TA: Whenever you have a panic there are going to be crimes. People trying to cover things up and save themselves, and this is the mother of all panics.
JW: Look back to Ken Lay—he got in the most trouble from a criminal liability standpoint because of the things he was saying on conference calls in October 2001.
TA: Is it your hunch that we’re going to see a wave of prosecutions?
JW: We have to see who gets appointed Attorney General, chairman or chairwoman of the SEC, and we have to see what type of people President-elect Obama puts in to run the country.
I think it’s shocking for instance that Lehman Brothers employees, the eve of bankruptcy, were running into the building at headquarters and walking out with just cartons and cartons of boxes of files, and they’re doing it on television. I first saw it in a picture on the New York Times Web site. It was reported completely neutrally with no question about: “Should this be going on?”
They had a conference call the week before where the market came up with the inescapable conclusion that their numbers could just not possibly be true.
TA: Outside of Bloomberg, who’s doing this kind of forward-looking stuff?
JW: At [The Wall Street Journal, people like Peter Eavis and David Reilly. At the Times, Gretchen Morgenson and Floyd Norris are still at it and will always be at it. Jesse Eisinger at Portfolio. People like Allan Sloan and Roddy Boyd at Fortune and James Bandler, too. There aren’t many.
TA: Why not? There would seem to be a huge market for this stuff. Is it the access problem: People with a beat having to juggle covering their beat with being hard on the company and doing investigative work?
JW: Everyone I just cited, they’re not wedded to a beat. But I still think that you can cover a beat well and not have to be political about it.
TA: Do you have any suggestions for beat reporters?
JW: Well, not just beat reporters, but their editors: You have to be willing to lose stories that depend on access and pleasing. I have experience with this. I covered the accounting profession and the Big Four firms at the Journal. I remember covering Arthur Andersen and they had this internal document that was their tick-tock of what happened with the whole shredding thing. They didn’t give it to me. They gave it to somebody else as punishment, and my editors, who were Leslie Scism, and Larry Ingrassia, and Mike Siconolfi, understood that. [Siconolfi and Scism remain Journal editors; Ingrassia is now the Times’s business editor.]
These are choices you have to make. If you’re covering a company as a beat, you have to call them like you see them, and the much better position is for them to be afraid not to give you stories than for them to be able to use leaks as leverage. The alternative is being meek and saying “Please, please, sir, can I have another leak?” Forget it. It’s access journalism and it’s always ugly to read.
It’s why it’s also so important to be sourced not just at the board level, let alone the PR level or CEO, CFO level, it’s important to be sourced at the mid-level. It’s more important to be sourced in the middle of an organization than it is to be sourced at the top.