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.
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.
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.
In a classic work of media scholarship of the seventies, Deciding What’s News, Herbert S. Gans identified and analyzed what might be described as mainstream journalism’s fatal flaw: its tendency to fix its gaze on elites and their activities and to ignore everyone else. He called this “top-down” reporting, and showed how it had become journalism’s default mode. Journalism done right, we firmly believe, means hearing from everybody, which is what we liked about Jeff Tietz’s piece in Rolling Stone on the precariousness of a middle-class lifestyle, one of the best stories on unemployment that you will ever read. Ditto for Paul Kiel’s foreclosure story for ProPublica. And do not miss Mac McClelland’s first-person account for Mother Jones of what it’s really like to work in a digital retailer’s “fulfillment center,” better known as a warehouse.
But, this year, nothing quite had the power of the pieces that were written by non-journalists: letters about banks and bankers written by everyday people caught up on the debt trap and collected in The Trouble Is the Banks: Letters to Wall Street. We picked five; we could have chosen many more. If you read only one, I recommend: Deena DeNaro’s “Please Don’t Harass my Father Any Further.”
We hope you enjoy The Best Business Writing 2013, the second of what we hope is a long-running series.