DAVID DAYEN: My mother worked as a schoolteacher and a union rep and my dad worked in textiles, an industry battered by globalization. We were upper-middle class growing up but I feel I had a connection to the everyday struggles of the working class. I was always interested in personal expression and constructing an argument. I actually did stand-up comedy for over a decade, and that is all about being brief and sharp and having a point of view. It's weird to say but journalism was a natural progression from the world of standup.
AF: Tell me how a University of Michigan graduate from Philadelphia landed in Los Angeles as a writer, producer and editor? By the way, what was your major in college?
DD: I majored in English. I was always interested in the visual medium, took classes on it there, and long before that I was making little movies with my friends as far back as grade school. I worked for television networks in Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco, but eventually I realized that to succeed in the entertainment biz you needed to really be in Los Angeles. So I migrated down here in 2002 and never left. Then I heard about this thing called political blogging and it took me in a different direction. I knew those English skills would come in handy someday.
AF: You recently published your first book CHAIN OF TITLE: HOW THREE ORDINARY AMERICANS UNCOVERED WALL STREET'S GREAT FORECLOSURE FRAUD. Why did you decide to write this book? How did you stumble upon three ordinary Americans fighting foreclosure fraud?
DD: I wanted to tell the story of the financial crisis from the ground level, from the perspective of people most powerfully affected by its force, namely foreclosure victims.
I met Lisa, Michael, and Lynn back in 2010. They were sources of mine because they ran these amazing websites with enormous amounts of research into this issue of foreclosure fraud. I didn't actually know they were involved in it because they were foreclosure victims until later. When I learned more about their story I felt it had to be told. I wanted to point out this alternative history, that we could have gotten some accountability for the financiers who executed this horribly disruptive financial crisis, mostly through fraud. It was a choice to not prosecute and let these crimes off the hook. And Lisa, Michael, and Lynn's stories offered the perfect window into that.
AF: Your book exposes the "foreclosure fraud" in "Great Recession" housing meltdown crisis. What impacts do you hope your book has on the little discussed "foreclosure fraud?" Does foreclosure fraud continue today? If so, how can it be stopped?
DD: I did want to make it more widely known that people were routinely kicked out of their homes based on false documents, and that it continues to this very day. Politicians and regulators and even judges have pretended it didn't happen, have moved on with their lives. They even have a name for it: foreclosure fatigue. I wanted to shake people out of that, and point out that this is about the integrity of the judicial system and our property records laws which pre-date the Constitution. While I no longer have much faith that it will be stopped, any judge or any prosecutor can spot false evidence in their courtroom and throw out cases using it.
AF: Why do you think no high-ranking Wall Street officials were prosecuted for their role in the foreclosure fraud?
DD: That's the million-dollar question. People continue to ask themselves it. The question explains much of the anger and anxiety that I think we're seeing play out in our politics. Everyone thinks they know the answer: it was corruption, it was a government owned by the banks. The truth might be more banal. It could be that the leadership of the Justice Department was overly cautious about being sure they could win cases before bringing them. It could be that they wanted to consolidate foreclosure fraud cases rather than having multiple ones out there in the field. It could be a few decisions that layered on top of one another to prevent good outcomes, even if the intentions were pure. What I wanted to attack in this book were the excuses: that there weren't any good cases, or what transpired wasn't illegal. My book is a long refutation of those excuses.
AF: The system that conveys property title in America dates back to early colonial times. How was this well-established system of recording property deeds and conveying property titles so easily violated to result in the massive foreclosure fraud in America? Why did this happen? What role and responsibility did local county recorders offices play in the foreclosure fraud? Who is ultimately responsible for the fraud? How did this become so widespread? What changes have been made to prevent more foreclosure fraud?
DD: These property laws, despite being the backbone of a modern society, exist so far in the background that the mortgage industry thought they could neglect them to maximize their profits. The country recording offices are seen as "ministerial" positions, without power. They just take the documents and file them. That inattention enabled the scheme. I think county recorders need to become much more serious about their role as a gatekeeper and steward of the proper functioning of the system.
AF: You are a prizewinner for the Studs and Ida Terkel Author Fund which supports the work of promising authors sharing Pulitzer prize winner Studs Terkel's "fascination" and exploration of everyday life in America not adequately represented in mainstream media. How has this prestigious award helped you as an author?
DD: It was a great honor. I lived in Chicago when Studs was still alive and on the radio interviewing people. To be put in the same conversation with him is very humbling. I deeply appreciated The New Press doing that, and it signaled their support of the book, which has endured.
AF: You are also a columnist for The Fiscal Times, an online news source focusing on finance, economics and consumer issues. These are complex topics. Where do you get your ideas for your columns? How much time do you spend researching your columns? You could say I've been researching them for 12 years!
DD: A lot of what I do goes back to familiar themes, and picks up threads of ongoing stories. Whether it's this mortgage issue, or banking and consumer protection regulations, or the crisis in Puerto Rico, I'm always trying to advance stories and build upon accumulated knowledge. That makes it easier to report. Plus I have sources that give me ideas, in addition to coming up with my own.
AF: The Fiscal Times is a described as being "part of a new era of independently supported non-partisan journalism, and emerges in part from the increased demand for fair, accurate and balanced reporting." How do you think that this new era of journalism is influencing our society? How have these independent news sources impacted traditional journalism? What future trends do you foresee?
DD: Journalism has sort of been turned upside down, first by blogging (where I got my start) and then by social media. People have sort of gone to their ideological corners, only taking in media from sources they're already disposed to. And they sometimes get their news in 140-character bites. I do think that's a problem, and so The Fiscal Times is good in a sense that I'm talking to a different audience, one that's less ideologically closed off.
AF: Your work has been featured in Salon.com, The Intercept, The Guardian (UK), Politico, The Huffington Post, and many more. You have been a featured guest on Nightly Business Report, MSNBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, Current TV, Russia Today, NPR, Pacifica Radio, Air America Radio and more. Discuss the challenges of being a freelance journalist. Describe the process of getting your work published or landing a guest spot appearance. Do you first pitch and idea? Or do you write and then submit? Do you have an agent or do you generate all the contacts?
DD: Being a freelance journalist is extraordinarily difficult. You face pressures about pitching stories and getting them accepted, finding outlets for your work, being your own bookkeeper and accountant and publicist. I've been very fortunate to find places that have defined slots for me every week, so while I have to give them a heads-up on what I'm writing about I don't have to do a do-or-die pitch. I do everything myself (I don't think any freelancer could afford an agent). Journalism is tough and you have to be disciplined, dedicated, and self-motivated. If there are ideas inside you that you just have to get out, this may be for you. I'd suggest honing that discipline by writing on a regular basis anywhere and everywhere, even if it's just for yourself to start.
AF: Your bio says that you have been writing about politics since 2004, "first as a blogger and then as a freelance journalist." What shaped your interest in politics? What is Firedoglake? What influence did this have on your career?
DD: I've always been interested in politics. When I was seven years old I ran a straw poll in my elementary school for the Carter-Reagan election. When I did stand-up I talked a lot about politics. Then I found this thing called blogging, and I figured out I could express myself without leaving the house. That was very appealing! I started my blog in 2004, when political blogging was just beginning. I loved those early days because it really was a tight-knit community of people of like minds and interests working together. In many ways it was like the people in my book.
Firedoglake was a very popular political blog that I wrote for from 2009-2012. It was there that I first wrote about foreclosure fraud and followed the issue for years. I'm indebted to them for giving me the platform that resulted in this book.
AF: Previously you spent over fifteen years working as a television producer and editor. How did your career path switch to an author and freelance journalist focusing on politics, economics, finance, and current affairs?
DD: The blog was really the way it all happened. I got more and more interested in blogging. I would edit something and set up a render (when you create the effects or the on-screen graphics) and start blogging away while I waited. I found myself more in control with writing than working on somebody else's vision as an editor.
AF: You have also been a contributor to two anthology books, one about the Wisconsin labor uprising and one on the fight over the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress. Tell me about these collaborations.
DD: I wrote essays for those two anthology books. What's interesting is that those books were also about social movements. I seem to be attracted to how movements start, how they evolve, and how they can win. Many of those themes are also present in my book.
AF: In 2003, you appeared on the television game show Jeopardy. What led you to audition for a contestant spot? How did you prepare? Describe the "Jeopardy" experience.
DD: Jeopardy was great. I got to LA in 2002 and I wasn't working that much, so I tried out. I had actually forgotten about it when they called me six months later to be on the show. I ended up winning $12,500. Jeopardy seems like it's a game about knowledge, but it's actually as much about manual dexterity. Everyone on that stage often knows the answer to a given question. The one who can buzz in first gets to answer it. That buzzer, and having the hand-eye coordination to hit it faster than your competitors once Alex Trebek finishes reciting the question, is a really important part of the game. For aspiring contestants, I'd suggest you click a ball-point pen a lot before going on.
AF: When you are not writing or researching, what books do you like to read? Favorite author? Any other favorite pastimes or interest that the readers might find surprising?
DD: I do read a lot of non-fiction, often because they're friends' books or I'm reading them to do a review. My favorite fiction author is Peter DeVries, who wrote these great comic novels about the suburbs in the 50s all the way to the 80s. I love Paul Theroux travel books too. The stand-up career is probably a surprise, since I end up writing about such serious subjects. I enjoy cooking, mostly vegetarian because my wife is vegetarian.
AF: Anything else?
DD: Thanks for your interest in my work!