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To former Wall Street Journal scribe Jonathan Weil, a "biopsy" is an inquiry into a seemingly healthy enterprise that exposes a potentially fatal disease -- financial irregularities, perhaps, or evidence of fraudulent behavior on the part of an executive. In contrast, an "autopsy" is a piece detailing why and how a firm with a serious malady contracted it in the first place, and what contributed to its demise. But while articles in the latter category can be rewarding, Weil says, "I like doing predictive stories more than I like doing stories about things that have already blown up." Or, to put it another way, "I like uncovering better than covering."
Weil, 35, is widely acknowledged to be among the best in his generation at ferreting out the nasty secrets hidden by ethics-challenged corporate masters. He wrote the first piece questioning the accounting practices of a little outfit called Enron, unwittingly helping to kick-start a calamity that serves as the current standard for blue-suit corruption; the trial of Enron execs Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling got under way this week in Houston. Weil subsequently catalogued the sins of notorious operations such as Tyco and WorldCom, and even non-media types recognized his achievements. He was the only journalist named to a 2004 list of the 100 most influential people in accounting published by Accounting Today, a major trade publication.
Why, then, did Weil leave the Journal to take a position as managing director and editor of financial research for the Broomfield division of Glass, Lewis & Co., which analyzes businesses and industries on behalf of institutional investors? Cash was almost certainly a factor, although he won't share the specifics: "Not on your best day," he declares, laughing. But location and family also played a part. Weil attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, and his parents, as well as his wife's, live in Snowmass Village; they'll now have easy access to a grandson born last year. In addition, the gig itself definitely plays to Weil's strengths. He'll oversee a team of "financial sleuths who'll go through companies' books trying to identify ones that may be headed for trouble or, in some cases, taking liberties," Weil says. That means all biopsies and no autopsies -- just the way he likes it.
Weil emphasizes that the move wasn't motivated by dissatisfaction with the Journal, an institution he reveres. Nevertheless, he feels that journalists in general should spend more time searching for new material and less time conducting journalistic post-mortems. "The press needs to be a lot more skeptical," he says, "and not just repeat things without critical thinking one day, then come back two years later and discover it was all lies."
A Hollywood, Florida, native, Weil spilled ink at several area publications during his time at CU; he wrote for the Campus Press, the university's official newspaper, and interned at the Boulder Daily Camera and the Denver Post. Upon his 1991 graduation, he landed yet another internship, this time at the Journal's Washington bureau. A few months later, however, he temporarily put reporting on the shelf and enrolled in law school at Southern Methodist University. Within a few years, he'd earned both his degree and a license to practice law in Texas, but by then he'd realized that "reporting and writing were just a lot more fun" than toiling as an attorney, he says. Weil wound up at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, where he caused persistent pain to Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. He reported, for instance, that during a previous race for lieutenant governor, Huckabee's campaign paid him over $43,000 for the use of his plane without including the payments on financial disclosure forms. Such scoops reinforced Weil's decision to get back into journalism. "I found that I really dug digging," he says.
He got more chances to do so in 1997, when he joined the crew of the Journal's Texas regional edition. He soon learned how satisfying it could be to clue investors in about high-flying companies apt to nosedive, recalling with pride how one hinky venture lost over 50 percent of its stock value after he exposed its shortcomings. Still, his biggest coup involved Enron, which he examined as part of an article on energy traders. Through close readings of financial statements, he realized that the firms he spotlighted were, in his words, "reporting earnings based upon their assumptions about what the contracts they were entering into were worth." This technique, known as mark-to-market accounting, employed more fantasy than The Lord of the Rings. "They were showing huge amounts of net income, but they weren't generating any cash," Weil says, "which was a good indication that the net income was wishful thinking."
Bull's-eye -- and when Enron execs learned that Weil planned to put down these findings in black and white, they sent a damage-control crew to the Journal's Texas office to convince him that his suspicions were misplaced. They failed, and the meeting, which is recapped in 2005's Conspiracy of Fools, author Kurt Eichenwald's epic dissection of Enron's collapse, proved to be a harbinger of catastrophes to come. Yet Weil didn't dedicate himself to this subject after moving to the Journal's New York headquarters in 2000, shortly after the original salvo saw print -- not that he could have. After all, giant conglomerates were disintegrating so quickly in the early years of the century that it was all he could do to keep up with the carnage. "When the deluge of scandals starts taking away your ability to check out the new ones no one knows about, that's when it gets a little frustrating," he says.