Audit Notes: Macabre probe, Wall Street lethargy, linkless hype busters, ‘Chairman of the Fed,’ etc.

A compelling cross-border probe into the body parts business

“When my daughter-in-law touched it, she said that his foot was empty.”

That’s right. Someone stole the inside of a dead man’s foot.

This is just one of the grotesque, macabre, and fascinating anecdotes from day one of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ new series on the global body-parts business, which is lightly regulated and clearly out of control.

This is an eye-opening and fascinating series that shows capitalism at its most remorseless and amoral. The incentives to steal and abuse corpses are huge—$80,000 to $200,000 per body for the various non-profit and for-profit players involved in recovering tissues and using them to manufacture medical and dental products. And the series reveals some unnerving holes in the regulatory system, including the fact that authorities here often don’t know where skin and tissue samples come from.

There is an inherent risk in transplanting human tissues. Among other things, it has led to life-threatening bacterial infections, and the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C and rabies in tissue recipients, according to the CDC.

Modern blood and organ collection is bar-coded and strongly regulated — reforms prompted by high-profile disasters that had been caused by the poor screening of donors. Products made from skin and other tissues, however, have few specific laws of their own.

And here’s another fact I bet you didn’t know, discovered during a criminal case in Pennsylvania:

One of more than 1,000 bodies that were dismembered was that of the famous BBC broadcaster and Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke.

The project, reported by National Public Radio, is an unusual collaboration that involved several news organizations, including Newsday the Kiev Post (Ukraine), The Daily Slovakia, and La Voce della Repubblica Ceca (Czech Republic).

My main criticism is with the writing, the standard investigative style, one fact piled on top of another. For pieces this long (4,000 words), narratives are better, and, yes, it could have been done here by hammering the material into more of a chronology. Just sayin’.

ICIJ is an offshoot of the Center for Public Integrity (which came under some scrutiny of its own from us recently).

—Bloomberg’s Max Abelson is turning into one of Wall Street’s top shrinks, and right now, the patient is lethargic and suffering from low self-esteem. Abelson’s latest chronicles how bankers and traders must do other things to feed their risk habit, including Muay Thai boxing, which allows kicking, elbowing, and kneeing, because reckless trading of OPM is not as easy as it used to be.

Some sample quotes:

“There’s no sexiness, there’s no fun, there’s no intellectual intrigue, either,” said Ethan Garber, who ran proprietary credit-arbitrage portfolios for Credit Suisse Group AG and Bear Stearns Cos.

“A lot of my friends who actually lingered for the last four years are all now getting fired anyway,” said Garber, 45, currently CEO of IdleAir, a Knoxville, Tennessee-based firm that provides electricity at truck stops. “The air is taken out.”

This might be the best news I’ve read for a long time.

—Jay Rosen is right to push back against a Salon story that purports to debunk extravagant claims about crowd-sourced journalism, but provides no evidence that such claims were really made. He also coined a good word for it: linkless hype buster. Crowd-sourced journalism is hard enough as it is without having to defend against claims no one is making.

—Market commentator Stephen Roach, a Yale prof and former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia, gave The Wall Street Journal’s Jon Hilsenrath a sideways compliment on Bloomberg TV, calling him, “the chairman of the Fed.” Roach was expressing frustration that the Fed Open Markets Committee was preparing to act to boost the economy (he’s against that, you see) and, that Hilsenrath got the scoop, as he often does.

“They [The Fed] have gone about their usual pre-FOMC leak frenzy where they talk to this reporter and that reporter. Jon Hilsenrath is actually the chairman of the Fed. When he writes something in the Wall Street Journal, Bernanke has no choice but to deliver on what he wrote.”

“…The point is, when they plant a story in the Wall Street Journal, and this story has been planted. Jon Hilsenrath is the weed that grows…the guy has a perfect track record…”

That Roach meant it as a dig makes it a better compliment. (h/t: Business Insider)

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.