NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Today, the world goes on hold. In Libya, the Gadhafis and the anti-Gadhafis put down their guns. The escapees from that Afghan jail stop running and turn on their radios. Here in the U.S., traffic stops, airports shut. Times Square is silent. Ben Bernanke is holding a press conference!You have to understand that this is momentous news. That kind of thing just doesn't happen. Of all U.S. institutions, with WikiLeaks exposing foreign policy and the CIA an open book, the Federal Reserve is the last remaining bastion of secrecy. As a result, it has more conspiracy theories surrounding it than the Masons, the Jews, the Trilateral Commission and Area 51 put together. And the Fed has only itself to blame for that air of mystery. Just take a look at the press release that the Fed issued a month ago announcing these new quarterly world-stopping events. "The introduction of regular press briefings is intended to further enhance the clarity and timeliness of the Federal Reserve's monetary policy communication," the statement says. That tells you a lot about the Fed right there. What clarity? What timeliness? If you go to the page, you can see the latest minutes from the Fed's discount rate meetings, which were held between Feb. 7 and March 14, and released a month later. What we have here is an inherently opaque institution, not because it waits a few weeks to release discount-rate-meeting minutes, but because it is a powerful government agency that in important functions has all the accessibility of a Brooklyn crime family. The Fed's opacity has a logical basis on some stuff -- like the discount-rate meetings, for instance -- but it has become something of a fetish, and harmful to both the Fed and the public. It's possible that Ben Bernanke holding quarterly press conferences will bring a gust of fresh air into that institution, but I doubt it. The Fed has shown no inclination to change its ways. If you want an example of that, just look at the disgraceful way the Fed has fought efforts to identify the financial firms that borrowed through the discount window in 2008. A Freedom of Information Act request to that effect was promptly made by Mark Pittman of Bloomberg. The Fed, being the Fed, treated Pittman the way it treats all U.S. citizens under similar circumstances: It ignored him. I mean not even an answer for four months. So Bloomberg did something unexpected: It sued the Fed.
The Fed had nothing against Bloomberg. You see, it didn't answer Pittman because it couldn't. This was the Fed, and the Fed just isn't accountable. It keeps the public away from its information as adamantly as it refuses to let people walk in and take gold bullion out of the basement of the New York Fed headquarters on Liberty Street in Manhattan. The Fed releases discount-window data in the aggregate, which is meaningful only insofar as it shows what everybody already knows: The banking industry was the subject of a $700 billion bailout (the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP) because of the banks' own failure to rein in their profligate practices. But numbers for individual banks? Good heavens, that would be informative. Go away. When Pittman died of longstanding heart problems in November 2009, the suit was still being fought in court. The Fed didn't let go, and to its credit neither did Bloomberg. Bernanke's Fed fought this righteous battle all the way to the United States Supreme Court, and ultimately lost. It finally coughed up the documents in March 2011, when they were only of historical value. But Bernanke had the last laugh, as Pittman's former colleague Heather Landy pointed out in an American Banker blog, by unloading a data dump on obsolete computer discs. Fortunately, Dodd-Frank requires that disclosures of discount-window borrowers be made promptly -- by Fed standards -- two years after they are made. Thanks a lot, guys. This is all minor stuff compared to all the other machinations that have gone behind closed doors. Remember that the Fed is a regulatory agency as well as a central bank, and that, like all regulatory agencies, it's not especially keen on regulating. Add that to its secrecy, and you have a formula for disaster. So when a Fed governor named Ed Gramlich sounded the alarm about subprime lending abuses back in 2000 -- and Alan Greenspan made sure nothing was done -- it took the greater part of a decade before word of that sorry affair leaked its way out into the public. But it didn't matter. After all, there was no real estate bubble. So said the New York Fed in December 2004.
Now, I don't want to be ungrateful. It is a good thing that Bernanke is being gracious enough to meet with the media four times a year. Since the markets hang on everything he says, you can bet that his reputation for clarity, building on the marble-mouthed precedent set by Greenspan, will be further enhanced. Remember when Greenspan talked about "irrational exuberance" in December 1996 and the markets went haywire? After that slip, Greenspan became even more of a sphinx than previously in his public comments. So don't expect Bernanke to say much that is likely to roil the markets. But I think that's fine. The assembled media should shelve the present and use the opportunity to dig into the past, and question Bernanke closely about his actions during the financial crisis. Hell, they could spend the entire press conference on the $182 billion AIG ( AIG) bailout -- the one that gave $12.9 billion to Goldman Sachs ( GS) alone -- and have a very productive session. Just focus on that, or the Fed's opacity, or its insane fight with Pittman, or something else where he'd have no excuse to evade. He will, of course, but he won't have an excuse. Or, better still, just sit and stare at him. Give him a taste of what opacity feels like.