Mohammed Hossain is your almost-typical working guy.
He says he drives his cab 14 hours a day, seven days a week for less than $25,000 a year. And that’s if you don’t count his loan payments: In a three-years stretch, he was supposed to pay $717,500.
“I know so many drivers, they kill themselves,” Hossain says in the June 9 episode of “The Weekly,” the compelling cable series focusing on New York Times reporters. “But I love my family.”
That leaves the broader questions: Why would a guy below the poverty line borrow a fortune? And who would loan it to him?
To find out, reporter Brian Rosenthal did interviews … lots of them.
(Note to readers: This is an update of a story that was posted a few weeks ago. At this point, some of the quotes and deails from that story are included here. This time, however, the focus is sharply on he June 9 episode.)
Ken Druckerman, the “Weekly” producer, recalled hearing that Rosenthal had talked to hundreds of people. “I thought …, ‘That can’t be right.’ And I checked with Brian and he said, ‘Oh no, it’s 400.’”
It turned out to be 450, Rosenthal said, which isn’t unusual for a Times investigation. “We spend six or nine months or a year, if the project warrants it.”
In this case, it all started 14 months ago, with the raid of Michael Cohen’s apartment. Rosenthal was one of five reporters who combined for a profile; then he followed up, to figure out how Cohen could have made millions on “taxi medallions.”
Ironically, the report – sprawling over three days last month – doesn’t mention Cohen much; the “Weekly” report doesn’t at all. Instead, it looks at the bigger picture of a fractured industry:
Back in 1937, New York City moved to avoid an overload of taxis. Each needs a medallion, bolted to the hood. The city sold them for $10, but allowed them to then be sold in the open market.
Prices kept rising, under a basic philosophy: You can always sell it later for more. Between 2002 and 2014, Rosenthal said, the price went from $200,000 to $1.2 million.
The city even encouraged that, with ads promoting a 2013 auction of 137 new medallions. “The goal was to get the highest price,” Matthew Daus, who then headed the taxi commission, said in a “Weekly” interview. “Everyone was making money and doing well. If Uber didn’t enter the market, the people would have a much more valuable asset.”
But Uber came and the medallion value shrank. Many people and groups profited during the boom, Rosenthal said – including the city, which made $1 billion in a decade from the medallion auction and a percentage of other sales. When the bust came, only the cabbies and some lenders were hit.
To get to that, Rosenthal had to study massive records. The Times hired a tech company to go through 10,888 transactions over 13 years, with two news assistants verifying the results.
He also sometimes had cameras following him. It “feels weird,” he said, but “The Weekly,” he feels, “is going to take that journalism that we care so much about and show it to so many more people.”
And what about all the extra attention when your work appears on national cable?
At the Times, Rosenthal said, “we are used to a lot of scrutiny. We have a lot of readers who will call us if there is a comman that’s misplaced. (So) we’re already kind of in a fish bowl.”
— “The Weekly,” 10 p.m. Sundays, FX; and 11:30 p.m., FXX; also, the next day on Hulu.
— The previous episode reruns afterward – 10:30 p.m., FX, midnight FXX.
— The first episode (June 2) was on a Louisiana school accused of lying in order to get its students into Ivy League colleges. The second (June 9) views New York cabbies crushed by medallion debt. On June 16: A baby was separated from its parents for a half-year, due to immigration confusion. On June 23: An idealistic American couple was killed by ISIS recruits during a global bike ride.