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.
The focus was really on the fact that they were the biggest and it was a company that had ridden the crest of the wave of the whole mortgage mania. It was not a heavily regulated entity. It was not a bank. Only became a bank late in the game—it bought a bank. It was kind of the quintessential way to tell the mortgage-mania story was through that company.
TA: It wasn’t like you got some tip that there’s corruption there and this is a rotten corpse?
GM: Well, I heard that too. But I wanted to make sure it was actually happening, but also you want to write about a significant company. You know as well as I do that you hear tips all the time about really kind of inconsequential companies and you just can’t waste your time with that. There was a lot of corruption, obviously, in the mortgage industry.
TA: Any thoughts on what the business press is missing or what it should do next?
GM: I think this whole government response, that’s the new phase that we really, really have to be very vigilant about, and it’s harder because it’s all under wraps. It’s very secretive. It’s hard to penetrate that fog but it is really, really important now because the taxpayer is on the hook. It’s kind of now moved to Washington but it’s still very much a business and finance story.
What I’m worried about is that it will fall through the cracks because maybe the Washington reporters aren’t as knowledgeable about the securities that are involved or whatever. It’s so, so, so important because the taxpayers’ money is on the hook here. That’s where we need to focus our efforts.
TA: “The Reckoning” is the best series we’ve seen this year; how did it come about?
GM: Well, thanks. We had projects that were underway but it all came together in that awful period in August when Fannie Mae was on the cliff and the markets were really, really roiled. There was a bailout every week and it just became clear that we had to explain this in real time.
We haven’t gotten every story but we’ve tried to tackle the bigger players, bigger companies, bigger regulatory elements and just to tackle them in a story-by-story basis. It’s so huge you couldn’t do it in one story. You might have thought there would be a three-part series or whatever, but it just became so massive that it was something that you just had to take apart piece by piece and really help explain it to people. And it was so bewildering and it still is—you could keep writing these stories, I’m sorry to say, for a long time.