Beyond the Byline with Laurie P. Cohen
Every morning, I listen to the previous morning’s episode of The Daily. While I’m always interested to hear about the latest firestorm that Trump has created or the political and economic troubles in other countries around the world, my favorite episodes are the ones in which Michael Barbaro brings on the reporters who broke major news stories.
Whether it’s Meghan Twohey and Jodi Kantor explaining the process of breaking the Harvey Weinstein story, or Julian E. Barnes, Mike Schmidt, and Maggie Haberman detailing numerous whistleblower-related news breaks, I’m fascinated by the stories behind the stories.
Perhaps this fascination comes from my mom. For 25 years, my mom was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and for most of those years, she was an investigative reporter who broke some of the biggest white-collar crime stories in history, from unveiling crucial findings in the Michael Milken insider trading case to breaking the Tyco scandal in 2002.
It was always inspiring for me to see my mom’s name on the front page of The Journal, but I never truly grasped the significance of the stories she wrote until after she left The Wall Street Journal for a job in finance. The Q&A below is just as much of a glimpse into what it’s like to break a major news story as it was a way for me to explore my mom’s career. So, I’d like to introduce you to my mom, Laurie P. Cohen, former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter:
Why did you become a journalist? After I graduated from University of Michigan with a dual-degree in Chinese and Political Science, I went to Taiwan and then Beijing to continue my study of Chinese language and literature. I didn’t know anyone when I got to China, but the most interesting people I met when I was there were journalists. They got to meet such fascinating people, travel to some really cool places, and, like me, they were filled with curiosity.
When I got back to the U.S., I attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where I met Jonathan Kwitny, a journalist at The Wall Street Journal for whom I served as an interpreter during a reporting trip. After graduation from J-School, I took a job at The New York Times on the foreign desk, which Jonathan helped me turn into a reporting job at The Wall Street Journal.
How did you end up covering white-collar crime? Well, I started off at The Wall Street Journal as a beat reporter covering oil and gas all over the Southwest. I then covered airlines for a bit, real estate briefly, and a variety of other topics. After three years working out of the Dallas, Texas office, I came back to New York and covered law. Covering law really enabled me to do investigative work, and I was fortunate to end up covering the Drexel-Burnham-Milken case. I built a lot of relationships with lawyers and others during this case, so I became the best person to cover white-collar crime going forward.
Tell me a bit more about your work on the Drexel Burnham Lambert/Michael Milken case. It was far and away the biggest insider trading case ever at that time. I was the more junior reporter on the case, working with two reporters who ended up winning Pulitzer prizes for their work on it. Midway through the case, these two reporters got promoted to editor positions, and I became the lead reporter on the case, which was a wild experience for me because I hadn’t covered anything close to something of that magnitude before.
I was meeting a lot of lawyers during this trial and getting information from them, and then I began breaking stories, including stories about employees turning on Milken, misdeeds Milken committed, and some other stories that ultimately played a role in Milken pleading guilty to several felonies and paying $600 million in fines and restitution.
What was the process like of finding a story to write about? Well during the Drexel Burnham Lambert/Milken case, I didn’t know any of the lawyers in the case, so I just started talking to them about daily life and getting to know them. In order to get information from them, I had to be personable, fun, easy to talk to, rather than just another journalist. It took me months to build these relationships, so it was hard work.
As I began to build more and more relationships over time, the process of breaking a story changed. A lot of times, lawyers I had good relationships with would give me information and I would run with it and try to confirm the information as factual and write a story before anyone else could. But sometimes, I would get stories by getting anonymous calls. For example, I got a call from an unidentified man one day who told me that a very famous lawyer was creating false invoices and overbilling clients. I investigated the story, got another few sources to confirm it as true, broke the story, and then a couple years later, he was convicted and went to prison for a number of years.
Once you got information you thought could become a story and had that information confirmed by a few sources, describe the process of breaking the story. Once someone gave me information, I would call around and try to get others to confirm it. Once people confirmed the same story, the race was on. I would try to just get a story out as quickly as possible, no matter how incomplete it was, though obviously I had to be confident that what I was writing was accurate. I just needed to get some critical piece of information published and then I would fill in the details later.
Sometimes, when I knew no other publications were covering the same story, I didn’t feel the need to rush the story into print. But much of the time, I knew I had competition trying to break the same story, maybe from The Washington Post or The New York Times. So, I was just trying to get my sources, conduct my interviews, and write something as fast as possible. Racing to be the first to publish a story was an exhilarating feeling. I’m very competitive, so that rush was what motivated me.
One story that comes to mind where I was in a race right until the end was on Chiquita, the banana distributor. One of the employees for Chiquita admitted to the U.S. Justice Department that the company had been making payments to Columbian terrorists, falsely believing that by admitting this, the company would be immune to any sort of prosecution. Well, the company ended up getting charged, making it the first time that a U.S. company was prosecuted for having financial dealings with terrorists. I knew The Washington Post was also rushing to publish this story, and I barely beat them out.
When it came time to conduct interviews, how did you get people with no incentive or desire to talk to you to share information that you wanted or even needed? I should preface this answer by saying that interviewer and interviewee relationships are designed to be mutually beneficial. The reporter wants information the source has. The interviewee, or source, wants to know what information I’d learned from others, or else wishes to defend his or her side of the story. With that in mind, it was obviously sometimes hard to get people to talk to me, so I just kept investigating and digging up more information. I’d then go back to the potential source, ask them to talk again, and when they would say no, I would give them a little tidbit of information that I figured they might not have thought I knew. I’d continue this cycle until finally, after giving them so many bits of information that I knew, they finally felt like it was in their best interest to defend themselves.
What was the hardest part of covering a story? Was it getting news out before anyone else could? Actually, no. The writing was always the hardest part. I don’t consider myself a great writer; I was a great reporter and fact finder. I loved my job because I got to talk to people, and I loved sharing stories that informed the public. But I never loved the writing part of it, and I always struggled with it.
When you finish writing a major story, what comes next? Well, white-collar crime stories don’t occur all that often. So in between stories, I would pick a different subject I was interested in, and just see where that journey took me.
I’ll give you an example. I had just finished covering a major story in 1995, and I had an interest in humans who volunteered to sample untried drugs for pharmaceutical companies. So, I began talking to people about what this testing entailed, what types of people volunteered, and so on. As I continued talking to more and more people who participated in drug testing for money, I realized that many spoke negatively about the very famous Eli Lilly clinic in Indianapolis. I started asking around about it and found out that this clinic was testing almost all of its drugs on homeless people. Homeless people all over the country knew that this clinic would give them money to test its drugs. I went to Indianapolis, talked to people in homeless shelters, and realized that these were drug addicts and alcoholics who were not only unhealthy (the FDA requires these subjects to meet several health standards), but also using this money to fuel their addiction. Long story short, my story led to Eli Lilly being forced to shut this clinic down.
My point here is that in between white-collar crime stories, I had a lot of freedom to pick and choose some really intriguing topics. I got to explore DNA testing, defendants testifying in their own defense, and some other fascinating topics. And before I knew it, I was getting information about the next big white-collar crime case.
How has the news media, and the role of the media, changed since you first began a career in journalism? It’s changed so much that it led me to leave journalism altogether and pursue a job at a hedge fund. When I first became a journalist, more people read newspapers. Sometimes I wrote 6,000 word pieces, and there was a huge appetite for that. People simply read more and enjoyed reading more. Most people don’t want to read long-form stories anymore.
Then, cell phones, computers, and television became popular, and as a result, print stories became less popular. Being a reporter just wasn’t as sexy as it once was. And as this shift was taking place, Rupert Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal, and he demanded that stories be shorter and coverage more conservative. Investigative journalism is long-form in its nature, and by demanding that stories be shorter, it was the end of investigative journalism as I knew it.
Additionally, there are very few local newspapers today. People have stopped buying newspapers. It’s really sad.
Ok, some quick hitters. Ready? Ready.
Favorite story? The 2002 Tyco scandal. Tyco was a hugely successful conglomerate, and the CEO of Tyco was accused of using company money for personal expenses. I broke this story, which was special in its own right, but what made it my favorite story was that the General Counsel in the case, who ended up getting acquitted, converted from Judaism to Opus Day Catholicism right before the trial. This was one of many fun stories within the bigger Tyco scandal.
Favorite interview? That’s tough. I covered the Martha Stewart case, and interviewing all of the women Martha was in prison with was an incredible experience. I hadn’t interviewed many female prisoners before, and these women had fascinating backgrounds. I thought interviewing Martha was interesting, because she taught classes on cooking, classes on running a business, and was outspoken about criminal justice reform for drug users during her prison stint. But, I think the women she served time with were even more interesting.
Biggest news break? I broke a story about how investors use companies called expert networks to talk to people with inside knowledge about companies the investors were considering investing in. A lot of these networks knew too much and were just giving out inside information. A lot of these firms were investigated and ended up closing, and the ones that still exist, like Gerson Lehrman Group, had to totally revamp their business. This story led to my current job as investigative research analyst for a hedge fund: think “in-house” journalist.
A story you almost broke and couldn’t publish in time? The Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. The New York Times barely beat me to it.
Most memorable person you interviewed? I’ll give you three. Cory Booker for the Gerson Lehrman story, because he was Mark Gerson’s close friend. He was the Mayor of Newark at the time and was so charming and likable. Snoop Dogg, whom I interviewed about the benefits of taking the stand in one’s own defense. He was an interesting character, to say the least. And lastly, a man who brutally murdered his wife. I interviewed him in a maximum security prison in Illinois in the same room, no divider between us, door closed. That was memorable because I was so nervous.