By Nina Gregory April 21, 2014
In the summer of 2008, as the financial crisis raged and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression was worsening, I was working as an editor on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” It was a wild time to pitch story ideas, find and book guests, and write and edit interviews. Markets were gyrating. Major financial institutions were failing. Jobs were disappearing. Millions were losing their homes, their savings, or both.
The immediate problem was that every day there was a new dance to learn, one with an arcane language and a complex choreography. How many journalists, outside of a handful of specialty publications, knew what a mortgage-backed security was back then? Bad news often seemed to come on Sundays, when it was hard to reach an economist, a professor or an analyst who might be able to help explain things. How do you explain what’s happening and what it all means when it’s so complicated, the stakes are so high and the story is moving so fast?
At NPR, we also faced a more basic challenge: It’s really hard to talk about numbers on the radio. The old maxim among hosts, editors, reporters and producers is that if you say more than one or two numbers on the air, your listeners will tune out, like bored kids in a math class. But how do you tell stories about a financial crisis without using a bunch of numbers?
Looking back at the way the best radio journalists covered the crisis and its aftermath provides some answers. For starters, you need to accept the medium’s limitations. “Numbers and radio are not a great combination, and there isn’t really a way to make them a great combination,” says J.J. Yore, one of the creators of “Marketplace,” the daily public radio show that specializes in covering business and the economy. But Yore, who was the show’s executive producer for 14 years, is quick to add that that challenge also provides an opportunity: “The good thing is that it forces you to distill what you’re trying to say into something that can be understood without visual representation.”
The first question for radio journalists during the financial crisis was no different than for other stories: Is this a better host interview or reporter story? Many factors go into these decisions, including scheduling, the time an event is happening and whether an appropriate person is available. Usually they’re driven by the nature of the story.
One of the most dramatic events during the financial crisis was the failure of IndyMac bank, headquartered in Pasadena, California. On July 11, 2008, there was an actual “run on the bank,” with scenes that looked like a Great Depression newsreel: People lined up for hours at IndyMac bank branches in southern California, trying to pull their cash out. It was a huge local story, and it quickly ballooned into a national one. (The bank was ultimately seized by federal regulators, becoming one of the biggest bank failures in U.S. history.)
One way to make a story like this effective on radio is to let the people who are affected – in this case, the people standing on line – talk, or to question the bank’s managers. What’s the plan? What’s actually happening? This is exactly what NPR’s Scott Horsely did in this piece.
The fall of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – the two giant “government sponsored enterprises” that backed $5 trillion in home loans and were taken over by the government in September, 2008, was another extraordinary event. In a case like this, if you can get an interview with the Treasury Secretary, that’s where the host of the show comes in. You want someone who can grill him. Just two months before the takeover, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had convinced Congress that Fannie and Freddie’s problems could be dealt with if he was given broad authority, saying, infamously, “If you’ve got a bazooka and people know you’ve got it, you may not have to take it out.” Here’s an interview in which NPR’s John Ydstie asked Paulson how that worked out.
While the summer of 2008 was intense, it wasn’t the end of the drama. Three summers later, in July, 2011, Congressional leaders were negotiating with each other, and with the Obama Administration, over an increase in the U.S. debt ceiling – a vote that was once a routine administrative function, but had become a test of wills between the political parties. If no compromise could be reached, it seemed possible the government would be unable to pay its bills, and might even default on its debt for the first time. Things in DC were tense.
But despite the high stakes, the story, on its surface, seemed rather dull: It was, after all, about politicians negotiating over a fairly obscure bit of legislation. Making a story like that appealing to listeners presented a challenge. Reporter Sonari Glinton explains how he came up with a fresh approach while covering an all-day negotiating session at the White House – not by using numbers, or calling an economist, but by watching TV.
“There was a lot of brinksmanship going on,” he recalls. “And it was a really weird time. CNN had a countdown clock showing when we’d hit the debt ceiling. It was summertime in DC. It was really hot. Everyone was trying to figure out how far which group would go.” When the negotiators broke for lunch, Glinton noticed that the World Series of Poker was also on TV, and had an insight: “I thought, ‘This is just like poker, isn’t it?’ When I put it in those terms, everyone I talked to for the story was like, ‘Yeah, it’s exactly like poker.’ “
Glinton believes his insight on the debt-ceiling story says something more general about journalism. “To be a decent reporter,” he says, “you have to live. If you just read the New York Times and never go to a shopping mall or watch daytime television, you can exist in a bubble. Just like you can get an idea from a newspaper, you can get an idea from a TV show or a comedy or walking down the street.”
A month after that negotiating session, in August, 2011, the debt-ceiling negotiations had continued to go nowhere, and suddenly the story became breaking news. Citing rising fiscal and political uncertainty, the bond-rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. government’s credit rating. As is typical for August in Washington, DC, much of the city was on vacation, including almost the entire business desk at NPR. Only two reporters were in the building – Yuki Noguchi and Tamara Keith.
“The news broke at night and there wasn’t a lot of reaction we could do,” Noguchi recalls. “Tamara did a live interview that evening to try to explain it on the fly. But in a lot of ways, it was expected, too, because there had been warnings.” The financial markets all tumbled after the downgrade, losing hundreds of points. But what was confusing – and difficult to explain – was that reporting revealed that the market was not reacting to the downgrade, but instead was reacting to the European debt crisis, which was going on at the same time. “There was a phrase being thrown around that the US is still the cleanest shirt in the drawer,” Noguchi says. Rather than try to second-guess the market’s psychology, she looked for a way to provide context, and did a story about the way market volatility and investors’ fears interact.
The macroeconomic fallout of the Great Recession continues, of course, and we continue to look at changes – whether in housing numbers, unemployment numbers or the results of bank stress tests. We also go back and revisit some of the players from that period of time. Anniversaries can offer a good news peg, and an opportunity to analyze whether the right decisions were made and to hold people accountable for what they did or did not accomplish. Here’s an interview Robert Siegel, host of “All Things Considered,” did with Henry Paulson (now former Treasury Secretary) five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It’s worth noting the difference time makes – or doesn’t.
When looking over NPR’s coverage of the financial crisis and its aftermath these past seven years, it’s also worth listening to Tamara Keith’s 2011 series, The Road Back to Work.
In radio, we all learn and relearn that what works best are real voices of real people telling their stories. It takes time, and craft. Keith’s series, she explains, was about, “talking to people and applying their experiences to trends, and seeing the trends in their experiences. It was really about people affected by the economy. Radio is the most intimate medium, and the human voice is so powerful. That’s what I felt, with that series, was the most important thing.”
This entry was posted on Monday, April 21st, 2014 at 4:06 pm. It is filed under Featured, Skills and Tradecraft and tagged with financial crisis, great recession, national public radio, number and radio, radio reporting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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