Deborah Clark Tells Us Why Marketplace Will Never Do the Horse Race

Our Q&A with Marketplace's executive producer.

Deborah-Clark-ArtWhen we spoke over the phone with Marketplace vice president and executive producer Deborah Clark a few weeks ago, it was ahead of another meeting, one that would set the game plan for Marketplace’s 2016 elections coverage.

And if you are a radio program whose focus is business and the economy but you also cover politics, your rules of engagement for elections are going to be different. Marketplace‘s philosophy on how to approach elections is, as Clark puts it, “no horses, no race.” “We don’t do the horse race, ever,” she says. That’s true for its regular political coverage, and it will hold true for 2016.

Marketplace’s 2016 coverage will include a collaboration with PBS NewsHour as well as a re-upping of its partnership with PBS investigative doc show Frontline. Two years ago, that “really productive partnership,” which merged Marketplace’s voice and economic expertise with Frontline’s investigative and TV production chops, garnered an Emmy win, and Clark is excited to be working with them once again.

At the heart of those collaborations is a series of national polls Marketplace has begun conducting about the intersection of the economy and politics on people’s lives. “We know that the economy is still the number one issue that people are thinking about,” says Clark “but it looks different.” And in this case, when Clark says economy, she means at the scale of the individual, and not that impersonal collection of statistical measure, of GDP, interests rates and their ilk, that may or may not comport with people’s personal financial lives.

We talked with Clark about Marketplace’s approach to covering politics, her opinions on why horse race coverage persists and how Marketplace plans for an interview with President Obama.

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FishbowlDC: Marketplace focuses on business, economics and finance. In what ways does that focus allow Marketplace to cover political issues differently from other outlets?

Deborah Clark: What we try to do is carve out a distinct angle so that it isn’t the straightforward “here’s what happened” kind of approach, but to bring some kind of context and analysis to it.

I think that’s especially challenging and also great when we succeed at it around the issue of politics because it’s extremely well covered by a variety of print, online publications and also by our colleagues at NPR. They are in the beltway covering the minutia. We try not to do any of that. It can fall into the realm of not being interesting, so what we try to do is pull back and figure out what our specific focus is, and a lot of that ends up being about the business of politics and the business model of politics. We will take a bigger picture look at why [a piece of legislation] matters, how is that going to affect you, your personal economy, the country’s economy.

I find it really liberating to have much more of a focus. Otherwise, how do you really find something to sift through and help people understand why some things are more important than others if you’re just covering the constant horse race and the sausage getting made?

FBDC: Speaking of horse race coverage, do you feel that is something that’s going to continue in perpetuity?

Clark: There’s increasing demand for content, content, content all the time in so many different formats. There’s more places, devices, etc. on which you could consume content and that drives demand for more of it, so I’m not sure that we can steer the coverage away from the horse race.

I think it’s kind of up to the consumer. And these Republican debates have been so interesting because they’re getting record ratings relative to that stuff in the recent past, and that doesn’t send the signal that people aren’t interested in the horse race. It sends the signal that actually they are. For me, those things are little more than passing entertainment. I don’t think they add that much substantive to our specific discourse.