First Amendment Award for Outstanding Journalism: Best News Anchor Dylan Ratigan

First Amendment Award 2009 Dylan Ratigan 400

This was one of our 10 Most Popular Interviews of 2009:

In the movie Network, life-long news anchor Howard Beale declares one of the most famous lines in cinematic history, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” This line resonates through time because we all can relate to the feeling on some level. Recently, news anchor Dylan Ratigan expressed our feelings during the economic crisis as he pierced the corporate veil with his razor-sharp questions and insights.

After an extended stay at CNBC and co-founding the popular show Fast Money, Ratigan graduated to the world stage of money and politics as host of the MSNBC show Morning Meeting. Consequently, we are all better off now that Ratigan can extend beyond Wall Street to government chambers and power alleys around the globe.

Unlike most news anchors who either robotically read the teleprompter or pretend to be looking out for you, Ratigan does his Fourth Estate duties by asking uncomfortable questions and forcing us to look in the mirror. He has been a true patriot shining a spotlight on the thieves who turned our economy into a gambling pit while they subsequently ripped off taxpayers. If news anchors did more of Ratigan’s reporting and less promotions for their books or speaking tours, we might have more of a democracy and less of a corpocracy.

I sat down with Ratigan to discuss his career, journalism, the state of affairs, and what the hell we must do to regain control.

Dylan Ratigan Quote

Damien: Do you think we are undergoing a shift where people are sick of entertainment masquerading as news? If so, what do you see happening?

Dylan: I think the environment in this country dictates what people want from their news. When people feel there are things they do not know yet are dangerous to them and their family — in the physical sense, the financial sense, whatever — they go to the place which makes them feel the information is best. Prior to the events of last year we had a lot of news outlets in this country that were successful because in a boom time they were able to accumulate an audience who enjoyed an entertainment version of the news. When the events of last year transpired and more than $16 trillion of America’s future capital had to be committed to support the banks, a more intense line of questioning became more valuable.

Last fall I said, “We’re living in an American Idol world, and the financial crisis changed the news business into Jeopardy.” Suddenly everyone was saying, “Hey, hold on a second here. American Idol is a lot of fun, but what’s going on around here?” Since I was 15 years in the process of asking better questions, I was well equipped for the shift. I feel fortunate to have the background and training to continue asking questions.

Dylan Ratigan

Dylan Ratigan

Damien: If you’re making a grand a day watching Jim Cramer, you’re in a good mood and everything’s ‘Boo-Yah.’ When that game stops and you lose your job, you’ll want to know what Dylan Ratigan has to say.

Dylan: That’s very flattering of you to say. For reporters similar to me it’s like being able to speak Arabic at a time when you really need an Arabic speaker. There are a group of journalists who have a very good understanding of the subject. In my case, it was an opportunity to add value in general news and policy. The entire opportunity was driven by circumstance.

Damien: Since you started at Bloomberg and their mission is to focus on news which sells terminals, how did you transcend that focus to become a great journalist in general?

Dylan: I was raised as a reporter at Bloomberg News where they drilled into us that our job was to get the best information possible for the person buying the [Bloomberg] terminal for $1000 a month. I positively interpret my teaching at Bloomberg as the lesson, “Your first priority is your customer.” So, as applied to MSNBC now, I work for my boss Phil Griffin but truly work for whoever chooses to watch my show. If I do a good job of providing information for whoever chooses to watch my show and more people choose to watch my show, then I’m still using the skills Bloomberg taught me.

Bloomberg trained me as a reporter. For four years I wrote for the newswire 12 hours a day. I covered IPOs, stock markets, other capital markets, M&A, etc. I got to understand the entire financial landscape and know the community. That was the foundation for me. Then I went to Bloomberg TV because it looked more fun and paid better.

Then, as Malcom Gladwell discusses in his book Outliers, I got my 10,000 hours of practice at CNBC over the course of five-plus years. A lot of that time I was doing three shows a day, everyday. That was incredibly valuable broadcast training. I learned how to effectively and desirably communicate in public — and that takes practice. And, CNBC allowed me to cultivate an audience for the type of journalism I’m interested in pursuing.

Damien: Now that you’re at MSNBC which is more general in scope, has your reporting style changed?

Dylan: No. The same principles apply to asking smart questions and representing the interests of the taxpayers relative to politicians, banks, and anyone else who would seek to steal the taxpayers’ money because the taxpayer is seen as an easy mark. While some of these stories may begin on Wall Street, there’s a culture in this country of picking off the taxpayer for the benefit of some group of people — the corn lobby, the oil lobby, the health insurance companies, banks, unions etc. They all want a little piece of the action. So, while I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day coverage of the financial markets, I’ve never been more involved in asking the powerful people why generational theft is their policy.

Dylan Ratigan Quick StatsDamien: Dylan, what advice do you have for a new generation of media leaders who are inspired to follow in your footsteps?

Dylan: I view my current position at this particular point in time as a tremendous privilege, responsibility, and good fortune. I’m not doing my job to make Dylan Ratigan a TV star. I’m doing this to ask good questions of the power structure in a way which everyone can understand the questions and answers. So, my most basic advice is focus on the purpose of what you’re doing and be great.

The more collectively those of us who choose the path of journalism are willing to talk about whatever truth needs to be talked about, the better off we will be as a society. The key is to direct the attention outward in a way that’s easily accessible and digestible. It’s not about being the smartest. It’s about being the most effective.

For example, our ambition at MSNBC is to be like the smart yet entertaining cartoon The Simpsons. People think “funny” has to be stupid and “smart” can’t be fun. However, we must consistently deliver a fun show with insightful information to get everyone involved in important conversations.

Also, I advise understanding the intentions of capitalism so you can ask the correct questions. Let me explain a little because it’s very important to understand …

Money equals imprisonment or freedom. Either a person is imprisoned because they have no money and can’t do anything, or they have the money to freely do what they desire. So, you either have money or you need it.

In a truly capitalist system, power should be accumulated through achievement. As a society, we would want those who do things well and add value to have more power. So, for capitalism to function properly there must be a connection between achievement and power. People must wake up every morning with the drive to achieve as opposed to running scams to get pieces of paper called “money.” In addition, we need to have a clear and even playing field. When our real-world system diverges from these basic principles, we get into trouble. As journalists, we must aim the questions at the divergences.

Damien: So, your advising that journalists understand the underlying presuppositions of our society?

Dylan: Exactly. Understand why people got on a boat in the 1600’s. What were their ideas? They thought, “What if we get to a country where there is freedom of religion and equal opportunity?” When they first got here there wasn’t equal opportunity, but we’ve made great strides since then.

Getting back to the thought about true capitalism, if companies such as General Motors and Citibank can’t earn money from succeeding in the marketplace, they should fail. Then, a new adapted version of those businesses would emerge.

That’s what happens in a true capitalist system. However, in our system — whatever you want to call it — these businesses behaved more like drug cartels who make tons of money and then influence the government to protect them from the fair laws of failure. This is exactly the same as the banks, health insurers, unions, etc. who are saying, “Our business model is obsolete, we made a huge amount of money, so let’s send that money to the government to insure  a legal structure that creates barriers to entry for our businesses.” In other words, they are causing anti-capitalist behavior by creating anti-competitive legal structures — for example, health insurers.

The rules of capitalism are very simple: the capital markets exist as a warehouse of capital accumulated through innovation because you pay people for innovation. As a result, you have an incredibly innovative society. It’s like a leaf blower spreading capital all over the country because capitalists are competing with each other to pick the next winning company. However, that means the government’s role is to oversee the capital markets and make sure capital is being directed back into the economy to award further innovation and value.

In our screwed up world, the capitalists decided to chase money rather than achievement. So, they said, “What if we turn the entire housing market into a speculative instrument? From what can we skim 1/100th of a basis point and still pay ourselves billions of dollars each?”

Damien: The biggest asset each person possesses.

Dylan: Bingo. And we arrive at that place by simply asking good questions.

Damien: On a related note, do you ever feel like your good questions are drowned out by the overwhelming amount of PR in the media?

Dylan: No. I feel more hopeful than ever. The beautiful thing about technology, America, and capitalism is our freedom of information. I believe in a few years everyone in this country will know how this place is being run — even if tomorrow I got run over by a bus.

I am hopeful because I know we can vote to change the system. We can say, “All lobbying money must be disclosed.” This will prevent the major lobbying interests from continuing to run this country to their benefit and everyone else’s detriment. Each of these powerful groups may not be operating with bad intentions, but they operate in an undemocratic veil of secrecy.

Lobbying may be good or bad. That’s not my job to know. But it is un-American to allow any particular institution to assert financial control or influence over legislators who are supposed to be making decisions in the interests of the nation. Our representatives are not hired to benefit any one group at the expense of the nation. Just look at what happened when the corn group overdid ethanol at the expense of the nation, health insurers overdid their profits at the expense of the nation, and banks overdid their risk at the expense of the nation.

Circling back to hope … I am also hopeful because Americans can spend their own dollars. As people have better information and a clearer understanding of how things are connected, every American will be able to better use their two most powerful assets: the right to vote and the right to freely spend the untaxed portion of their money. When these two powers are combined with good information, great things are possible.

Remember, this country once had slaves, women couldn’t vote, etc. This is not a static nation. We’ve wrestled much bigger problems than undemocratic influence. We’ve got some very smart people, an entire generation of citizens with a different view of information and information gathering, and the capacity to deliver information globally in a blink. It’s all about the truth. And if the truth is readily available, the system is actually quite good.

So, the big issue right now is to eliminate the aspects of our system which allow the obscuration of the truth — meaning, all the different things which are not done in public. For instance, the distribution of a few trillion dollars to the banks on behalf of the American people.

Damien: While we’re focused on truth and technology, why do you think so many journalists avoided properly investigating the financial crisis for their audience who relied on them for critical information?

Dylan: Conversations about why things went wrong can be very unnerving and scary. Any conversation which conflicts with the status quo can make people feel uncomfortable. Also, this story has many layers of complexity, so it’s challenging for people to figure out the best way to cover it.

I can’t answer beyond that. You’ll have to ask them.

Damien: I will see what I can do. Dylan, this has been an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking discussion. Thank you very much for taking the time out of your hectic schedule.

Dylan: It was my pleasure. Thank you very much for this award. We appreciate your interest in what we’ve been doing. Keep up the good work on your end!

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Check out other First Amendment Award winners:

First Amendment Award for Outstanding Journalism: Best Book Bailout Nation

First Amendment Award for Outstanding Journalism: Best Reporter Matt Taibbi