A True American Success Story – with David Asman at Fox Business Network

This is Part 1 of a 2 part interview …

David Asman has lived an adventurous life on his road to classic American success. From a school teacher in Chicago to the host of a world wide show on Fox Business Network, David has worked hard for his rewards.

The Start of a Successful Career

Damien Hoffman: David, you started your career as a teacher. How did you get interested in financial journalism?

David: I was studying to get a Master’s in teaching at Northwestern University. I thought I would teach and do Journalism at the same time, but I realized I had to choose. It was just too much to do both.

So, in the late 70’s I quit graduate school and saved up money to pay off my school debt. Then I moved to the East Coast to take an assistant editor’s job at a magazine called Prospect which was affiliated with an alumni organization at Princeton University.

It was very exiting time for economic literature because people like Milton Friedman and George Gilder were trying to turn around the awful economy we had back then. We had inflation in double digits and interest rates in the low 20s. It made the current situation look almost enviable.

The problems seemed so intractable. But I wasn’t interested in the people who said we’d be in the mess permanently. I was more excited by the people who said that if we increased incentives in a dramatic way for businesses to create things, the economy could correct itself.

Of course, that’s eventually what happened. We had a combination of a serious Federal Reserved Chairman Paul Volcker — who was appointed by President Carter — squeezing inflation out of the economy while a serious President, Ronald Reagan, lowered tax rates to create a tremendous boom of small and medium-sized businesses in this country. That recipe led to seven very strong years of economic growth between 1983 and 1990.

And that period was marked not only by the overall figures, but more importantly, by the fact that small businesses were the ones generating growth in the economy. And that’s of course when epic companies started such as Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), Compaq (NYSE: HPQ), and FedEx (NYSE: FDX).

The deregulatory and lower tax rate environment gave a tremendous leg up to the small and medium-sized businesses — the ones that are the most creative. That’s why we began to see a significant increase in creativity among information services which dramatically changed our economy. I think it was one of the most dramatic changes in economic history — not only for the U.S, but for the world. It was the information revolution and was as important and fundamentally transformative as the industrial revolution.

Damien: Where were you at that exciting time?

David: I was right in the heart of it. There was an organization called ICEPS — the International Center for Economic Policy Studies — which later became the Manhattan Institute. That was a think tank which focused specifically on what later came to be known as “supply-side economics”: the idea that by incentivizing the growth of small and medium-sized businesses in this country, we could fundamentally transform the entire economy.

All of the thinkers at the forefront of that movement either came through the Manhattan Institute or were part of it. I edited a lot of books there and also a little magazine called “The Manhattan Report” that focused on these thinkers, economists, and business people.

I did that for two years and then freelanced for about a year and a half.  Eventually a politician in Washington — Senator Gordon Humphrey — offered me a job to be his press secretary. I called up a friend at the Wall Street Journal — George Malone — to ask whether this would taint my reputation as a journalist. He didn’t think it would, but he said there was a job opening at the Wall Street Journal and asked if I would apply for it.

The job was actually two positions. One was editing a weekly column called “The Managers Journal”. That was an advice column for managers by managers about how to operate more efficiently. The second was editing a column called “The Americas”. Latin America was very hot at that time. Mexico had just defaulted on its debt — like what’s happening with Greece right now and the other PIIG Nations [Portugal, Italy, Ireland].

Latin America had a debt crisis. Citi (NYSE: C) and a bunch of other banks had made terrible loans to corrupt governments. I remembered going to Manufacturers Hanover for a luncheon in one of their very pristine Park Avenue offices. We were drinking Cherry in a very verified environment. And I asked the head of the investor department, “How many of your loans, because you had a portfolio of billions of dollars, how many of those in percentage-wise are government loans as supposed to private loans?”

He said, “Oh, about 80-20.” And I said, “Wait a minute, you mean 80% private, 20% public, right?” He said “No, no, no. 80 public, 20 private” — meaning 80% of their exposure in Latin America was to these corrupt governments. How could you possibly expect a corrupt government to use their loan profitably when most of the money was being shipped off to Swiss bank accounts immediately?

Moreover, the projects that were built were terribly built because they were built by the cronies and relatives of these politicians. These people were being hired not on the basis of the quality of their work, but on the basis of their connections.

We also had a socialist government in Nicaragua with intentions of spreading throughout Central America. They were funding a revolutionary operation in El Salvador and moving into Guatemala, orchestrated out of Havana.

As dangerous as it was, it was a perfect environment for journalist. I started that in 1983 and I continued with that job until 1995.

During that period I also did the management column which was fascinating. I got to know managers around the country. People like Andy Grove who, at that time, was a lowly VP at Intel (Nasdaq: INTC).

A Love Story

Damien: David, when I was on your show, the staff said I should ask you about your wonderful love story. How did it all unfold?

David: During one of my travels to Central America in the mid-’80s, I met a guy in Nicaragua who became a great source for me — a lawyer named Roger Guevara. He was in and out of prison because he was a lawyer who stood up for human rights. For that reason, the Sandinistas kept throwing him in jail and torturing him.

We became close.  I helped him out when I could using the committee to protect journalists and so forth here in New York. Eventually, in 1988 he introduced me to a woman at a dinner party who would become my wife now, Marta Cecilia. We met, fell in love, and spent about about six months in a long distance relationship.

At the time, our friend Roger was jailed again. They were beating him up quite a bit. They were also following Marta Cecilia and her son. So, things were getting very dangerous.

I knew the Foreign Minister Costa Rica, a guy named Madrigal Nieto, who was a very nice guy.  He arranged for Marta Cecilia and Felipe to get a visa for life to Costa Rica.  The plan was for her to pretend she and Felipe were just going to Costa Rica for the weekend.

So, they packed a little bag for the two of them and flew to Costa Rica. I flew to Costa Rica to meet them. I remember them getting off the plane and Felipe –this little seven-year-old — looking way up at me and wondering, “What the hell was happening?” because he couldn’t be told he was leaving his extended family.

He didn’t speak any English at that time and was about to go to New York in November where it’s cold and rainy. He’d never experienced the cold before. And he was going to live at my one-bedroom bachelor pad.

The best part is Felipe and I got along as well as Marta Cecilia and I did. It was an amazing way to begin our new life together.

The first year was very tough for Felipe. I was still making Wall Street Journal money which was about $35,000 at that time. That covered three people and a bachelor who’s used to living alone. Of course, MC couldn’t work because she didn’t have her green card yet.

I was continuing to go to South America and Central America over the next few years.

From Print to TV

Damien: Was that around the time you started your transition to television?

David: Yes. John Malone wanted to start television programming as opposed to just providing programs through cable. So, he hired Bob Chitester, an executive producer to begin programming. Chitester and I had known each other for a long time. He had actually produced a show called “Free to Choose” – a PBS series based on Milton Friedman’s work. He hired me as the anchor of a show called “Damn Right”, which was a political affairs show that later became “Issues USA”.

Damien: Was “Damn Right” a controversial title at that time?

David: Oh yeah. It was meant to be controversial.  This was before Fox News (NYSE: NWSA). Malone saw that a vast group of peoples’ needs were not being met. These people did not describe themselves as liberals. They were either moderate conservative or libertarian. This group was dissatisfied with the content on CNN (NYSE: TWN) and network news.

The show was from 7:30PM to 8:00PM, every Monday through Friday. So, I’d lock-up in the editorial page at about 6 o’clock in the evening, take a subway up to the studio, then prepare for the show.

That was my introduction to television. Then Roger Ailes got together with Rupert Murdoch to start a news channel. Roger had just left the NBC (NYSE: GE) empires: CNBC, America’s Talking, and what later became MSNBC. At that point, Malone said, “If Rupert and Roger get together, there’s no stopping them.” So, he pulled the plug on his little programming, and Fox News was born.

At about that time, I went to a lunch at Mort Zuckerman’s house for Fidel Castro. I was invited because of my background in Latin-America and I’d just come back from Cuba. I was seated in between the late Bill Safire, the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) columnist, and Roger Ailes. I later wrote an article called “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party” — a take-off on the Noel Coward song — because it was a ridiculous scene where all these TV personalities were hugging Fidel as though he was a sweet old uncle rather than a tight, tyrannical dictator.

Roger read the article and said, “How would you like a full time job in television?” At that time, I declined because I liked having one foot in print and one foot in broadcast. But about a year later in 1997, he came back to me and we did the deal.

So, that’s when I made the switch to Fox News and I’ve been with TV ever since.

Damien: What has been the biggest development since you joined Fox in ’97?

David: The major shift here from ‘97 until now was the emergence of Fox Business in 2007.

Damien: Right before the crash.

David: Talk about baptism by a fire. It was terrible from a business standpoint but wonderful from the journalistic standpoint because there was so much to talk about.

I love the amount of input everyone has here. It’s like the beginning of Microsoft or Apple — very entrepreneurial. Roger is involved. Rupert is involved. They think so far out of the box that they very often keep their competition guessing.

Everybody knows Roger is a genius when it comes to programming.  So, people look very closely at what we’re doing — not necessarily because they think tomorrow we’re going to overtake them in the numbers, but because they know eventually we could …