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Taking the Bull Market by the Horns: An Interview with Dylan Ratigan


The MSNBC news anchor assesses our current state of affairs.

In the movie Network, veteran news anchor Howard Beale utters one of the most famous lines in cinematic history, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" We can all relate to that 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 (GE) 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.

Damien Hoffman: 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 Ratigan: 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.

Damien: If you're making a grand 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 $1,000 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, every day. 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 [think Wells Fargo (WFC), Citigroup (C), Bank of America (BAC), JPMorgan (JPM)], 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.

Damien: 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.
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