This is not some opinion! This is a mathematical fact!”
In a now-infamous Aug. 9, 2011, taping, a cable news host has just boiled over at his assembled panel of guests. He’s yelling, at full volume. “I’ve been coming on TV for three years doing this,” he bellows, exasperated. “And the fact of the matter is that there’s a refusal on both the Democratic and the Republican side of the aisle to acknowledge the mathematical problem, which is that the United States of America is being extracted!” He has now erupted. “It’s being extracted through banking! It’s being extracted through trade! And it’s being extracted through taxation! And there’s not a single politician that has stepped forward to deal with this!”
Answering The Observer’s call from a hotel room in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the 39-year-old host of MSNBC’s The Dylan Ratigan Show sounded nothing like the man whose unhinged, frothing-at-the-mouth rants on unmitigated corporate greed went viral last summer. Nor did he sound like the man who frustrated Ed Schultz, of all people, to the point where he ended the segment in disgust, or the man who has been known to cut off guests completely. It didn’t even sound like the guy whose favorite New Yorker was Teddy Roosevelt, and whose first book, which came out in January, bears the unsubtle title Greedy Bastards! (Simon & Schuster).
Dylan Ratigan answered the phone sounding like a calm, collected New Yorker enjoying a tropical vacation. One couldn’t help wondering if maybe the apoplectic, vein-popping madman wasn’t perhaps a bit of a TV creation?
Not quite. Ratigan’s rants, he assured us, were “100 percent spontaneous.”
Even the notorious “extraction” rant, the episode the show’s website refers to as his Network moment, was pure, unvarnished Ratigan, he insisted. “It’s terrible and embarrassing behavior,” he said. “It’s unprofessional to behave that way in public, for god’s sake.” Not that he regrets the outburst. “If I had just gone on and said those things, then no one would have watched it,” he explained. “So I walk away and I’m like, ‘At least everyone is going to hear about the bank extraction.’ Not because they want to, because they want to hear Ratigan lose his shit. It’s kind of funny,” he laughed. “If I could do it on a premeditated basis, then I’d do it more often. I’d be more famous.”
Instead, the host said he would rather promote a more thoughtful sort of discourse. More calm, nuanced, and positive—conversation that is, in his own words, “fueled by compassion.”
Ratigan, 39, grew up in Saranac Lake, N.Y., the only child of a single mother, a social worker, whose Hungarian, Jewish father came through Ellis Island without knowing any English, but somehow built a flourishing carpet business. Ratigan’s grandfather died in a work-related accident, climbing spools of carpet in his Astoria warehouse. “Having watched how hard that man worked,” he said with a sigh, “you always kind of feel like … the nature of the work that I’m doing? It’s really not that hard.”
After graduating from Union College in upstate New York with a bachelor’s in political economics, he worked for a time as an auditor for parking garages around the city, winding up living in a townhouse owned by his boss. His neighbors happened to include Susan Brown, the ex-wife of Michael Bloomberg, and the couple’s two daughters, Emma and Georgina, the three of whom he became friendly with. After leaving New York briefly to travel the country by train for a year (he was in his 20s, he explained: “It sounded like fun, so I did it”), he returned to the city and paid Brown a visit. She asked what he planned to do with his life; Ratigan had no idea. So Brown harangued her ex-husband about hiring the young man, and finally Bloomberg relented.
The timing was good. As Ratigan tells it, “The company was in the middle of an explosion of growth, and it went from 8,000 to 250,000 terminals while I was there.”
At Bloomberg, Ratigan went from reporting on mergers and acquisitions to editing. He eventually landed on-camera, winning a Gerald Loeb award for his reporting on the Enron scandal. Despite his sometimes overbearing demeanor (most notably, a loud voice that sometimes caused Bloomberg to scream at him lovingly across the newsroom to “Shut up, Ratigan”), he was ultimately elevated to global managing editor for corporate finance, a position created for him. He hated the work, though, particularly the endless rounds of meetings. He left the company for a brief consulting job with Boeing, and was eventually lured to CNBC, where he co-created and hosted the daily stock-market-analysis show Fast Money.
Despite viewing Bloomberg as a mentor, Ratigan took issue with the mayor’s handling of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which Ratigan supported and visited on several occasions with an MSNBC camera crew. Though Ratigan identifies himself as a conservative, and stands more than a few notches to the right of some of his MSNBC colleagues, he seems to have an instinctive sympathy for the underdog. “I’ve spent a lot of my career dealing with the wealthiest, most powerful 1 percent as a reporter by covering them and interacting with them,” he pointed out, “and as a social worker my mother has spent the bulk of her career dealing with some of the most impoverished 1 percent.”
The Bloomberg administration’s approach to the protests, Ratigan said, “was disappointing for me.” He pointed out the unique opportunity the mayor has to address issues like wealth inequality. “Mike is in a position to do that, and I think to do that in a way a few people could,” he said, quickly adding a note of optimism: “Listen, I’m still hopeful that he may do that, although there is certainly not any indication.”
While Ratigan’s career as a talking head seems to be speeding along a well-traveled route—hopping from one network to another amid a spasm of leaked news reports; moving from straight reporting to loudly articulated opinion; unleashing a made-for-YouTube tirade; publishing a book—he insists it’s all been a reaction to circumstances. Primarily, he cites the financial meltdown, and what he sees as the financial press’ failure to prevent it, see it coming or at minimum explain it to viewers.
“It’s negligent,” Ratigan said, “to be in the national media covering a national unemployment crisis, covering a national housing crisis, covering a national education crisis, covering a national poverty crisis,” and not be communicating the basic underlying principles to your audience.
For instance, the idea that credit derivatives are not backed by actual assets, he said, “is utterly insulting beyond all comprehension. It’s one of those things where the more you learn about it, the more horrifying it becomes.”
And the Obama administration hasn’t helped matters, he said. “We’ve seen no change. We’ve seen the Obama administration and [Treasury Secretary Tim] Geithner actually codify and advance” the broken system. “Instead of blaming George Bush or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, you realize that they’re all doing it!”
As for financial journalism’s role in the economic meltdown, he said, “It’s grossly disappointing.” He laughed. “What do you want me to tell you? It’s embarrassing.”
Ratigan left CNBC in April 2009. “I’m happy to not be a journalist,” he said, noting that the constraints of the profession had made it impossible to see the big picture. “My old style was, ‘Well, this is a sport [in which] we try and figure out what’s the best idea to put money into,’” he said. In his new role, he can step back and impart a larger point, namely: “This is a fundamentally corrupt global system that people don’t understand.”
Righteous though he can sound, Ratigan is not altogether unimpeachable. In December 2010, MSNBC announced that steel company Nucor would be sponsoring The Dylan Ratigan Show’s “Steel on Wheels” tour of the country. At the time, Ratigan told TVNewser’s Gail Shister: “I won’t talk about Nucor on the air, absolutely not,” in light of the potential conflicts. But in a February 2011 episode, he toured a Nucor factory in Seattle. When The Observer asked him about the discrepancy, Ratigan exhaled loudly. “That’s an absolutely fair criticism,” he said. “I recognize that was a mistake,” he added, explaining that he should never have promised not to cover Nucor in the first place.
That might not satisfy a professor of journalistic ethics, but it’s more of a mea culpa than one might expect. “Your ego is a huge liability to your judgment, and when you get into these jobs, your ego only gets bigger,” Ratigan said. “How can I go on TV and blather about integrity and all this nonsense and then not exhibit it? I’d be a real asshole.”
It’s another reason he doesn’t necessarily consider himself a journalist. “I’m an advocate who hosts a show, let’s be honest,” he said. The advocacy Ratigan is referring to is his Stop Money Now movement, which aims to introduce a new constitutional amendment banning corporate campaign contributions. Ratigan said the group is the largest nonprofit in the world pushing for corporate political finance reform, “by dollars, by people, by staff and by signatures.” While he said he has ruled out running for office (at least until his amendment passes), he intends to keep pushing the issue. “I will do as much as possible to address what I see as the structural misaligned interests in America,” he declared. “I’m hoping that we’ll be able to enlist tens of millions of people.” And to those who question the propriety of such an effort by a newsman, he said, “To the extent to which I am able to acquire and amass and advocate resources around an agenda that is transparent, and people know what I’m doing, it’s what I’m going to do. I’ll start a circus. Are you kidding me? We have to do this. Who cares if Dylan Ratigan is a journalist?”
Ratigan said Greedy Bastards! was conceived as a response to the economic decline of the last three years. It was written with a team of five researchers, a ghostwriter and a close college friend—a PhD in stem-cell biology—to help “logic-proof” the 245-page text. That title notwithstanding, the book doesn’t actually go after the bastards themselves, but instead takes aim at a cultural tendency, what the author calls “greedy bastardism,” which can be adopted or discarded at will.
The antidote to greedy bastardism, Ratigan writes, is a systemic set of values he dubs V.I.C.I. (or vici, Latin for ‘I Overcame’), which translates into Visibility, Integrity, Choice and Interests.
That formula might not be quite vehement enough for some of Ratigan’s fans, who presumably expect a bit more red meat with their reading. “I’m sure they’ll be taken aback,” he admitted. “They might be a little confused. But I’ll be able to reveal my own process of self-discovery, because my reaction to all of this has been fury and frustration, and what I’ve learned is that it’s not constructive.”
Indeed, the rage-aholic outbursts that have fueled Ratigan’s rise—leading the Daily Beast to dub him “The Angriest Man in Cable”—seem to be abating, and not a moment too soon. “Over the past year,” he said, “I’ve gained 25 pounds. I’ve started smoking again. It has made me miserable.”
Ratigan is indulging a softer side. He has been known to get onstage with one of his favorite bands, Fountains of Wayne, and play the gourd at their concerts. He has taken up paddle-boarding. “It forces you into the present tense, you know?” he said. And he recently sought out Deepak Chopra personally to get the guru’s advice on chilling out.
“I’d like to lose some weight and I’d like to be happy,” said Ratigan, who has been engaged twice but is currently single. “I still want to do this job, you know, and I have to find a way to do that, and the only way to do it is to have some compassion.”
He stops, and then adds: “Including compassion, by the way, for the bankers. And the politicians.”
How will that play on cable, we ask him, where everyone knows anger is what sells?
“We’re going to find out if compassion sells.”