Compiling the Best Business Writing series each year reliably brings the pleasures of the eclectic and unexpected. But it also can deliver deeper insights into troubling undercurrents in American business life.
Editors get lucky that way sometimes. The great American editor Samuel S. McClure, had one of the great “Who Knew?” moments a century ago, while putting to bed the January 1903 issue of his eponymous magazine. Until then, McClure’s had been an eclectic general-interest magazine, publishing fiction by the likes of Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle and historical narratives about Lincoln, Napoleon, and other historic figures. This time, reading over the issue, McClure noticed his (soon-to-be-famous) staff had delivered three monumental articles, all on a common theme: the lawlessness and corruption permeating bedrock American institutions. Lincoln Steffens had exposed mob-style rule of Minneapolis’s political machine (as he would St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and other American cities); Ida Tarbell had documented the underhanded methods John D. Rockefeller had used to build the Standard Oil monopoly; and Ray Stannard Baker told a chilling tale of union-sponsored thuggery. “We did not plan it so,” McClure said in a last-minute editorial.
With that single issue, a new form of American journalism -known as muckraking- was born.
We had a mini-McClure’s moment when reading over candidates for The Best Business Writing 2013. First, we saw Thomas Catan, Devlin Barrett, and Timothy W. Martin’s story in The Wall Street Journal about a drug epidemic killing more than 15,000 American’s yearly. Coke? Heroin? Actually, it was prescription painkillers known as opioids, which are deadlier than all illegal drugs combined. At the center of the problem are pain doctors and pharmacies, including name brands CVS and Walgreens. Both doctors and pharmacies, we learn, are incentivized to write and fill prescriptions without asking many questions.
Then we came across Peter Whoriskey’s story in the Washington Post about anti-anemia drugs made by pharmaceutical companies, Amgen and Johnson & Johnson. Both companies had lobbied fiercely for the drugs’ approval, created incentives for doctors to prescribe ever-larger doses, ignored studies that cast doubt on the drugs’ benefits, and understated their risks. Whoriskey details the consequences.
The topper? Mina Kime’s chillingly detailed expose of Synthes, a maker of a bone cement that regulators explicitly warned was not to be used on the human spine. And yet, that’s exactly the use the company promoted. The practice was so profitable, Synthes was able to sell itself to Johnson & Johnson for $20 billion before the horrifying consequences for patients became clear.
We highlighted the troubling practices in the nation’s medical/pharmaceuticals complex in part 2, titled “Bad Medicine,” an important centerpiece for this year’s collection. As McClure said, we did not plan it so, but some of the best business journalism we saw was flashing clear signs that Big Medicine may be ignoring the injunction to, first, do no harm.
Readers of the Best Business Writing series, now in its second year, are getting used to such moments. These “BBW” books have themselves quickly become important works of curation: They offer a short of snapshot both of the state of writing and reporting on business and of the state of business itself. We can offer the opinion that the former is in better shape than the latter.
But the world of American business is an infinitely rich and varied subject, and demonstrating that has become one of the chief virtues of the BBW series. This year’s edition is filled with stories of ingenious innovation, entrepreneurial daring-do, wondrous technical achievement, and just plain oddness. One of my favorites is Drake Bennett’s behind-the-scenes account of the merger of airline behemoths United and Continental, a corporate-version of elephants dancing. Initial predictions were that the combination couldn’t possibly work, but Bennett demonstrates that it did and shows the staggering number of details- from integrating the two NASA-like flight-tracking systems to deciding which coffee to brew and how — that the airline’s managers had to navigate to pull it off. The vast majority of reporting on mergers ends when a deal is announced. But that’s where Bennett starts, and readers are amply rewarded.