Media Moves

MacDonald on covering the markets, breaking the news

March 24, 2010

TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE

Elizabeth MacDonald is the stocks editor at Fox Business Network, but she covers more than the markets. In January, she questioned whether health reform is constitutional based on the interstate commerce clause — a story followed this past week by the Washington Post.

And earlier this month, McDonald reported about how some states were accusing Wall Street of selling them bad derivatives.

Prior to joining Fox Business, MacDonald was a senior editor at Forbes, where she covered stock market and earnings news and created “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” annual list. Before Forbes, MacDonald covered stock market, earnings and accounting abuses for The Wall Street Journal‘s Money & Investing section, with front page stories and Heard on the Street columns.

MacDonald was one of the first journalists in the country to sound the alarm about the coming wave of accounting scandals in the mid-’90s, and also broke stories on, for example, Scientology’s secret settlement with the IRS and the Kennedys’ use of the IRS to target political enemies.

MacDonald talked earlier this week by e-mail with Talking Biz News about her career and the stories she’s covering. What follows is an edited transcript.

1. How did you get interested in covering business and finance?

I’ve wanted to be a reporter since I was 10 years old, no kidding, I know, strange as it is. I used to write notes on things to myself all the time. Then in high school I was enamored with I.F. Stone’s work (he always advised reporters to never cover press conferences and instead dig into documents), George Orwell’s war reporting, I admired Orwell’s bracing intellectual honesty, is hard as steel, clear as rain prose, his “Politics and the English Language” is a must read for the simple rules of unambiguous writing. I loved reading Thomas Hardy, who always said “Character is fate,” that stuck with me.

I’ve been working since the age of 15, and in high school worked in a bank, doing mortgage accounting and being a teller, which helped finance my college tuition costs. So when I graduated college, as soon as I could, I marched right over to the Time Inc. building and got a job at Money magazine, working up the food chain there to become a writer.

2. How hard was it to make the change from print to broadcast?

That’s an interesting question. It was hard because essentially I had to start caring about hair and makeup, which I ordinarily don’t care too much about. So I had to clean up my act. I have a face for radio. But it has been a proven training ground for me personally, as it has made me hopefully improve my writing and become a more accurate journalist. Because you literally are the message, as Fox News chief Roger Ailes is right to say.

And now I also have a new perspective when it comes to what I see on TV. When I watch people on camera now, I am often mindful of what the British dramatist Dennis Potter has said, “The trouble with words is you never know whose mouth they’ve been in.”

3. What do you like more about being on TV?

I enjoy most of all those serendipitous moments in an exchange between a panelist and anchor where you come up with some fresh new angle on a story, something no one else is covering.

4. A lot of media cover Wall Street and the markets. How do you try to make your coverage stand out?

Through the footnotes, through the arid, dry digging into government documents, through FOIA requests. I do feel terribly responsible, I have 3 a.m. guilt attacks over this, about getting the information correct on camera, getting the full story. I have some weird need to want to apply an x-ray to what really is going on. Because Wall Street and government officials too often set off smoke bombs, it’s hard to see through what is going on. Walk through that dry document desert and you can appreciate the new angles sticking out every which way, even though they are written in the font size of pharmaceutical warnings. I do though admire people who can act like a bridge between complexity and plain speaking — that’s true genius.

5. How do you convey that the health care reform story is also a markets/investing story?

It’s a complicated story loaded with many, many moving parts and regulatory vaporware that affect all levels of viewers’ wallets, be it the economy, the stock market, taxes, you name it.

6. What story have you been most proud of while working at Fox Business?

All of them. I can’t stand talking about myself though, I’m starting to break out in allergic skin hives, I don’t like it. I’m most proud though, and I mean this, of being able to work with a truly extraordinary group of people, you won’t find a more dedicated group of people who are devoted daily to bringing viewers the business information they need to protect themselves and their families. I’m quite loyal to them, and I’m quite loyal to Roger Ailes.

7. Your stories lately have focused a lot on the government impact on business and the economy. Is that a story that’s uncovered in business news?

Absolutely. Today, Wall Street and Capitol Hill are tied together more than ever.

8. What business news stories do you see coming up that may not be on the radar of journalists?

I’m not going to tell you because I want to break it first.

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