FOX Business Network’s Elizabeth MacDonald talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about her love of breaking news, her dedication to reporting the truth and her new book about a lesser-known yet significant heroine in the age of Joan of Arc.
Wall Street was on pins and needles following last week’s turbulence. The Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted 460 points on Wednesday, amid massive sell-offs sparked by investors’ fears of a global economic slowdown, and by Friday those fears were quelled by news of a likely rebound in Europe, strong U.S. housing starts and promising earnings from a major Wall Street bank. Stocks rose sharply as a result, and the Dow had its second-best day of the year.
Investors have long held the belief that October is the worst month for stocks, but the recent roller-coaster ride was enough to cause that queasy stomach-dropping feeling—especially for those old enough to remember the fateful day in October 27 years ago, when stock markets around the world crashed. Is another free-fall around the bend? And, if so, will the nation’s central bank step in? Time will tell.
“Market volatility happens when, in a normal market, there is no central bank intervention,” says Elizabeth MacDonald, who joined FOX Business Network as stocks editor in September 2007. She previously covered stock market and earnings news for Forbes where, as senior editor, she created “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” annual list. Prior to Forbes, she wrote stories on 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. She was one of the first in the country to sound the alarm about the coming wave of accounting scandals in the mid-’90s, and she also broke stories on Scientology’s secret settlement with the IRS and the Kennedys’ use of the IRS to target political enemies. She was also a former financial editor for Worth magazine, covered the IRS and taxes for Money magazine, and she reported an award-winning investigative series on IRS abuses that led to improved taxpayer rights and reforms at the agency.
Opportunist: Liz, you have been reporting about hackers targeting banks for several months now. Where are these breaches in cyber security emanating from, and why does JPMorgan Chase always seem to be a victim?
Elizabeth MacDonald: The FBI is still looking at a range of possible sources for where those hacks are coming from. Most likely, it’s coming from Russia and the former Soviet satellite states. It’s not just JPMorgan—all banks have been getting hit by hackers daily for years. Lately, they’ve been targeting bank workers’ Facebook accounts for information on their personal lives to help them guess secret passwords and use those sign-in credentials to break in and steal money right out of accounts through fraudulent wire transfers. The FBI is all over that.
Opportunist: Where is Russia’s hostility coming from?
Liz MacDonald: The belief is that JPMorgan got hit the biggest because of their denial of service to Russian embassies due to U.S. sanctions.
Opportunist: You and Tracy Byrnes recently did a ‘Should I Care?’ segment on Ebola. Should Americans be concerned about Ebola at this point?
Elizabeth MacDonald: I believe Ebola has the potential to be a really huge problem. The mortality rate is 60-70 percent so, yes, it’s serious. It started raging earlier this year in West Africa and the debate right now is why isn’t the United States government putting a travel ban in place for those West African nations affected by Ebola? When Canada had a SARS outbreak in 2003, The World Health Organization issued a warning for all nonessential travel to Ontario. The SARS outbreak was severe, with 140 cases and 20 deaths. Everyone who works in the health care sector wants to help human beings. That is why they are doing that job and want to assist. The idea of a voluntary Ebola response system seems absurd. People who are unknowingly exposed to Ebola could take Tylenol and mask the fact they have a fever. The issue is: do we need a mandatory quarantine? Experts say yes. Six committee chairs in Congress say suspend visas for people in countries most affected by the Ebola crisis. We are putting our health care workers at risk.
Opportunist: What do you consider the most important aspect of your work?
Elizabeth MacDonald: The genius of journalism is to try to make it understandable to the little guy. I worry that people don’t get the right information or get misled, and in doing this job I try to cut through the nonsense and deliver business news in an understandable fashion. To quote British dramatist Dennis Potter: ‘The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouth they’ve been in.’ I am always mindful of the writers who have gone before. I enjoy reading George Orwell’s war reporting. He brought refreshing honesty and clear, unambiguous writing to journalism. His Politics and the English Language is a must-read. Thomas Hardy wrote that character is fate. We are what we do; we are our habits. I recall asking my mother, ‘Why are you always talking to yourself?’ and her response was, ‘I like to talk to smart people.’ My mother and my grandmother taught me to be brave. I want to live every day with a strong sense of responsibility to the reader and the viewer, and I try to make that my habit.
Opportunist: You not only appear on TV throughout the week, but you also write a column called Emac’s Bottom Line. Which do you enjoy most: writing or broadcast journalism?
Elizabeth MacDonald: That’s a great point. I love writing and I’m happy to help out on the air. I enjoy breaking news all day long. On weekday mornings I oversee the business metro desk on ‘Opening Bell’ with Maria Bartiromo, where I’m on my phone with my producer, calling the Wall Street trading floors and talking to research shops, government agencies and law enforcement such as the FBI. I have delivered major scoops and revealed bubbles in stocks like GoPro, Zynga and FireEye, and cyber hacks into JPMorgan, eTrade, Target, Fidelity, Home Depot, Boeing, Lockheed Martin—and even the federal government’s own servers. The government turns on the fog machine—so do the analysts—and I try to dispel those clouds. I love working with Lou Dobbs and Neil Cavuto, and ‘Red Eye’ with Greg Gutfeld. Greg calls me ‘America’s babysitter.’ [Laughs]
Opportunist: What topics do you cover in your column?
Elizabeth MacDonald: In addition to breaking news, I like to dispel myths and expose big subjects and players who are misleading people—and I like to write about a wide range of topics. I did breaking news scoops on the Democrats behind the IRS’ targeting of key conservatives, and I was the first in the country to explain which Congressmen were pressuring the IRS—there were 10 of them—and in great detail. I also did a story about how unions hurt their members with high dues while their leaders squander dues money in Las Vegas and on building resorts. I broke a two-part series on SeaWorld’s earnings problems, and I exposed the truth behind the cover-up of the deaths of their trainers, including [killings by] Tilikum. I explained how private-equity shop Blackstone Group bought SeaWorld and loaded it up with debt and sucked money out in the form of management fees and dividends. SeaWorld came up with fake cash flow figures called ‘adjusted cash flow’ to avoid all sorts of expenses and give the illusion it can handle the debt pile that Blackstone left it with, which, by the way, is so big it’s about the size of the company’s entire market cap.
I’ve tried to dispel the myth that China will overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy. Even the IMF says China will not overtake the United States. I also reported about the decline in oil prices, that Tesla is really shaky and needs billions in government subsidies to survive, and how colleges and universities are sticking it to middle class families with tuition gouges. They’re running colleges like hotel empires, with four-star cafeterias, Equinox gyms and white elephant football stadiums as empty as the Olympic Village in Sochi, Russia.
Opportunist: Speaking of Russia, relations between Moscow and the rest of the world seemed stable for quite a while. What changed?
Elizabeth MacDonald: The oil price plunge is distracting Putin right now. The country is facing flat-lining GDP growth at about 1 percent. Russia needs oil prices above $100 per barrel to grow its economy and balance the budget, but it’s in deficit mode. Oil is in freefall and Russia faces recession. The government gets half its revenues from the oil and gas sector. That’s the main reason Putin was eyeing Crimea and Ukraine—for their vast shale reserves.
Opportunist: How do you ensure the accuracy of the information you are reporting?
Elizabeth MacDonald: Gertrude Stein once said: ‘Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.’ I really feel a sense of duty to get the information right. I constantly worry the viewer or reader is being misled. I’m grateful for the hazing I went through when I worked at Money. They would put out a monthly errors report, and if you made any errors they listed your name, the article and what the error was. Boy, that really cleaned up your act fast! [Laughs] I also learned to self-report and fact-check at The Wall Street Journal. You just have to get it right; there’s no other way around it. But it makes you more judicious and prudent and a much more circumspect and thoughtful writer.
Opportunist: Why did you choose journalism, and what motivated you along the way?
Elizabeth MacDonald: I wanted to be a writer and reporter since I was little. I remember being 10 years old and thinking journalism would be a great job. I used to write notes to myself all the time, on the back of receipts, matchbook covers and napkins. My father worked for Vogue/Butterick. I was one of eight children, and I started working in the library shelving books at age 13. At 14, I was working in a bank doing mortgage accounting and, later, working as a teller, which helped finance my college tuition. I always liked to read, and I was kind of quiet. My mother used to joke that I didn’t talk until I was five years old. [Laughs] When I stumbled across I. F. Stone’s work in high school I was intrigued because he told journalists not to cover press conferences but to dig into documents instead. That really spoke to me, and I have always preferred the backwater reporter beats nobody else wanted but that I, in my geekiness, enjoyed. [Laughs] I like digging into footnotes because that’s where all sorts of unbelievable action takes place. To give you an example, I am credited with helping one of the few work stoppages at The Wall Street Journal because I had everyone reading the footnotes to Ken Starr’s report on Monica Lewinsky. That was pretty interesting to me.
Opportunist: Is it ever difficult for you to stay neutral?
Elizabeth MacDonald: Objectivity is standard, but I’m not sure everybody can be objective all the time. You can certainly be fair. I like passion, drive and hunger in journalists, and I admire those who have the honesty, decency and integrity to edit themselves. It always bothers me to see those who are so emotionally attached to their opinion that they politicize every issue and often end up insulting others. Why can’t they just be happy with how talented they are? It’s upsetting to see people demean themselves at that level. Any time you’re that emotionally attached to a story you should be taken off that story.
Opportunist: In doing research for Forbes magazine’s ‘The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women,’ did you uncover any common characteristics among successful women?
Elizabeth MacDonald: What I discovered is there are so many great women running companies we didn’t know about. Whether they were leading a banking conglomerate or some other successful corporation in Indonesia or India or Bangladesh, one thing stood out: they don’t let anyone else define who they are. They define themselves. I, too, am really dedicated to that. When I attended a meeting with business women from the Middle East and Egypt, they were very shy so I tried to put them at ease. When I told them they define their own lives and no one else, I saw them staring at me and I could see light bulbs going off in their head. I thought that was really interesting.
Elizabeth MacDonald: I was always interested to know what was going on in Catholic England before Joan of Arc. We are approaching the 600th anniversary period and most people don’t know about it. While reading [the writings of the Christian mystic] Julian of Norwich, I came across Margery Kempe and I became obsessed with finding out more about her. I feel I am a Julianist, and I have been reading and studying this topic since 1996. Margery was born in 1373 and she is considered the first known autobiographer in the English language. Her book, The Book of Margery Kempe, tells about her pilgrimages to Rome, Jerusalem and Germany and her conversations with God and Jesus. Academics and historians have given her a hard time and basically dismissed her as hysterical like Joan of Arc and, to me, that is so unfair. My feeling is they weren’t reading her book properly. I always read New York Times front-page stories backwards because journalists tend to write too long and bury the best information in the last paragraphs. As I read Margery’s book, it became crystal clear that she is defending herself in the front of her book because it reads like a ‘motion for the defense.’ The back end is like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where she tells about being arrested half a dozen times by the same men who would put Joan of Arc to death. I wanted to write an historical novel explaining what happened with authorities at the trial and the Catholic bishops. It’s a laugh-out-loud riot that details her character flaws and the criticisms against her. If you read her memoir or my book you will see that. She is the hero for all women of all ages. She lived during a time when laymen could not read or talk about the Bible and England enacted a death sentence to stop heresy, but that didn’t stop Margery Kempe from preaching the word of Jesus Christ and baring her own soul.
Opportunist: Do you plan to write future books and, if so, in which genre?
Elizabeth MacDonald: I would like to write more books about the period of time that Margery Kempe lived, and Henry IV and his son, Henry V, and John Wycliffe.
Opportunist: When you look back on your own body of work, is there one achievement in particular that you consider the best moment of your career?
Elizabeth MacDonald: I feel like I’m living the dream right now. I don’t want to put anybody in a diabetic coma [Laughs] but at the end of the day it will be the love and honor I have for those I worked with. And, of course, the love I have for my friends and family.
Opportunist: What is a typical day for you?
Elizabeth MacDonald: Well, I get up around 4 a.m. and I read major newspapers and look at more than two-dozen business websites. I do a lot of reporting and I talk to a lot of people and send lots of emails, and I go on set off and on throughout the trading day. I always want to be on Neil Cavuto’s set. He’s one of my personal heroes. I just love Neil.
Opportunist: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Elizabeth MacDonald: Probably still writing and covering breaking news.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer, editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance, real estate and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in Florida. Follow Leslie on Twitter: @lescstone.
Follow Elizabeth MacDonald on Twitter: @LizMacDonaldFOX
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Skirting Heresy – The Life and Times of Margery Kempe - http://www.skirtingheresy-margerykempe.com/