In the category of catty-reads-of-year, turn to Jessica Pressler’s brave foray into the dispute between two warring Manhattan fashion houses, C Wonder and Tory Burch. The first is owned by Christopher Burch, ex-husband of Tory, who accuses him of ripping off her ideas. This fashion war of words brought out the long fingernails: “It’s a rip-off, Tory knows it, and everyone knows it,” Pressler quotes “someone we will refer to as a Friend of Tory,” who adds: “The interior is blatantly plagiarized. Then there’s the snap bracelets. The wallets. The buttons … ”
Oy, the buttons! A close competitor among fun-reads comes via Ken Bensinger, who stumbled upon one on those marketing ideas that probably seemed like a good idea at the time but morphed into a financial nightmare. This one involves airlines that, decades ago, sold to customers willing to fork over $350,000 or so, unlimited air travel, allowing them and a partner to come and go whenever and wherever they pleased. One racked up 30 million miles. Another created a mini-airline, ferrying passengers to and fro for cash.
Beyond wry features, it was an exceptional year for exposés of abuses of power and lawlessness. (Whether a good year for investigative reporting means business journalism was especially good or business behavior was especially bad is a question for philosophers.) And any list of top probes must start with David Barstow’s powerful and devastating New York Times investigation of bribery at Wal-Mart de Mexico and cover-ups at the corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, leading to the executive suite. Rarely has a reporter gotten so far inside a system of corruption, or assembled evidence as voluminous and compelling, as Barstow does here. At the heart of the story are 15 hours of interviews with Sergio Cicero Zapata, who recounted how he personally had helped organize payoffs and bribery to advance WalMart’s real estate ambitions. This 10,000-word piece will go down as one of the classics of the investigative genre.
But, like I said, this was an exceptional year. A Reuters team of Brian Grow, Joshua Schneyer, and Janet Roberts uncorked a series of stunners on Chesapeake Energy and its CEO Aubrey McClendon, the riverboat gambler behind the recent rise of natural gas in the U.S. It was hard to choose among the stories, but we settled on an installment that exposes Chesapeake plotting to collude with its top rival to drive down prices for drilling rights in Michigan. Among the documents, which one antitrust official calls a “smoking H-bomb,” is one showing McClendon offering to “smoke a peace pipe” to keep prices down and divvying up counties to avoid a bidding war. Rarely do readers benefit from evidence, won with great effort and against fierce corporate resistance, so definitive and so damning.
And before we leave the investigative space, I need to mention the agenda-setting New York Times story on Foxconn, the enormous Chinese supplier of iPads, iPhones, and other Apple products. Using old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, the newspaper documents labor-rights abuses, long hours, and harsh working conditions that led to suicides and unrest. The story peels away the brand’s glossy image to reveal the often brutal reality of the manufacturing behind it. It led to sweeping reforms at both Foxconn and Apple.