The veteran business journalist talks with the Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his remarkable career, what he thinks about America’s economic outlook and his little-known connection to Mick Jagger.
A typical day in the life of Stuart Varney, host of Fox Business Network’s “Varney & Co.,” begins in the wee hours of the morning with a whirlwind of meetings, planning and writing. By 6:30 a.m., he’s already on the air covering an intriguing financial story for “Fox & Friends.” Then he squeezes in a couple of radio interviews before he collaborates with the producer of “Fox News Challenge.” His own show, “Varney & Co.,” runs from 9:20 a.m. until 11 o’clock. “It’s a lively show with lots of emotion and fast-paced broadcasting—based on issues of the day—with financial and stock market news as a backdrop,” he says, adding that he takes a 15-minute break and then holds the next day’s show meeting. “If Megyn Kelly’s producer wants me to appear on ‘America Live,” I’ll do that, which takes me up to about 1:30 p.m. I am usually home by 3 o’clock in the afternoon, but it’s a 24-hour loop in which I’m always plugged in with my BlackBerry® for developing stories and potential guests. I love and adore it. Can’t you tell?” He also finds time to serve as a business contributor and substitute host for FOX News Channel’s “Your World” with Neil Cavuto. “There are times when you’ve got to get out of the TV news loop and into the family loop—with no Internet and no cell phone. I’ve got six children and six grandchildren. My wife knows it’s very hard for me at times but she’s very tolerant. I’m a lucky guy.”
Opportunist: Who or what inspired you to become a broadcast journalist?
Stuart Varney: I wouldn’t say there was any one individual. I liked what I was doing from day one as a radio reporter and then on TV, and I instinctively felt I could do it. Assembling facts, putting together stories that would be of interest—that was my inspiration to stay in the business and enjoy what I do for a living.
Opportunist: Where did you start your career?
Stuart Varney: In Hong Kong of all places. During my travels I was introduced to a man who ran Radio Hong Kong and he hired me to be a street reporter.
Opportunist: When did you come to America?
Stuart Varney: My American wife and I arrived in San Francisco in the early 1970s. I wanted to continue working in the radio market but was told that my English accent gave me no credibility. [Laughs] I saw an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for an entry-level newscaster at KEMO-TV, a small station in the Bay Area. For 3½ years I hosted “Stock Market Today,” which was broadcast across North America.
Opportunist: You were a CNN original. How did you become part of their first business news team?
Stuart Varney: Ted Turner was looking for people who knew TV and business. He heard about me and invited me to come to Atlanta to see if I could be part of CNN. I became a financial journalist on day one of the world’s first 24-hour business news network.
Opportunist: Please tell us about the early days at CNN.
Stuart Varney: It was very much an experimental station during the first year. The challenge was to get the program on TV because no one had done 24-hour TV news on a network basis. We invented ourselves and a new style of news broadcasting. We realized we were on to something, that this thing would fly and that people would watch. I found it extremely exciting to be part of something brand-new.
Opportunist: Do you remember your first CNN broadcast?
Stuart Varney: Yes, the network kicked off on Sunday, June 1, 1980, at 12 noon with a broadcast out of Atlanta. Jimmy Carter started things rolling with a speech and Ted Turner was there and the news flowed onwards. The next morning at 10 minutes past 6 o’clock Eastern Daylight Time we went on the air from New York, with my first financial news report.
My claim to fame is I opened up this brand-new cable news network’s news operation’s first broadcast from New York. I called my mother and said, “Mum I just got this job on TV in America and we’re going to do news 24 hours a day.” [Laughs] In her very broad English accent, she said, “Well we do it all in ‘alf an hour over here.”
Stuart Varney: We probably had a staff of five. Two principal people I worked with, who formed the basis of our business news team, were Myron Kandel (the financial news editor at CNN for 20 years) and Lou Dobbs (anchor of the evening broadcast called “Money Line”).
Opportunist: Who do you consider the most extraordinary person you have interviewed?
Stuart Varney: I can easily answer that. Margaret Thatcher. Shortly after she left office in 1990, I did an interview with her in Washington.
Opportunist: What was it like for you, as a fellow Brit, to meet her?
Stuart Varney: The classic English stateswoman talking to the English expatriate made a fascinating interview. She walked into a large room full of the world’s movers and shakers and every person in that room was immediately aware that Margaret Thatcher had just walked in. Prestige, status—she had it all. She was trying to take England toward more open markets and a competitive, individualistic society. I approved of that wholeheartedly.
Opportunist: Is there anyone you’d like to interview whom you haven’t yet?
Stuart Varney: Given my druthers, I would love to interview President Obama in a face-to-face conversational, free-flowing style. It’s not going to happen, but that’s the style I would prefer because that’s the way you get the most out of the interview. Generally speaking, an interview with a sitting president is a pretty static affair. You ask questions and he answers in his own time frame, in his own way and at whatever length he chooses.
Opportunist: Who was your toughest interview?
Stuart Varney: A whole category of people. [Laughs] CEOs and executives at major corporations are very difficult because they cannot answer freely. The Sarbanes–Oxley Act [of 2002] limited what an executive officer can say about the future course of their company. If they say “we’re expanding rapidly” and then they don’t measure up to that, they can be sued. When I interview someone I want to make sure the audience is watching me and is intrigued. I communicate directly, without a teleprompter. That whole class of people I find very difficult to interview in an appealing fashion because they are so indeterminate and hesitant to say anything of real meaning.
Opportunist: Do you find politicians a challenge?
Stuart Varney: Politicians are acutely aware of the “gotcha” sound bite and will typically have a series of talking points. They know exactly what they are going to say regardless of the questions you ask. You’re very much aware that your audience is aware that your politician isn’t answering the question, but if you interrupt—especially someone of major stature—you appear rude. You don’t want to look that way but you don’t want to disappoint the audience.
Opportunist: Have you had any embarrassing moments on TV?
Stuart Varney: In the early 1980s when CNN had just begun being carried on global satellite feeds and could be watched almost anywhere, I was talking on American TV about putting your money into an IRA. Viewers in the United Kingdom, where the IRA [Irish Republican Army] was very active in its campaign against the British Government, actually thought I was urging Americans to put money into the IRA. The House of Commons wanted to know who is this Englishman who’s asking Americans to support the IRA? They finally realized that IRA was just an unfortunate acronym for individual retirement accounts and that I was not up to no good. [Laughs]
Opportunist: What happens when you, the interviewer, become the interviewee? Have your comments ever been taken out of context?
Stuart Varney: [Laughs] Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert used sound bites of me talking about the nature of being poor in America to create a very funny comedy sketch on their show. It wasn’t exactly taken out of context, but they did take little bits out of a long report I was delivering to my audience in which I was saying, “Look, poverty in America today is not the poverty of having very few things or of starving.” The poverty we are experiencing in a modern society like America is poverty of the spirit. It’s more a lack of opportunity and a sense of being beaten down without a way to make your way in the world as an individual. That’s not what Mr. Colbert and Mr. Stewart came away with and gave to their audience, but it was very funny and I was laughing at it.
Stuart Varney: On the day that Iraq invaded Kuwait in the early 1990s, I was doing a show out of London for CNN based upon world business events. It was memorable for me because there were all kinds of live broadcasts out of Kuwait as the Iraqis were attacking and looting and running through the streets. It was exciting to be on top of it as it unfolded and come away with a one-hour broadcast that encapsulated this major event of the decade.
Opportunist: You’re a graduate of the London School of Economics. Tell us about your time there.
Stuart Varney: The LSE is right in the center of London, about a mile from the House of Commons, and it’s a highly politicized school. I spent my three years there doing intense political debate—thinking about, talking about and arguing about politics. It was a wonderful education and real exercise for my brain. Quite often I would take a date over to the House of Commons to watch the prime minister’s question time. We would sit down and watch this wonderful debate for open outcry democracy. There is no equivalent whatsoever in America.
Opportunist: Sounds like that experience prepared you to address both domestic and global economic issues.
Stuart Varney: Exactly. It prepared me for what I did at CNN and what I do at Fox. You get involved in and concentrate on the events of the day and what they mean and how to communicate them to an audience. On a side note: Mick Jagger and I shared a tutor, Dr. Roy Parker. In British university you have a senior lecturer or professor whom you see every three or four weeks, to pour out your heart, discuss politics or share a pint of beer. [Laughs]
Opportunist: That’s interesting.
Stuart Varney: Mick Jagger was an LSE student about three or four years before me but he didn’t graduate because he made so much money as a Rolling Stone. The LSE was an intellectual competition. Jagger is very intelligent—he’s the guy who does the deals for the Rolling Stones after all.
Opportunist: Are you bullish on America?
Stuart Varney: Yes, very much so. It’s a difficult period right now. The economy is not strong and the mood of the country is not exactly positive, but I believe prosperity will return. America is an extremely resilient and vibrant and dynamic place.
Opportunist: What do you think the most recent consumer confidence numbers mean for the country’s economic future?
Stuart Varney: Confidence can turn on a dime, but a sharp downturn is not a good omen. People tend to act on that and spend less money. We are in a very difficult situation—$14 trillion going on $15 trillion of debt is frightening, especially when you look at what’s happened in Europe. We’ve spent ourselves into a terrible mess. We don’t want to go the way of Greece, so a certain degree of fear, worry and anxiety is entirely justified.
Opportunist: The country is still reeling over the August employment numbers. Is it possible that worker vacations had anything to do with zero hiring last month?
Stuart Varney: No, vacation season has little or no impact on employment numbers. The “zero” report reflected the extremely weak jobs market that developed early this year...the downtrend was in place since early spring. It suggests we are on the brink of recession.
Opportunist: From your perspective, was Standard & Poor’s decision to downgrade the U.S. credit rating justified?
Stuart Varney: Yes, it was very justified to downgrade us one notch. The S&P and other rating agencies will continue to look at America’s accumulation of debt and say, “This is not sustainable.” If we do not get a handle on Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid and reform them, I think we will cascade further into this kind of debt that we can see on the horizon. We will be downgraded further in years to come and, justifiably so, I’m afraid. Without getting into politics, I think it will take a significant change in policy to get us out of this hole. But we will get there, guaranteed.