Jesse Eisinger isn’t afraid to ask stupid questions. He isn’t afraid of the suits on Wall Street, either. As a former Wall Street Journal writer and now a senior reporter at ProPublica, he has written about the underbelly of business. He and colleague Jake Bernstein won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their “Wall Street Money Machine” series, which delved into the practices that exacerbated financial industry problems of the past several years.
As of August 2011, Eisinger was facing a subpoena to testify in a court case regarding a series of articles he wrote about the questionable actions of Lernout & Hauspie, a technology company. The Society of Professional Journalists joined with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other organizations in submitting an amicus brief arguing that he should not be forced to testify.
You won a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for your “Wall Street Money Machine” series. What goal did you and your co-writer have for that body of work?
People had this view of the financial crisis that nobody could have stopped it. … It was a narrative about how bankers were just not responsible for it, that they were victims of it, in fact. We didn’t think that was true. We thought that bankers probably did things that helped contribute to the bubble, helped prolong it, helped make it worse, and we went in thinking that it was worth examining the role that bankers played in this to see whether it was true or not. We didn’t think originally that that was true, but we thought that it was a good question to ask. And we came out of it reporting that yes, bankers did in fact take actions that took advantage of the crisis and made it worse.
What role did public records play in the development of those stories?
Nothing about this was public. That was the one great challenge of this. There were no documents that were public. In fact even the prospectuses of these deals were private and hard to find. A list of the number of CEOs didn’t exist. We were entirely reliant on private documents. We had to uncover these and talk to people who were part of private deals and private transactions. That’s what made it so complicated and so difficult — and was one of the reasons why reporters probably hadn’t looked into this before.
At a time when investigative journalism doesn’t always receive the funding it needs, you’re working at ProPublica, a non-profit organization dedicated to investigative reporting. Why do you think it’s important to maintain a focus on investigative writing despite funding cuts?
I think that this is the highest calling of journalism: to hold the powerful accountable for their actions, whether they’re government officials or whether they’re businessmen and women. We want to help people who need help and write (about) injustices and hold people accountable and do journalism in the public interest. So that turns out to be hard and expensive and time-consuming, and ironically, not really always the most popular thing that readers love the most. So, it’s better perhaps to do it in the non-profit sector, or at least it’s better that the non-profit sector supplements this kind of reporting. For the smooth working of a democracy, I think you need a strong free press to keep an eye on government and society’s institutions.
In your experience, what are the key skills a reporter should have to be an effective investigative journalist?
Inquisitiveness, skepticism, patience, doggedness — those are the main things. You really need to question the dominant narratives that people are giving, and then constantly question yourself whether you’ve got a good understanding of things. And (don’t) be afraid of writing something that people don’t seem to agree with or of working on a theory that a lot of people don’t seem to agree with, at least initially.
How have public records helped you in your work?
I don’t do a lot of reporting on government, so I haven’t done a lot of public records requests and things like that. I rely a lot on SEC filings, so to some extent that’s a public record of a company — a regulatory mandate to put information out. And those are valuable. We need those. We need them to be clear and transparent, and they could be better, but they’re very good. I think everybody needs documents, and those are the ones that I rely on.
Have you ever faced roadblocks in getting people to talk to you about sensitive information, and how do you overcome them?
You find roadblocks all the time. You don’t overcome it. You call someone many, many times and you email them and you contact them through social media … and they either talk or they don’t talk. I try to convince people that I’m willing to hear them out, to listen to them, to be extremely fair and accurate, to strive for accuracy as my highest goal. That I’m not just there for the cheap quote or quick hit, but I’m really there to do right by them. I’m very clear and up front with people, and I lay out what I’m working on very clearly to them. I have an excess of disclosure and explanation of what I’m doing with them to reassure them that I’m serious and careful. And I think that persuades people. I think that they have a bad idea of what journalists are up to, and if you emphasize and then show them that you are extremely careful and you want to be fair and accurate, I think that builds trust with them even if they know that you’ve got evidence of things that don’t make them look good.
You’ve often written about illicit practices on Wall Street. Why do you feel it is important to reveal such corruption to the public, and what impact do you hope your stories will have?
We went through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and it’s caused the worst recession we’ve had since World War II. I think it’s important to understand the causes of that, and it’s very opaque and complicated — made purposely complicated by the banks that perpetrated this. We want to minimize the chances that this happens again — a very simple, basic rationale.
Do you ever feel jaded after years of writing about the dark side of business, and if so, how do you find the drive to continue reporting on these issues?
I guess I’m the opposite of jaded, which is that I think that I’m still outraged by this stuff. I still feel a sense of surprise when I see fraudulent behavior or irresponsible behavior. I guess I really don’t understand how people do that in their lives, so it’s a continuing interest to me to try to understand that mentality — the kind of fraudulent mentality or the mentality of someone who will cut corners and be totally selfish and willing to do anything for their own bonuses. So in that sense, my outrage factor is very high and my jadedness is quite low.
Have you ever been treated badly or frozen out by sources because of your reporting?
There are people who don’t talk to me anymore, and I don’t know why they don’t. They’d have to answer for that, not me. But you know, I think that there were a lot of our sources for this (“Wall Street Money Machine”) series who really wanted the truth to come out. They hadn’t seen the true story of this corner of the financial crisis and why this happened. They were really gratified by it. You can’t write for your sources, but it’s always nice when people tell you that you did a great job, that you really got it. “This is an arcane area that few understand, and you guys were some of the people who did understand this.” To me, that’s very gratifying.
What advice do you have for journalists new to the industry who hope to build a reputation as quality investigative reporters? Where do they start?
Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. You’re going to be made to feel dumb by the people you’re asking questions of, but your job is to go into it and ask those stupid questions to really try to understand. Ask simple questions. Be skeptical. Don’t accept things at face value. And if you start to do that and train yourself to do that and are humble enough to weather people’s disdain and patronizing attitudes, you’ll start to get really good stories because you’ll see that the foundations of things are flimsy.