a bunch of greedy so-and-sos?

FEINBERG: No. You don't- you don't say that.

RICHARD SCHLESINGER: After all you've seen, you don't?

FEINBERG: No. You- you say- you don't say there are greedy so-and- sos. You- you- you- you say that you're vastly overpaid.

SCHLESINGER: However, he said it, few bankers wanted to hear it and BP executives will soon learn what the bank executives learned. That after all Ken Feinberg has seen-the greed, the grief and the grace- he doesn't just speak with legal authority, he speaks with no small amount of moral authority, earned during the toughest crises this nation has faced.

FEINBERG: All of these problems, these challenges are different. Everyone is different. But this is a tragedy here in the Gulf. No question about it. Its emotional, it's real.

SCHLESINGER: Feinberg has his hands full. He's still tangling with Wall Street executives and the week before last he stepped back into a previous role. He'll review old claims from 9/11 first responders, but he's promised to begin payouts in the Gulf quickly, starting in thirty days. He has more money to spend on the oil spill than he has ever had before. And he's ready and able to see how much wrong $20 billion can make right.

-Scott Whitlock is a news analyst for the Media Research Center. Click here to follow him on Twitter.