The Media Today

Q&A: Rana Foroohar on the ‘silences’ in economics coverage

February 1, 2023
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Recently, Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, wrote in this newsletter that “journalism has a Davos problem.” The World Economic Forum, which brings the world’s business and political elites—and no few journalists—to Davos every year, and which Pope once attended himself, “captures in microcosm how the press miscovers the rich, and the economy in general,” he wrote, before calling for a broader rethink of the central tenets of business journalism, at Davos and beyond. “Never in my career have I seen such a disconnect between the state of the global economy and the stories that the business press is serving up to cover it,” he wrote. “The colossal, historic scale of income inequality; the global economic dislocation brought about by the climate crisis and deindustrialization; the quiet, painful struggles of families unable to keep up with debt and inflation. These are dark times, too, for our global workplace, but they do not make up most of what continues to pass for business news.”

Last year, Rana Foroohar, a global business columnist at the Financial Times, also came away from Davos with a bitter taste in her mouth, and the feeling “that the 0.1 per cent was more out of touch with the state of the world than it has ever been in the 20-odd years I’ve attended the conference.” Davos “isn’t the problem,” she wrote, “although it’s certainly not the solution.” This year, she decided not to go. The final straw, she told Pope recently, was the appearance last year of a pop-up café branded for Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who, according to US intelligence assessments, ordered the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. “Like, how?” Foroohar recalls thinking, of the café. “Why is this okay?”

Pope and Foroohar spoke about Davos, the broader state of business journalism, and “the cult of the economist” for the latest edition of CJR’s podcast The Kicker. You can read highlights from the conversation below, and/or listen to the whole thing here. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

KP: What is your problem with Davos?

RF: Gosh, where to begin? I’m tempted to quote Jill Abramson [the former executive editor of the New York Times, who said recently] that it’s a “corrupt circle jerk.”

What Davos is is a giant business conference. It is a place to make money. Through some very clever marketing and positioning, the Forum and Klaus Schwab [its chairperson] have been able to position it as some sort of global philanthropic effort, and frankly, it’s BS. I think that there’s a toxic mix between the business folks and government officials and the media. I think if we just acknowledged it as a giant conference of very rich people who want to do commerce with each other, that would be one thing. But the fact that it has become something else makes it a little more icky, to my mind.

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I think Davos is an important way to think about, How does business journalism cover the world? And does it do it in a broad enough way, or is it too narrow? I spent a decade at the Wall Street Journal and then at a business-journalism magazine, and I just think that there’s a disconnect that isn’t healthy for business journalism. You wrote a book about the last recession, and I’m just curious whether you see that same disconnect, and what you would prescribe that people do differently.

I think you’re referring to my first book, Makers and Takers, which was about financialization. The thing that caused me to write the book was I was sitting at the Council on Foreign Relations, where there had been an off-the-record meeting with a former Clinton and Obama administration official who was talking about the crisis being over. That was a couple of years after the subprime crisis. The administration had done some of the rule-writing. Dodd-Frank [a federal financial-regulation law that came into effect in 2010] was underway, and they were trying to wrap a bow around things and say, There’s nothing to see here. But I was digging into some statistics. There was actually some great academic research from a University of Michigan scholar noting that over 90 percent of all the meetings on the most contentious parts of the Dodd-Frank regulation had been taken not just with only the financial sector, but three big banks. So I raised that point and I said, “How can you all say that we’re done when the rules are only half-written and most of the consultation is with the biggest financial institutions?” And this official looked at me and said, “Well, who else should we have been talking to?” And I looked around the room—it was a bunch of beat reporters from all the usual publications—and nobody really batted an eye. Nobody was scribbling, and I thought that capture—both of the official by the industry, but, by proxy, the journalists by the official by the industry—was quite profound.

It’s like the normal rules are suspended. I mean, you wouldn’t do this in politics. If you were writing about somebody who is trying to pass a law that affected people, you would go talk to the people who were affected by the law, right? 

Totally, yeah.

I think too often in business news, that step isn’t taken. Whatever the company says—or whatever the economist says or the spokesman says—is the end of the road. I don’t know when that came to be, or why that came to be. Do you have any thoughts on that?

I think that this is very much part of the cult of the economist, which I think is sort of a post-Thatcher/Reagan, trickle-down-revolution kind of thinking. At which point, the economics profession became not only more mathematically driven, but more about a very narrow, siloed view of shareholder value. As long as stock prices are going up, as long as consumer prices are going down, everything’s working. There is no problem. All this can be mathematically modeled. There was not a sense that Hey, we live in a really messy world in which people exist and they’re not always rational. Power exists, and that can’t be modeled at all. And that goes back to an earlier period in our history, in which power and the political economy were much more front and center in both economics and in lawmaking and rulemaking. That’s of course something that’s being brought back. One of my great rabbis is Joe Stiglitz, a Columbia professor; I kind of learned my craft and trade talking to people like him who would say, Well, all you had to do to realize that markets weren’t always perfect was to grow up in Gary, Indiana. And I think that journalists get very intimidated, and have frankly been pushed in that direction by the experts [using] the language of expertise to obfuscate and to confuse issues. If there’s one thing that I think we should remember as journalists it’s that, oftentimes, if somebody can’t say things simply, then they either don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re trying to get something over on you.

The default in too much of the coverage has been to believe these people, as opposed to the default in journalism, which is that you assume that the officials are lying.

“Lying” is a funny word, because I don’t know sometimes whether the folks that I speak to in economics and business circles either believe their own spin so much that actually, they’re not lying, but they have a cognitive picture that is limited, or whether they are, in fact, lying. I don’t know. But I think it’s pretty equal, whether you find that in political circles or economic circles.

One of the reasons this is so interesting to me is because my read of the state of the economy where I live is bad. Where do you think we are in terms of recession, in terms of the state of this economy that we’re living in right now?

I think that you’re getting at something really important when you say, “Where I live things seem bad.” If you’re in Davos, maybe they seem good. This is actually getting at a topic that I think is of growing importance in economics, which is the rise of place-based economics. This is something that I think a lot of journalists are not aware of, but when you talk to an economist—when you see GDP numbers or Bureau of Labor Statistics stats—they’re being modeled in a way that does not take into account the fact that the fundamental laws of economic gravity may be different whether you’re sitting in Boise or in Austin or in Brooklyn or in Davos. I think one of the reasons that we are seeing a huge backlash to globalization is that economic models did not take into account that—even though laissez-faire, neoliberal free trade would create growth at a global level—it would dramatically hollow out certain regions within countries and communities. So place-based economics is important. That’s point number one. Point number two is that there is an increasing divide between the part of the economy that is essentially based around asset inflation and the part that is based on income. In America, the top 10 percent of the population owns about 85 percent of the asset base, and of course, it’s much more concentrated at the top 1 percent.

The solution is to have more and better local business coverage. But there are fewer local news outlets out there—there are just fewer people to write these stories and to understand what’s happening. You must think about this every day: you write for a global audience, and you just made the case that the economy is like the weather. It’s different everywhere, different from hour to hour.

That’s right. There are microclimates. In addition to writing my column at the Financial Times, I’m on contract at CNN, and I’m really trying to push producers there to not call me up and say, Inflation: Biden’s fault or not? Or, GDP numbers: What do they mean about a recession? No—let’s pull the lens way back and look at the big-picture, structural things that are happening. I’m not saying don’t do spot news. But let’s layer it on top of those bigger-picture trends. Read history. Read what’s happened over the last hundred years, and then layer anything you’re hearing on top of that and start to see where the gaps are, what doesn’t make sense. In particular—as any anthropologist would say—look at where the silences are. What are people not telling you? What are they not talking about?

Other notable stories:

  • Writing for Popula, Tom Scocca asks why “the New York Times is so obsessed with trans kids,” noting that, in the past eight months, the paper has published “more than 15,000 words’ worth of front-page stories asking whether care and support for young trans people might be going too far or too fast.” The coverage, Scocca writes, is “pretty obviously—and yet not obviously enough—a plain old-fashioned newspaper crusade.”
  • Earlier this week, unionized staffers at HuffPost, which is owned by BuzzFeed, said that they would go on strike unless management reached agreement with them on a new contract by midnight last night; the staffers accused bosses of a lack of urgency and of inadequate proposals on wage increases, among other issues. This morning, at 1:43am, HuffPost’s union tweeted that a deal had been reached, and that details will follow soon.
  • Journalism unions from Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland severed ties with the International Federation of Journalists, a global grouping of media unions, after accusing the body of “corruptive activity” and of failing to expel Russian members that have set up shop in occupied territory in Ukraine. The IFJ said that it has triggered an expulsion process and strongly denied the other allegations; Reuters’s Anne Kauranen has more.
  • For Al Jazeera, John Power profiled The Points, “a new online media outlet dedicated to covering news about Hong Kong and its growing diaspora” that is staffed by journalists who left the territory amid the recent crackdown on press freedom there and are now based in Canada, Australia, and the UK. The Points hopes to become “the first 24-hour news operation for Hong Kong that is based outside the city,” Power writes.
  • And yesterday was a banner day for congressional coverage and unhealthy food. Insider’s Sophie Kleeman ate like Nancy Pelosi for a week—ice cream for breakfast; hot dogs for lunch—because she “thought it would be fun. It wasn’t.” Meanwhile, Jesús Rodríguez, of Politico, likened interviewing George Santos to the doughnuts that Santos left for reporters outside his office: “Nothingness surrounded by nutritional nothingness.”

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Emily Russell is a CJR fellow.