Planet Money Meltdown

TARP watchdog Elizabeth Warren walked out of NPR's New York studio after an interview for a Planet Money podcast, and gave her assistant a puzzled look.

"She turned to me and asked: 'Is that what we were expecting to happen?" said Caleb Weaver, senior advisor on the congressional panel monitoring the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Warren, who couldn't be reached, chairs the panel created to monitor spending of the $700 billion bank bailout.

No one was expecting a fight. But that's what happened. And it should not have.

Planet Money correspondent Adam Davidson interviewed Warren on May 6. He later acknowledged that he was not well-prepared and was "very, very tired" from traveling on an NPR fundraising trip. But he knows that's no excuse for being rude to a guest.

"What Mr. Davidson chose to highlight, I think, reflects what I think he was looking for out of the interview, which as he stated, was to get her mad," said Weaver.

What was the fight about?

"I was saying TARP has one problem to solve: the emergency financial market crisis," Davidson explained when the May 8 interview aired. "Its job is not to look at 30 years of inequity to the American family. Much of the oversight deals with things [Warren] cares about rather than the short-term banking crisis we are facing right now which she was hired to oversee."

It becomes clear after listening to the hour-plus interview that Davidson and Warren, a Harvard law professor, agree on many things.

Yet when he and Planet Money's Alex Blumberg edited down the 74-minute interview into a 13-minute podcast segment, they kept only the pyrotechnics: Davidson and Warren raising their voices, Davidson badgering and interrupting Warren.

"Frankly, I didn't think I was coming across well, but it was the most dynamic tape," Davidson said later. "I liked the idea of revealing myself in a less than flattering light. Planet Money tries to be transparent and I liked the transparency of that. I could have easily cut the interview to make myself look better."

Davidson apologized to podcast listeners on May 11.

"The fight was over an incredibly nuanced issue," he told me. "I did an awful job of conveying what the issue was by losing my cool and failing to be precise. I opened myself up to people thinking I don't care about the middle class. Of course I do. The argument wasn't about that. But it sounded like it was because I used sloppy language."

Davidson's speaking over and interrupting Warren became a distraction. It's too bad because Planet Money listeners lost out on hearing from Warren, who besides being a well-known Harvard advocate for the middle class, is an important player in the current economic crisis by virtue of her new position.

"It was an unsuccessful interview from the start," said Ellen Weiss, senior v.p. for news. "What any good interview can and should do is give the person an opportunity to explain where they are coming from. Adam didn't do that."

Weiss added that speaking loudly doesn't make an interviewer more convincing. "You want your questions to be challenging but raising your voice with someone isn't respectful," she said. "What Adam showed was he wasn't open to listening to her."

Not surprisingly, my e-mail and voice mail boxes filled up with complaints. The Planet Money blog got 788 total comments, more than ever before, according to its web editor, Laura Conaway. The blogosphere lit up with criticism, especially Columbia Journalism Review.

Conaway noted that many comments, while expressing fury at Davidson, were also civil and instructive for Planet Money.

"We managed to show people something in such a way that they felt poked in the eye," said Conaway. "One of the things I learned from this is how incredibly helpful it can be to have a community of people who will respond to you so quickly and directly, and how helpful it can be to everyone involved in the show to listen to the feedback and incorporate it."

It's important for journalists to treat whomever they are interviewing with respect — and to keep their opinions to themselves. Davidson did neither.

Instead, Davidson conveyed that he didn't think Warren was doing her job properly. He admits that his anger was misdirected. He said he was angry at congressional leaders, notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA), for not selecting people for the TARP commission with stronger backgrounds in financial matters.

"I think it's clearly a journalist's role to question and probe the issue," said Davidson. "It's not a journalist's role to have a firm position about who should be on the panel. I wish I hadn't expressed that so strongly."

Planet Money was launched last August. It's become NPR's most-listened to podcast and one of the network's top blogs. Davidson and the Planet Money team of seven do three podcasts a week, a daily blog and contribute to NPR radio shows. Davidson and Blumberg also do long-form documentaries in partnership with Chicago Public Radio's This American Life, where Blumberg is also a producer.

Planet Money is a relatively new venture for NPR, and the network is still experimenting with the format. "Planet Money has been an extraordinarily successful, popular project, with all it does," said Uri Berliner, deputy national editor who edits Planet Money. "If you look at the way it has built an audience that responds and is engaged, it is pretty much without precedent at NPR."

That said, Berliner recognizes the Warren interview did not meet NPR standards. "Adam entered the interview with a lot of ideas about Elizabeth Warren's role that were never really explained," said Berliner. "It was confrontational without being illuminating."

Planet Money's podcast does not have the same degree of radio production or intense editing and supervision as NPR's regular shows.

"A small core group creates some really excellent content under very tight deadline pressures," said Berliner. "There just hasn't been enough time in the day to make sure that every podcast interview is vetted by a DC editor who has significant other responsibilities." He added that supervisory responsibilities have not been spelled out for the blog and podcast.

At the very least, because the Warren interview was guaranteed to be explosive, it would have made sense if someone up the chain of command had at least read the script.

Davidson is a talented, energetic reporter who, as he says, comes from a culture of argument as sport. He and the Planet Money team have done some of the country's best, freshest journalism on the economy.

Many listeners said they were deeply disappointed in Davidson. Some threatened to never donate again to NPR. Others have demanded that Davidson be sanctioned or fired. It's not necessary. He is contrite. He knows how unprofessionally he behaved. And NPR supervisors probably will be watching his work more carefully in the future.

Planet Money is far too valuable a resource for explaining today's strange and hard-to-fathom financial information to let one botched interview derail it. But judging by the volume of criticism, it will take some time for Davidson to earn back the trust and respect initially (and deservedly) showered on him.

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