Despite viewing Mr. Bloomberg as a mentor, Mr. Ratigan took issue with the mayor’s handling of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which Mr. Ratigan supported and visited on several occasions with an MSNBC camera crew. Though Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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’s failure to prevent it, see it coming, or at minimum explain it to viewers.
“It’s negligent,” Mr. 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 Timothy] 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.”
Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. Ratigan exhaled loudly. “That’s an absolutely fair criticism,” he said finally. “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,” Mr. 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.”