Creator of Forbes’s “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” list, Elizabeth MacDonald knows what it takes to succeed as a woman in business. The award-winning journalist and author currently reports for Fox Business and writes the blog “Emac’s Bottom Line.” Prior to her work at Fox, Elizabeth covered corporate scandals, tax and the IRS at both the Wall Street Journal and Forbes magazine. Bold spoke with Elizabeth to learn more about her love for “backwater beats,” her efforts to remain objective and her advice for aspiring journalists.
Carrie Sheffield: How did growing up in Rockville Center shape your upbringing and worldview?
Elizabeth MacDonald: It’s easy to define yourself by your family and the town you grew up in when you’re from Rockville Centre, N.Y. It is about a 45-minute drive away from New York City. The railroad station runs right through it, and it’s home to a big Arthurian-style church, St. Agnes. I come from a family of eight children that loves to go to the beach–the beach was our common ground, our playground. My parents are from Belle Harbor, Rockaway, a beach community. I’m a lifelong New Yorker; we’re all opinionated. My family used to like to get into fights about subway stops at the holiday dinner table. I often like to joke that on the first day of school, my mother pinned a note to my hoodie for my teacher, which read: “the opinions expressed by this child are not necessarily those of her parents.”
CS: Why did you choose Canisius? What are your thoughts on the state of academic freedom on campus today?
EM: I love Canisius College. I got a partial scholarship to go there. The people of Buffalo, N.Y. are the kindest I’ve ever met. I guess they have to be, when you get 12-foot high snowdrifts, it turns people into instant, friendly neighbors. I wish there was more academic freedom to debate on campuses today, however. The push to shut down debate on college campuses debilitates students; it’s as if college officials are self-infantilized, and it’s creating students who won’t be prepared for the real world. The big mistake is that it teaches students to choose undemocratic, illiberal means to get what they want. It teaches them to have zero faith in the goodness of the American people. Kind of an irony, that the modern American liberal has zero faith in the democratic process.
CS: What inspired you to work in business reporting?
EM: I’ve always wanted to be a reporter since I was ten years old. 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. 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.
CS: How much time did it take you before you felt well-versed enough in these issues that you could work professionally with them?
EM: I started at Money Magazine as a rookie, truly green behind the ears reporter. I thought back then, why don’t I cover a beat no one else wants to do? And that beat was the IRS. I attended a lot of lonely, near-empty IRS hearings in Congress. I’ve covered the IRS for nearly my entire thirty-year career.
CS: What have been your most memorable news reports? What are you most proud of?
EM: My coverage of the IRS, which led me to testify twice before Congress about IRS abuses and ways to better protect taxpayers. Also, JFK’s use of the IRS to audit their political enemies, that was a story I did for the Wall Street Journal. I found out that the Kennedy Administration ended up auditing Lee Harvey Oswald’s group, Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Also, scoops on corporate accounting scandals, and creating The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women list for Forbes.
CS: What made women business leaders stand out to you as you developed the Forbes Most Powerful Women annual list? Is there anyone you feel that you missed who surprised you later?
EM: Well, doing the Forbes Women’s list, I discovered there are so many great women running companies we didn’t know about. Whether they are 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 had attended a meeting with businesswomen 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.
CS: Is there anything that keeps you up at night? If so, what and why?
EM: This is what I think about. Objectivity is a pure 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. I often like to say that thoughts are not facts. Any time a journalist is emotionally attached to a story they should be taken off that story.
CS: How did you come to write a book on Margery Kempe?
EM: 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 backward 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.
CS: You are a prolific award winner in journalism! What would you recommend for someone to begin getting involved with journalism?
EM: Well thank you! 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 like certain writers, my three Cs, Chaucer, Chekhov and Cheever. I love to read. I also try to keep my own version of common sense, I like what Gertrude Stein once said: “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” I am always mindful of the writers who have gone before. I also 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 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.
CS: Has learning from a mistake ever led you to success?
EM: I like my career crackups, I’ve left the smoking wreck of a lot of career crackups behind me, but they made me stronger, made me face up to my own personal flaws.
CS: What advice do you have for debating in this political environment today?
EM: Listen, and acknowledge the other person’s side, in the true, Aristotelian sense. Don’t debate hypotheticals about hypotheticals. It’s breathtakingly tedious revelations and the viewer sees right through that.
CS: What are your plans and hopes for the future, both short and long-term?
EM: Getting through today. I try to stay in the now in my dotage.
CS: What advice do you have for young people generally and those interested in public service in particular?
EM: 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 Magazine. 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. 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.
CS: What is your no-fail go-to when you need inspiration or to get out of a productivity rut?
EM: I like to stay hungry for information.
CS: What is bold to you?
EM: Well, 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.