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.
Every year, it seems, one Op-Ed seems to resonate in the public mind far and above all the others. Last year, Warren Buffett altered the public conversation about taxes simply by wondering aloud why his rates were lower than his secretary’s. No one seemed to have a good answer. This year, a formerly unknown equity-derivative banker for Goldman Sachs named Greg Smith struck a nerve when he described in a few words why he was leaving his job. Its culture, he said, had finally become too “toxic and destructive” to bear. The pushback from Goldman and its usual amen corner in the business press was furious, but Smith’s cri de coeur weathered it and stands as an important indictment of financial industry culture. He touched a nerve by speaking to the public’s commonsense understanding - hard-won after the financial crisis -that lax regulation and perverse incentives had led to institutionalized corruption on Wall Street, even at its most prestigious firm. That’s why it went viral. That’s why it’s in this volume.
We’ve included other outstanding examples of lucid commentary and analysis on the economy, high finance, and technology. If you’re wondering what “The Whale” was, and why it was such a debacle for JPMorgan Chase, Matt Levine will walk you through it like no one else has done. And Evgeny Morozov, master of the highbrow takedown, flays and fricassees the vacuousness that often passes as wisdom promulgated under the TED brand. Try to read it without laughing out loud.