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Kurt Eichenwald at the 2009 Texas Book Festival.

Kurt Alexander Eichenwald (born June 28, 1961), an American writer and investigative reporter formerly with The New York Times and later with Condé Nast's business magazine, Portfolio. Eichenwald had been employed by the Times since 1986 and primarily covered Wall Street and corporate topics such as insider trading, accounting scandals, and takeovers, but also wrote about a range of issues including terrorism, the Bill Clinton pardons controversy, Federal health care policy and sexual predators on the Internet. He is the author of three bestselling books. His second book, The Informant, was made into a major motion picture starring Matt Damon.

Contents

Education and early life

He graduated from St. Mark's School of Texas in Dallas and Swarthmore College, where he was a founder of Sixteen Feet, an a cappella octet[1].

Epilepsy

During his first months of college, Eichenwald sustained a concussion, which was soon followed by more than a decade of uncontrolled seizures. Diagnosed with epilepsy in November of his freshman year, Eichenwald continued to attend school despite increasing numbers and severity of the grand mal seizures.

In an article about his illness for The New York Times Magazine, Eichenwald wrote: “I have had hundreds of various types of seizures. I have experienced the mental, physical and emotional side effects caused by changes in the anticonvulsant drugs I take each day. Yet, for the first two years, I refused to learn about epilepsy.”[2]

Because of two seizures on campus, he was dismissed from Swarthmore, in apparent violation of federal law. He contacted the United States Department of Health and Human Services and fought his way back into school, an experience that he has credited with giving him the willingness to take on institutions in his muckraking reporting.

He graduated with his class in 1983. He received a degree in political science, with distinction.

His subsequent willingness to reveal his personal battle to readers won him praise. He was awarded a journalism prize from the Epilepsy Foundation of America for his 1987 magazine article about his experiences. His fight against his condition and his decision to write about it also contributed to his being named one of the country’s most interesting journalists by the Journal of Financial Reporting in an article headlined, “Kurt Succeeded Where So Many Others Would Have Quit.’’[3]

In the article, Dean Rotbart wrote:

While Eichenwald has never since hidden his epilepsy, he also didn't make it a centerpiece of his life. After writing his story, his mission was clear and it was not to become a poster boy for the illness. "My whole life from the time I got sick was focused on making sure that I was a student, a journalist, a husband, and a father," Kurt tells me. "Not that I was someone with this condition."[3]


On October 19, 2007, a report on National Public Radio revealed that Eichenwald's condition had affected his memory. David Folkenflik reported that Eichenwald's "epilepsy had triggered so many and such severe seizures that, according to his neurologist, he suffers from 'severe memory disruptions.'" Because of this, Eichenwald compensated for his memory problems by his "famed meticulous reporting methods." Eichenwald and his wife, Dr. Theresa Pearse, were interviewed for the story. Also interviewed were Eichenwald's neurologist, Robert F. Leroy, Episcopalian minister Kevin Huddleston, Times assistant managing editor Glenn Kramon, and Justin Berry. On October 20, NPR broadcast a reporter's notebook segment with Folkenflik where he described contacting Eichenwald, arranging an interview, and spending 13 hours with him and his wife during which Eichenwald was beset by several seizures.[4]

Early career

After college, in 1983, Eichenwald worked as an intern with The Washington Monthly, and later that same year joined the speechwriting staff of a presidential candidate.[5] He left that position in 1984, and over the next year, worked as was a writer-researcher for CBS News in the Election and Survey Unit. He joined The Times in 1985 as a news clerk for Hedrick Smith, who was chief Washington correspondent. When Mr. Smith began writing his book The Power Game, Eichenwald became his research assistant, leaving in 1986 to become associate editor at The National Journal in Washington. During those years, he was a frequent contributor to the Times op-ed page, writing exclusively about political issues.

Eichenwald returned to The Times later in 1986 as a news clerk for the national desk in New York, participating in the paper’s writing program for aspiring reporters. By 1988, Eichenwald had been named the Times’ Wall Street reporter.

Eichenwald’s arrival on Wall Street coincided with the explosion of white collar criminal investigations, and his coverage of finance soon began to resemble the crime beat. He wrote about the stock trading scandals involving speculator Ivan Boesky and junk bond king Michael Milken, as well as the Treasury markets scandal at Salomon Brothers. He also covered the excesses of the takeover era, including the biggest deal of the time, the acquisition of RJR Nabisco by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Company.

In 1992, Eichenwald’s role at The Times split. He began writing the paper’s Market Place column, focusing primarily on disclosure failures by public companies. He also began a multi-year investigation into a series of frauds at Prudential Securities and its parent, Prudential Insurance. His reporting led to the dismissals and resignation of several Prudential executives and brokers.

Branching out

First book: Serpent on the Rock

His reporting on Prudential also led to his first book, Serpent on the Rock, which focused primarily on the limited partnership scandal at Prudential Securities, which is alleged to have defrauded 340,000 people out of eight billion dollars.

In the book, Eichenwald portrayed the Prudential scandal as being about more than just a single bad investment firm. "This is a cautionary tale about an abuse of the investor faith that is an essential building block of the American economy," he wrote. "At its essence, it is what allows billions of dollars of securities to trade each day based on nothing more than a voice on the telephone. By taking advantage of that faith, Prudential-Bache cracked the foundation of the marketplace."

The book was celebrated in reviews, with frequent comparisons to the bestseller Barbarians at the Gate, and became Eichenwald’s first national bestseller.

Health care investigations

Eichenwald’s career now took two paths, as an author and as a Times reporter. He stopped writing the Market Place column and instead focused on investigative projects. In 1995, he wrote a multi-part series for The Times, exposing significant deficiencies in the American business of providing kidney dialysis treatments. The series led to a review by the Clinton Administration of ways to create financial incentives to improve quality in dialysis treatment, a focus of Eichenwald’s series. The articles were honored in 1996 with a George Polk Award for excellence in journalism, the first of two that Eichenwald would be awarded.

After his dialysis series, Eichenwald joined with Martin Gottlieb, a health reporter with the newspaper, in a multi-year investigation of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corporation, which at the time was the largest health care company in the world. The investigation, which led to multiple articles in the paper, sparked a criminal investigation of Columbia, and led to significant changes in the way the federal government compensated hospitals, according to Bruce Vladek, then the head of the Medicare program. An article in the magazine Content cited the work by Eichenwald, Gottlieb and two other reporters as the year’s best public service journalism. Eichenwald received his second Polk award, along with his colleagues, for this work.

In 1998, Eichenwald joined with another Times reporter, Gina Kolata, in a multi-year investigation into how business interests affect the nation’s system for medical research. The articles explored drug and device testing, and pointed out how the interplay between insurance companies and the courts had prevented the testing of experimental procedures, including the use of bone marrow transplants for the treatment of breast cancer. The articles were credited with driving new policies by American insurance companies that allowed for reimbursement to participants in federally approved medical studies for the treatment of cancer. Eichenwald and Kolata both were honored as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for their work.

Texaco discrimination reporting

During those years in the mid-to-late 90s, Eichenwald also reported on a number of smaller issues. The most controversial was his story on possible discrimination and obstruction of justice at Texaco, the energy company. His original article, citing court records, stated that a group of Texaco executives had been secretly recorded uttering a racial epithet while destroying records sought in a discrimination suit. The tape was played on national television, setting off protests at Texaco by civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson. However, a subsequent enhancement of the tape showed that the epithet cited in the court records was simply "an aural illusion," Eichenwald wrote in a story disclosing the findings. Nevertheless, Texaco soon settled the discrimination case, paying a record $140 million.

The Informant

In 1998, Eichenwald was honored again, being named to the Times’ senior reporter program. During these years, Eichenwald also reported on the unfolding price-fixing scandal at Archer Daniels Midland. While that reporting was never his primary project, Eichenwald used the story as the basis of his second bestselling book, The Informant. That book was proclaimed by The New York Times Book Review as "one of the best nonfiction books of the last decade." Eichenwald subsequently sold the rights for film adaptation. The movie, a dark comedy set for release in September 2009, stars Matt Damon and is directed by Steven Soderbergh.

While still technically a business book, The Informant was much more of a police procedural than any of Eichenwald’s other work, depicting the inner workings of the FBI in detail. That signaled his coming transition, as he moved away from traditional business stories into a wider assortment of investigations.

International and political reporting

In 2000, Eichenwald traveled to England to write about a case involving a mass murdering doctor in a small British town. The following year, Eichenwald, working with another Times reporter, Michael Moss, reported on the scandals involving the last-minute pardons issued by the Clinton Administration in its final hours. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Eichenwald reported on the financial structure of al Qaeda, tracing the variety of funding mechanisms it used for its operations.

Conspiracy of Fools

Eichenwald’s investigation of Enron led to his third and most successful book, Conspiracy of Fools. The book made the New York Times bestseller list in its first week in publication. The book led to multiple comparisons of Eichenwald’s writing style to that of fiction writer John Grisham. The book was optioned as a movie by Warner Brothers, to star Leonardo DiCaprio.

Music

Conspiracy also highlighted another aspect of Eichenwald’s life: his music. In certain markets, Random House gave away a compact disc containing a song, called "Cigarettes and Cyanide", which was written by Eichenwald and performed by his band 2010 Blues. The song, which the CD jacket describes as “about deceit and betrayal in the context of a corporate scandal,” was also featured on the Conspiracy website. Eichenwald also used his music hobby in his next investigation, first identifying himself as a songwriter, rather than a reporter, when trying to gain the confidence of Justin Berry.[6]

Family

Eichenwald is married to Dr. Theresa Pearse, an internist[7] They have three children.[8]

References

  1. ^ Portfolio Magazine contributor's page for Kurt Eichenwald
  2. ^ Braving Epilepsy’s Storm, New York Times Magazine, January 11, 1987.
  3. ^ a b Kurt Succeeded When So Many Others Might Have Quit Dean Rotbart, Newsroom Confidential
  4. ^ story on NPR by David Folkenflik about Kurt Eichenwald's undisclosed payments to Justin Berry and his epilepsy as a reason for not remembering them.
  5. ^ Washington Monthly, June 1, 1983, p. 45 5, “Soda, the Life of the Party,’’ New York Times, July 16, 1985, p. A23.
  6. ^ Reporter's Essay: Making a Connection with Justin. Kurt Eichenwald. New York Times. 19 December 2005.
  7. ^ "Kurt Eichenwald is Wed to Dr. Pearse." The New York Times, 16 July 1990.
  8. ^ Ask a Reporter Q&A: Kurt Eichenwald

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