The currency of democracy

6 Mar 2012

Bloomberg Television anchor Margaret Brennan

Bloomberg Television anchor Margaret Brennan is one of the most recognizable faces of Irish America. As well as covering major international events, such as the Arab Spring, Brennan has immersed herself in covering the global economic storm.

It is one of the interesting ironies of Margaret Brennan’s life. The young Irish-American who grew up in Connecticut and attended Irish dancing classes is not only fluent in Arabic, but graduated with the highest distinction from the University of Virginia in 2002 and is a Whitehead Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association.

Brennan could have easily opted for the plum life of a diplomat, instead she chose journalism.

Brennan was present at Tahrir Square in Cairo when president Hosni Mubarak stepped down and has travelled the world interviewing CEOs, investors and heads of state.

Main Street meets Wall Street

What makes Brennan perfect for her role at Bloomberg is her realistic take on economics and how she sees a clear link between what happens on Wall Street and basic kitchen table economics.

“When it comes to what makes people worry and stay up late at night, it’s often whether they have a job, whether they can pay the bills. That flows through to every facet of someone’s life: basic kitchen table economics and basic economic security.

“And for some reason for a few years people forgot that. Main Street viewed itself as divorced from Wall Street and believed their fates weren’t intertwined, and if anything, the crisis has taught us that they are incredibly intertwined in a way that goes beyond public knowledge. It has made financial reporting so important and has put it on the front page, where it should have been all along.”

With the financial crisis still raging and the Occupy movement giving voice to many people’s frustrations, I ask Brennan does she think we are living in dangerous times?

“Absolutely, there’s nothing more dangerous than someone who feels threatened and whether they should or not there’s nothing more dangerous. When you carry that through to the State or corporate level, these are dangerous times because of the level of uncertainty. Does that mean the global economy is about to fall off a cliff? No. But the fear of where the cliff is; that is what is causing so much apprehension in keeping people from trading in markets, from investing, from spending when going to the stores and that is absolutely changing the economic balance right now.

“I think it is fascinating to watch what is happening in Ireland, in Portugal and Spain and in Greece. I’m in my 30s and my generation is going to approach the housing market – just going out and buying a home – in such a different way than my parents’ generation did. We are approaching how we save in such a different way.

“There’s not so much a Depression-like mentality but it’s an adjustment process we are in, trying to figure out what the futures for our various countries are going to look like and what it is we are going to be encountering in the next few years.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Social networks’ effect on media

Two years ago, Brennan attended the Dublin Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland, where she interviewed the CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey. I ask her how social media in terms of the impact of networks like Facebook and Twitter are changing the media landscape.

“I think for me at a very basic level journalism is meant to be about information and we have more of that. We have a faster flow of information, faster chain reaction from the information that is passed around, some of it good, some of it bad. I have tried to integrate to a fair extent social media into what I do because in my book at least Twitter is a news source in that you can often see things hit Twitter before they hit the newswire. The caveat, the issue in here is separating out and putting a value on the brands, the curation of that information.

“Now, I work for an organization that literally helps determine how much money people make or lose in any given second based on the accuracy of the information they are reporting. There is an extreme premium placed on accuracy of information in the financial community, so curation is of the utmost importance. We are kind of redefining that in the general news sense right now.

“But at the end of the day, my bet is that brands will continue to matter even more so in a sea of an overflow of information because you do still relate to the personalities that you know, you relate to the people behind the brands who are providing you the information. So when people talk to me about the nameless, faceless information blob of the internet I don’t think they get how journalists like me interact with Twitter or with Facebook.

“I view the information I put online with the same seriousness with which I deliver it on air. It’s my name and it’s my brand,” says Brennan.

Journalism today

However, Brennan cannot help but notice how changing technologies and the harsh economic climate are taking a toll on the journalism profession.

“I think journalism is threatened in that funding is under extreme pressure right now at so many media organizations. People used to be able work on a story for a longer period of time, there are very few news organizations that still invest in that.

“That is journalism today.

“The need to feed the beast on cable and keep information going and feed the beast online and keep an information flow that has upped the need of a high productivity level for journalists. Sometimes that means that comes at a cost of getting to really do the deep digging they would love to do if they had the budget and they had the time allowance to do it.

“Just look at some of the budget cuts, how many journalists are out of work right now and where are they cutting. Pierre Omidyar, one of the founders of eBay who is now primarily working in philanthropy as a side project, is investing in a newspaper and funding people to report on municipal government in Hawaii where he lives because he realizes, ‘Look, we need people who are still reporting at the State and local level and these guys are getting tugged.’ There’s a recognition by certain people to still invest in a certain true essence of journalism that isn’t being invested in elsewhere.

“I studied at the University of Virginia founded by Thomas Jefferson, one of our first presidents and one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. He had a famous quote that always stuck with me: ‘Information is the currency of democracy.’”

Growing up Irish-American

Growing up in Connecticut, Brennan’s parents allowed her to develop a sense of her Irish-American identity and along with all the other girls on her street, she attended Irish dancing classes.

“That was a choice my parents made to have me know a little bit of something about where my family came from and certainly we’re proud of being Irish-American. Having my parents make those choices was huge in shaping my self-identification years on. I do think it is important to know where you came from, very much so.”

Brennan is fully up to speed on Ireland’s efforts to tackle the recession. Throughout the economic crisis Brennan has interviewed both former Taoiseach Brian Cowen and present Taoiseach Enda Kenny. As well as this, she attended the Global Irish Economic Summit. Brennan also sits on the Advisory Board of the UCD Smurfit School of Business.

Brennan says that sentiment towards Ireland remains strong.

“If you are asking the average person on the street what they think of Ireland, I don’t think it has changed too much in their view because there’s that very much emotional attachment that Irish Americans have.

“But if you ask people who are well-informed and invest, in particular, they are very much aware of Ireland. The story that’s been communicated and tracked is that Ireland has done the kind of things that Greece has really refused or fought hard to not do, in terms of taking austerity.

“The fact that there are German flags being burned in Athens and not in Dublin is a statement that there is progress and an attitude that screams ‘let’s get through this, fix things and move on, tell us the next thing to do and we’ll charge through it.’ That was Ireland’s response to the crisis.

“There isn’t the level of handwringing that is being done in other countries that are fighting the various austerity measures. I think the view is Ireland is pushing through.”

We both laugh when I call to mind Winston Churchill’s famous maxim: ‘When you are in hell, keep going.’

From where Brennan sits as news anchor at Bloomberg, the rude health of the global technology industry is very apparent. The biggest year for tech IPOs in more than a decade was 2011. With Facebook’s IPO looming in May ,2012 could be just as dramatic. But does she think the success of Silicon Valley can be emulated in countries like Ireland?

“If you look at Silicon Valley you have investment money alongside great educational institutions. It was a hotbed of innovation at the right time. I think we’re at a fascinating time in terms of companies that are starting to go public. There is a recognition by companies like Facebook and Zynga that if they are going to continue to grow they’re going to have to go to Wall Street and raise money to fund expansion.

“There is this new stage when these companies become global corporations there is room to start sprouting up start-ups. I don’t know if you can replicate that but you can create environments that are conducive.

“When I was at the Dublin Web Summit two years ago it was apparent to me that start-ups need to be faster to start up and fail. Don’t throw good money after bad ideas that are going to fail but make it easy enough for people to get the money to run a good streak. There is that churn in the U.S. that doesn’t happen at the same pace elsewhere.

“Failure is a badge of honor in Silicon Valley – if you haven’t failed at something then you won’t have the experience to enjoy success,” Brennan says.

Silicon Republic has joined forces with the Irish Technology Leadership Group to bring you The Silicon Valley 50 most influential Irish-American people in the tech world ahead of the ITLG Innovation Summit in California on 12-13 March.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years