This was a story with so many different facets, and then on top of that you layer on the credit-default swaps and you layer on the CDOs and the CDO-squareds that were putting synthetic mortgages into securities. I mean, this was just a complex story to the max. And so, you couldn’t possibly do it one time or two times. You had to stay on it to explain to the reader why it wasn’t going to go away, why it was going to be with us for a very long time.
TA: And how do you convince your editor to give you forty inches on collateralized-debt obligations in 2004?
GM: …when it’s not as evident that it’s going to be a problem. You have to have a lot of mojo with your editor, right?
This was a story you just couldn’t do a couple of. And you know, one thing that I’ve learned at the paper here in my ten-plus years is you can’t just do one or two stories on these things and get any traction.
TA: Even at The New York Times.
GM: Yeah. Yeah, you’ve got to keep hammering because people are busy they don’t read it, they’ve got a family. Who’s got all the time to read all this stuff?
TA: What do you look for in stories? You don’t do much beating around the bush or make folks read much between the lines.
GM: Well, Jim [Michaels, legendary Forbes editor and Morgenson mentor], he was all about not wasting the readers’ time. He really didn’t like that “if on the one hand/if on the other hand” type of journalism where you just kind of let the reader decide and hope that they draw a conclusion. Obviously you build your case, you have your facts, and the facts are so compelling that the conclusion is not deniable. Most important is explaining, because I think this complexity is often by design on Wall Street to try to make things more difficult than they have to be. And so just being able to explain it in plain English is a help to a lot of people. But I don’t see any point in pursuing a story or doing a lot of reporting if you’re not really going to be able to persuade the reader that this is a story that’s worthy of their time.
TA: How do you walk the line between being a columnist and a reporter. Do you get questions from sources who say “well, how can you do this if you’re saying that in your column?”
GM: I’ve never had that question from a reader…
TA: Just us journalism-criticism types, huh?
GM: No, well the [Times] public editor [Clark Hoyt] did a column about it a couple of weeks ago, and I thought it was interesting that he said he had never had a complaint from a reader on that subject. My feeling is it is not a problem because my columns are so heavily reported. It’s not like I’m just sitting here gazing at my navel and coming up with a thesis about something. I really have not gotten one comment from a reader about it.
I think especially in this day and age when newspaper budgets are being cut and the amount of investigative journalism or tough, good reporting that’s being done is less and less, I think it’s not really a central problem. Call me crazy.
TA: Some people talk about you being too crusading or that you see things too much in black and white.
GM: I don’t think it’s right because obviously nothing is in black and white. It’s part of this thing of not wanting to waste the readers’ time. If you write in a way that’s not clear, that is muddying, that talks about the gray areas—it’s never black and white, it’s always gray, but you do have to take the reader down the path that your reporting (has led) and synthesize the information and draw the conclusion or at least paint the picture that you’ve found from the reporting that you’ve done.
TA: I think you helped, deservingly so, make Countrywide a poster boy for the mortgage crisis—just being relentless on that story. How did you come to focus on them?
GM: First of all, they were the biggest lender in the nation, and they were kind of an American icon in business. It was a boy-from-the-Bronx-made-good, bootstrap story. Doing the American dream of homeownership, the American Way. It had all of these iconic elements and had really up until mid-2007 were still purveying the idea that they were not a subprime lender, were not part of the problem, were above the fray. And the facts just did not bear that out.